Tag Archives: Helen Oyeyemi

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Here’s a fresh and startling, joyous and playful collection of short stories from Helen Oyeyemi. The ideas spill out, teeming onto the page so that the reader is swept along from the opening of a story to its destination, which might appear to be unconnected. And suddenly you meet a character from another story, or an idea that rocks you backwards and you have to slow down your reading. It was a delightful experience to read What is Not Yours is Not Yours.

The Short Stories

‘Bigarrure’ is a word found on p184 of these stories, defined as ‘a medley of sundry colours running together’. I was so unsettled by Helen Oyeyemi’s creativity that I wasn’t sure if the word existed and had to look it up. It does exist. And it does mean variegation or colourful mixture. And it’s a good word to use about this writer’s style: bigarrure.

As a reader you are entering uncertain territory with this collection. You are given very little guidance. Nothing on the cover or the title page announces that this is a book of short stories. There is no contents page. The nine stories (or perhaps there are 10, it’s not clear) announce themselves by their titles. This is just the beginning. The character who appears to be central turns out to be a minor player. Little indication is given of the gender of first person narrators, or indeed their ethnicity, there are few descriptions of people’s appearnaces. Locations shift. Time is unstable. The reader senses misdirection.

She is an accomplished an experienced author, so one has to accept that Helen Oyeyemi means to unsettle and challenge the reader. So you thought this, she seems to be saying, but that was not what I told you. You assumed.

The stories have some connections. Their locations vary, and are not always clear. Sometimes we are in Prague, sometimes in a fictional country, sometimes in a country that could be part of the UK. But characters reappear, often as narrator, sometimes in walk–on parts. And in every story there is a key, usually locked doors, and therefore secrets and things lost.

The genres of the stories vary, even within a story. The first one, books and roses, begins with a foundling and takes on the characteristics of a fairy story, shifts to a surrealism worthy of Leonora Carrington, then to a love story and in parts is made of letters and notes.

The collection includes a truly awful story, drownings, which begins

This happened and it didn’t happen: (125)

The story is about a tyrant who drowns people on a whim. He has drowned many, many of the citizens in the marshes.

… the marshland stretched out further and further, slowly pulling houses and cinemas, greengrocers, restaurants and concert halls down into the water. If you looked down into the swamps (which he never did) it was possible to see people untangling their limbs and hair, courteously handing each other body parts and keys, resuming residence in their homes, working out what crops they might raise and which forms of energy they could harness. (140-1)

Things work out, in a fashion, in drownings.

Yet more unsettling is presence, a strange tale about loss, and especially the loss of what you never had. An experiment is conducted by two psychologists to conjure up the son who never was.

There are puppets, a public tale of apology through social media, and other stories where ideas seem to pour out of Helen Oyeyemi’s pen.

My reactions

I was excited to read this book. It took me to places I was not expecting, shifting my understanding of the stories, doubling back and leaping to new locations or situations. For once I found the blurb quotations were accurate: strange delights, startling, dazzling, fireworks, disorientating, gothic, captivating. Like life really.

Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi

No review of her work avoids saying that Helen Oyeyemi is young, female and black. Born in 1984 she made a name for herself with prize-winning novels even before she left school. The titles of her novels indicate her love of oppositional ideas:

  • The Icarus Girl (2005)
  • The Opposite House (2007)
  • White is for Witching (2009)
  • Mr Fox (2011)
  • Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

A little digging reveals that she is a peripatetic writer, born in Nigeria, brought up in London, studied at Cambridge, had a university residency in America, and is currently living in Prague, perhaps. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Related Posts

Lonesome Reader blog reviewed What is Not Yours is not Yours when it was first published in April 2016.

As did Stuart Evers in the Independent in March 2016.

What is Not Yours is not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi published in 2016 and available in paperback from Picador. 262pp

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, short stories

Dear Diary, today I wrote …

Why are writers so often advised to keep a diary or journal? How can regular entries support your writing? I always wanted one of those 5-year diaries with a key, kept in a box or a slipcase, bound in padded faux leather, edged with gold. Instead, every Christmas I was given an adult’s one-year pocket diary, with rice-thin paper and four or five lines per day. They were often business gifts my father had received at work, so they bore the trademark of the company and details of relevant business organisations inside.

I diligently made entries for a few weeks: ‘went on a walk’, ‘snowed’, ‘went to see the Bennetts and played charades’, that kind of thing. Then around the time I went back to boarding school (mid-January) the entries would tail off. After all, every day was more or less the same. Got up, had breakfast, made my bed, did English/Maths/Geography and Games. Rained.’ and so forth. It became boring to write, it is boring to read. But I was learning a useful skill: recording in words.

Writers’ diaries.

249 Jrnl of a novel

On writing courses I have been recommended to read writers’ diaries, specifically John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel from the time he was writing East of Eden. In this collection of letters you learn that Steinbeck was a keen amateur woodworker. He wrote in pencil and really did have a pencil sharpening routine as a prelude to his writing. He planned a fixed amount to write everyday and which scenes. It was all mapped out in advance. Nothing I read in his diary has any relevance to my writing, except it was often very hard work for Steinbeck as well.

Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck, published by Penguin Classics. 192pp

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf kept diaries. They have been edited by her husband and published, with an eye to illuminating her writing practices. When I posted about To The Lighthouse as part of #Woolfalong recently I greatly enjoyed looking up the references to the novel in the diary. The entries cast light on her writing processes, what she saw as her innovations, how she felt she was dealing with the new approaches she was trying. Recommended!

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. One edition was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Reasons to keep a diary

I mentioned my desire for the locked 5-year diary. Two features of my thwarted wishes indicate important reasons to keep a diary:

  1. To make a record over time. I grew up to read a history degree. Perhaps you can see the connection.
  2. To have a secret or at least a private place. An interesting piece in the New Yorker in March referred to the importance of diaries as secret places in a review of What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Black Women Writers and the Secret Space of Diaries by Morgan Jenkins.

And I can think of a number of other reasons why I still do have a journal of sorts:

3. As I indicated above, it is a place to make sense of the world through words.

4. It’s a place to make sense of my writing through reflection, comments, experiments, notes, mistakes.

249 deardiary

I have a daily weekday routine of getting up, making coffee and writing two A4 pages by hand, intending to focus on my writing. But it often turns out to be a reflection on activities of the previous day: a play, an exhibition, a conversation, a walk, a book or a dilemma not connected to writing. How is it helping my writing? Perhaps it just gets my writing mojo going. A way to loosen the ligaments, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase (April 20th 1919, p13).

The benefits according to others

Writing about traumatic experiences and the associated emotions for 20 minutes a day speeds up the healing of wounds, it is claimed. Research on this was reported by Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian Blog in July 2013.

Michael Palin has an instrumental reason for keeping his diaries: a record of his days, helping him remember things he would otherwise have forgotten. But he also has this to say

I’ve tried to approach each morning’s entry as a story of the day that’s just passed, without limits and without self-censorship. And composing a story a day is not a bad discipline for any would-be writer. (The Guardian, Do Something supplement, September 2015.)

Journaling to help learning

249 blank pages

I think the most useful aspect of my regular writing is that it is part of my reflective process. I record my successes – a story completed and entered for a competition; the MS of The New Age of Ageing sent to the publishers; a target number of words achieved and so on. I record my frustrations. Periodically I review the pages of my journal, focusing on what I did, and what I learned from my actions. And sometimes I plan what I will do in future in the light of this learning.

On my tbr pile

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Diary of a Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt

Journals of Sylvia Plath

Over to you

How does writing a journal help your writing? Are there any journals by writers that have influenced your writing?

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Filed under Learning, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing