What is Not Yours is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi

There’s a certain kind of fiction, usually contemporary or near-future, written by white American women (but, hashtag, not all white American women!). It has a particular tone and interest, and the setting tends to be extremely provincial, to the point that reading such fiction feels like reading someone – and this applies to Americans in general, whether they’re turning out nonfiction or otherwise – who’s never set foot outside their own house but who believes their experiences are nevertheless relevant and universally compelling. The focus is on, vaguely, the human condition though really the writers are most interested in whimsy and sentiment. It’s sort of literary, in a workshop kind of way, and any gestures it makes at progressiveness are palliative rather than radical. I find this universally draining to read. As in it literally drains my will to read, and also to live. It’s not offensive (on the contrary it’s anodyne). It’s not bad. Occasionally it shows promise. I don’t retain anything about it, not what it has to say (on the rare event it has any) or characters or setting (interchangeably American) or the prose. I expect it is very nice to read for others who share the mindset and life experiences and cultural background radiation with the writers. People who like that sort of thing will find it the sort of thing…

When I first read the final story in What is Not Yours is Not Yours, it seemed worryingly like that sort of thing. It’s not, exactly; maybe this collection has more in common with Kuzhali Manickavel than its white American female counterparts. I have to preface that I like the collection as a whole a great deal before I say that this is that sort of thing, but done well: without the provincial narcissism, the limitation of thoughts and images. It’s magic-realist and whimsical, and it’s pretty and airy, and it’s very easy to read. It improves you literary constitution, if you have one of those. The stories are interrelated, but in an effortless rather than labored way. There is a leitmotif – keys, access – but this is, again, nothing labored; rather it is effortlessly arrived at. There is an incredible ease to the prose, the structure of each story and of the collection as a whole. It’s hard to find anything to criticize, or even particularly dislike. I enjoyed my time with it.

SEÑORA LUCY was a painter with eyes like daybreak. Like Montse, she wore a key on a chain around her neck, but unlike Montse she told people that she was fifty years old and gave them looks that dared them to say she was in good condition for her age. (Señora Lucy was actually thirty-five, only five years older than Montse. One of the housemaids had overheard a gallery curator begging her to stop telling people she was fifty. The Señora had replied that she’d recently attended the exhibitions of some of her colleagues and now wished to discover whether fifty-year-old men in her field were treated with reverence because they were fifty or for some other reason.) Aside from this the housemaids were somewhat disappointed with Señora Lucy. They expected their resident artist to lounge about in scarlet pajamas, drink cocktails for breakfast, and entertain dashing rascals and fragrant sirens. But Señora Lucy kept office hours. Merce, her maid of all work, tried to defend her by alleging that the Señora drank her morning coffee out of a vase, but nobody found this credible.

That’s from my favorite in the collection, the opening story ‘books and roses’, which – setting the tone for What is Not Yours is Not Yours – is one part fairytale, fully a love story (lesbian, in particular). Unlike the palliative progressiveness – the bland, lazy ‘diversity’ – of that sort of thing, this is confident in itself and its presentation of protagonists who are black, brown, queer. You can’t hear the author wringing her hands over how to describe black skin or Indian girls, because there’s no hand-wringing. There’s nothing self-conscious about most of it, though I’d say it opens strongly and toward the end begins the process of petering out. ‘dornička and the st. martin’s day goose’ is extremely typical for what it is, aesthetically and thematically quite safe, a fairytale that moves and concludes like a fairytale. (We come back to ‘people who like this sort of thing…’ To a lesser extent, ‘drownings’ is subjected to the same structure and tone.) Meantime, ‘“sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea’ or ‘is your blood as red as this?’ or ‘presence’ are peculiarly themselves, difficult to pin down, and very good.

I do much prefer Manickavel’s short fiction, having said that, because Manickavel leaves more lasting impressions on me than this particular Oyeyemi (and I enjoy Oyeyemi’s novels, I mean). Maybe it’d be different on reread – I’m not in a habit of rereading by and large; most likely it would. I wish I’d liked it more or that it’d made more of a mark on my brain, or that I felt more strongly about it.

(As an update, what do you know, Nina Allan had a similar response I did to this book.)

This collection is as rich and strange as any you are likely to find. It seethes with invention and originality, and yet I came away from it confounded by how little these stories affected me on any level other than the merely cerebral. My mind was left cluttered with images and metaphors, and yet I seemed unable to remember a single one of the stories distinctly, set apart from the bigarrure of its fellows. Each story is about many things—yet none of them are truly about anything. Each contains a kernel of outrageous beauty or glorious transgression—the guerrilla book swap in “a brief history of the homely wench society,” the audacious lie told by Freddy about Ched and Tyche in “freddy barrandov checks . . . in?,” the bizarre act of deception perpetrated by the grandmother against the wolf-beast in “dornicka and the st martin’s day goose”—which renders these tales exhilarating in their bombast and totally unlike any other story you might read on any given day. Yet for me at least they felt lacking in any emotional resonance whatsoever. There are several leitmotifs—keys, roses, puppets—running through the core of this collection that serve as loose thematic binders, but their importance feels circumstantial rather than being freighted with any deep meaning, and the same might easily be said of the recurrence of various characters from one story to another. These are stories that never stay still, which is perhaps the reason they never acquire any meaningful depth.

I admire this book a great deal, but I don’t really like it much, and I say this as someone who counts Oyeyemi among her favourite authors. It’s not her, it’s me. Your mileage may vary.

Some reviews of this collection that amused me and which I don’t agree or disagree with in any particular way. From Chicago Tribune, ‘A writer’s writer (I first heard her name from Kelly Link, who cited Oyeyemi as a favorite at a book festival panel), she spent all of one semester in an M.F.A. program before bolting — perhaps wisely intuiting that her writing was better off with its weirdness fully intact, and fully hers. Thank goodness, because the nine stories in this collection feel idiosyncratic in a way that is hard to imagine surviving a workshop setting.’ (The phrase ‘a writer’s writer’ is very apt and may or may not be associated with a certain dynamic that the founder of Bookslut mentions when she talked about shutting down Bookslut.)

Aaron Bady: ‘The same could be said of Oyeyemi’s writing. In struggling to describe her work—and it is a struggle—book reviewers often praise her mastery of craft. NPR declared her new novel What is Not Yours is Not Yours “flawless,” a “masterpiece,” and The New York Times describes her as a master author who “expertly melds the everyday, the fantastic and the eternal.” But I would praise her work in almost exactly the opposite terms. Oyeyemi’s fascination is with the flaws that make us human—and the dreams through which we approach our own brokenness—and so, her stories are twisted and imperfect. As another reviewer observed, they are “idiosyncratic in a way that is hard to imagine surviving a workshop setting.” Like dreams, her books are too odd to be good, too terrible to be loved, and too broken to be masterpieces. (In this, she has a lot in common with Silvina Ocampo, and much of Oyeyemi’s introduction to last year’s collection of Ocampo’s fiction could read as a description of her own aesthetic.)’

(He also says, ‘Dreams are the return of everything our daytime brain has worked to ignore. Dreams are the uncanny and the forbidden’ which is exactly the kind of thing a reviewer adds as filler and rather tautological. I suppose you could technically call it a novel – a mosaic novel to be exact – but to me it’s very much a collection; YMMV. It’s interesting how even reviewers who review for big venues take a certain view of workshops.)