The Abrupt and the Considered: Helen Oyeyemi on Fiction, Travel, and Ghost Stories

Helen Oyeyemi

After I finished Helen Oyeyemi’s wonderful 2011 novel Mr. Fox, I felt like I’d been walloped. Here was a writer who’d just turned everything I knew about the novel inside out and made it unrecognizable, new, breathtaking—and she was one year older than me. It’s the kind of detail that might make a competitive person crazy. Truth is, Oyeyemi is so far ahead of everyone else writing today, you’d exhaust yourself trying to keep up with a lousy feeling like jealousy. Plus, it’s so much more fun to revel in her talent instead.

The author of five meticulously crafted and gloriously strange novels, Oyeyemi returned this spring with a new story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours (Riverhead, March 8). Throughout the collection, Oyeyemi explores the delicate nature of power and desire using locks and keys. We corresponded over email about the trouble with wanting things, traveling to exotic lands in your imagination, and the most serious game of all—fiction.

Before What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, your previous publications had all been novels. What changed for you, moving from the novel form to the short story?
I feel like novels are on the same quest as short stories, in terms of committing themselves to the illumination of the interior processes that lead to or suppress action, but novels have to be gentler. In a short story characters can do quite odd things, either serially or in isolation, and we don’t have to spend as long thinking the whole business through. I do like both approaches, though—the abrupt and the considered. It’s good to have options.

One of my favorite details in this collection is how often characters from one story show up in another. What made you build a world where these characters could co-exist?
At some point I realized how wily and troublesome keys are, and I began to feel that humans would do better to stick together when dealing with them. Even though the characters in the book don’t necessarily know they’re connected in this—and that a lot of the disorder in their lives is to do with the keys I’ve dropped in—I like to think they provide moral support just by giving each other sympathetic nods as passersby.

I really enjoyed your travelogue about living in Prague for Lenny Letter, and I found myself thinking about your essay while reading your story collection. How much do your travels impact the way you write or what you choose to write about?
Thank you! It’s hard to say how much travel affects my imagination—even when I write about a real life city in a story it seems best not to try to cover up the fact that the places I “describe” are more figment than actuality. There was a point in my teens during which I never thought I’d have a chance to go anywhere, so I got accustomed to writing tales set in places I’d only ever read about. The thrill of re-reading The Three Musketeers while I was living in Paris and had actually walked along many of the streets mentioned is indescribable.

Many of the characters in your book have unruly desires; what they desire might be straight-forward, but the desire itself might thwart them or shift suddenly into something else once it’s cornered. Could you talk a little bit about the relationship between character and want?
There’s a sad and funny edge to a story that tries to follow desire to some conclusion—something to do with irrationality, whether that’s to do with the scale of the desire, or the object of that particular desire. When you catch a character wanting something, you catch them at a genuine loss for a narrative that’ll fit the lack they feel. Then you can write one for them.

I started trying to count how many ghosts are in this book; it seems like there’s always an object or a person or a place that’s haunted. Is this collection secretly a really big ghost story? (Or am I imagining things?) Why are haunted objects or places important to you as a writer?
Ha—I love this “secretly a really big ghost story” theory. And I’m not being sarcastic. Though somehow saying that I’m not being sarcastic maybe seems sarcastic, but it’s really not. It may be that I’ve become so casual about hauntings that they’re just present in everything I write, a sort of representation of a relationship that I assume exists between any person or place and their past.

In a recent interview with Broadly you were asked whether making women and black characters visible in your work was a political act, and I was really struck by your response. You said, “That’s basically like saying that my life, the very life that I’m living, and my body are political, and sometimes I think that I’m just living.”

Would you be willing to talk more about this? I guess I’m wondering if this is a case of American racial and cultural politics intersecting with your work, which comes from a different sensibility. What am I missing? Or, put another way, what are you tired of having to talk about in your work?
I think some of the awkwardness around this type of question probably does arise from a sensibility clash. If there is a predominant London mentality, I’d like to think it’s one that acknowledges and appreciates difference at the exact same time as affirming certain commonalities of experience. That balance seems to be held by awareness that many of the differences between people are highly visible, whereas many of the commonalities can seem invisible at first—and vice versa. I recognize these agreements to differ as part of a genuine effort to address each other as individuals. That said, I’ve had happy encounters with this way of being in lots of other places too, so it’s not like it’s a geographically specific thing.

To answer your other question, there’s never any specific thing I feel I have to talk about in my writing. I’m open to whatever perspectives and observations emerge as a result of not writing from any fixed position. The narrator of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems knows all about it with her declaration “I dwell in Possibility,” even though she does add “A fairer house than Prose…”

In all of your work I find such an enjoyable attention to story, the way you build new structures to discuss old patterns, like fairy and folk tales, or tell stories within stories.You even leave a breadcrumb of amazing, unusual feminist texts behind in “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society.” Who’s your ideal reader? What do you want to do for them?
Thank you so much for reading the stories this way—I’m delighted—especially with the notion of texts as a breadcrumb trail. On my most hopeful days I write for other readers inclined to abandon themselves to all the games that fiction allows. And I write thinking of Montaigne’s understanding that ‘…games are not games for children but are to be judged as the most serious things they do…’ Part of my goal is a style that doubles as an invitation to have fun and some laughs and triumphs but also (and probably more often) get hurt and encounter doom—games played on the understanding that there’s everything to play for, and everything to lose. Like in fairytales!

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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