Unbalancing Act: Helen Oyeyemi’s what is not yours is not yours

Another in a series of essays about serendipitous discovery and reading.
Helen Oyeyemi
I’ve never been lost in Prague because while I’m there I’m too conscious of myself and my poor sense of direction to forget where I am for even a minute. But Helen Oyeyemi got lost on her first day in Prague. She says she couldn’t read her map because she was “assaulted by beauty” on her way to look at the astronomical clock. She adds, “I walked through jigsaws of light and shadow and greenish-gold stone; I’d gawp shamelessly and then shield my eyes as if the sunset were getting into them — really, I was embarrassed at being unable to calmly and lucidly take my place in the scenery.” She finally ended up at the foot of Petřín and rode the funicular to the astronomical observatory where she looked at Venus through a telescope. Because Petřín is my favorite place in Prague, I’m impressed that she found her way to the top of that mysterious and marvelous hill on her first day in the city.

I read about Oyeyemi’s Prague experiences last March when my friend Julie, who knew I was returning to Prague in April, sent me Oyeyemi’s essay “Maybe Something, Maybe Nothing: a Prague Travelogue.” After reading it, I said I thought she must be “a woman with a generous heart” because she writes about the city so lovingly and kindly. She apparently regards Prague as an exceptional place, writing, “Like most South London women, or indeed most women from inner cities, I tend to move through public spaces fast and purposefully. Only the unusual will get me to slow down, to drop my guard, to stay. Through the stories I’d come to know about Prague and through observation of its signs and symbols, I’d found a place both old and new, a place where my imagination is at home.” Her prose and her attitudes made me want to read more of her work, so when I was in Prague I tried to find her just-published volume of stories. But the book didn’t make it to Prague before I left for home, so I had to wait until I got back to Tucson to buy and read what is not yours is not yours.

I see evidence throughout this story collection that Prague has worked its way into Oyeyemi’s consciousness and into her imagination. In addition to the key and lock images that loosely join the nine stories together, there are also echoes of Prague in almost all of them. “Books and Roses” contains an enclosed rose garden which reminds me of Prague’s Franciscan Garden (Františkánská zahrada) with its many rose bushes, as well as a fountain, statuary, and ornate gate. The puppet school and imaginative puppetry in “is your blood as red as this?” remind me of the puppet plays I’ve seen at Divadlo Minor and the puppet version of Don Giovanni and other operas offered at the National Marionette Theatre. Even the reference to the Black Madonna in “Books and Roses” brings to mind Prague’s House of the Black Madonna (U Černé Matky Boží), which is a well-known landmark. And of course Prague is at least a partial setting for several of the stories, including “if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think,” with its references to Charles Bridge and St. John of Nepomuk.

After I finished what is not yours is not yours I wanted to know more about Oyeyemi, so I read some reviews of her older work, including Porochista Khakpour’s review of Boy, Snow, Bird at the New York Times. I learned that Oyeyemi was raised in Britain by Nigerian parents, that she has traveled widely, and that she has lived in New York and Prague, among other places. Describing Oyeyemi’s most recent novel as “another unapologetic, all-encompassing contradiction-celebration,” Khakpour describes its author as part of the New Uncanny, a term she appropriates from a Jerry Saltz piece that’s mostly about a Kanye West video. Saltz says “The New Uncanny is un-self-consciousness filtered through hyper-self-consciousness, unprocessed absurdity, grandiosity of desire, and fantastic self-regard.” Puzzled, because I don’t really find much of any of that in Oyeyemi’s story collection, I kept reading until I found a comment by Lou Reed about West’s work that concludes: “He keeps unbalancing you.” Yes, I thought. It’s true that Oyeyemi’s work does keep unbalancing me. Her stories unbalance me with their tendencies not to finish what they start and to go places I can’t be expected to expect, which for me constitutes a “reality constantly being undermined,” in this case the reality of our notions about narrative.

Here’s how Kate Clanchy at the Guardian describes one of the stories: “ ‘“Sorry” Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea’ takes misdirection to an extreme: it opens with a Nigerian man telling us about his superstar friend, moves rapidly on to his new gay relationship and his job in a weight-loss clinic where clients are put into comas, switches to his teenage daughters, and then on to a Kanye West-style rapper the daughters are obsessed with. To get to the heart of the story we must peer over the daughters’ shoulders at their computer, and not even at the video, but the comments below. The idea is novel and witty — but after such a chase, the screen seems small, and the figures not so much grandly ambiguous as rather indistinct.” Though I don’t think it’s fair to confuse the story’s violent and mean-spirited Matyas Fust with West nor do I agree with Clanchy’s take on the story as a whole, the mention of misdirection again brings to mind that notion of unbalancing.

In “ ‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” Oyeyemi plays with our expectations of what narrative should and will bring to us. The story flows over us, like a stream, interrupted by shifts and twists that constitute obstacles for the reader. These narrative obstacles allow the story to flow where Oyeyemi wants it to go, the way rocks or snags cause a stream to change direction and velocity. Amy Gentry at the Orlando Sentinel also discusses the notion of imbalance/unbalancing in her review of what is not yours is not yours: “Casual and accessible at the sentence level, [these stories] are not so much experimental as deeply comfortable with the pre-narrative and proto-narrative impulses at the heart of storytelling. Oyeyemi’s tendency to nest stories together, her willingness to let anecdotes and digressions swell until they take over the story, hark back to older story structures in which the hierarchies of narrative are less important than their ongoingness — think ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ or ‘The Decameron.’ The anatomy of a typical Oyeyemi story is one of deliberate imbalance; she inevitably opens more parentheses than she closes.”

In addition to her tendencies to create narrative imbalance and to unbalance us, there are also irreal notions in this story, if not a new uncanny. “ ‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” (which first appeared in Ploughshares) contains some aspects that might more accurately be called magical realist, such as the part played by Hecate in the come-uppance received by the cruel and self-involved musician Matyas Fust. But there are also a variety of irreal notions that glimmer throughout the sometimes seemingly realistic story of young girls who become disillusioned with the star they once adored. These include: the weight loss clinic where the narrator works which uses a sleep-and-lose-weight scheme; a co-worker whose tattoo is sometimes there, sometimes isn’t and “goes through various degrees of permanence, from drawn on with kohl to full tattoo”; and a house with doors that don’t stay closed until they’re locked, after which there are “sounds that convince you you’ve locked someone in.” These glimmers of irreality, combined with the continual undermining of our expectations about narrative, give me reason to say there’s something “both old and new” about Oyeyemi as a writer, a phrase she uses to describe her affinity with Prague, and a phrase I might use to describe what she brings to the unfolding and developing of the art of fiction.