Interview with Helen Oyeyemi

Posted by Goodreads on February 29, 2016
At 31, British author Helen Oyeyemi already has an impressive body of work behind her—five novels and two plays, including such highly acclaimed works as The Icarus Girl, Mr. Fox, and Boy, Snow, Bird. Her books are a unique blend of revamped fairy tales and intricate character studies, blurring distinctions at times between male and female, white and black, human and spirit, past and present. Increasingly we have become familiar with Oyeyemi's fable-like world, often shrouded in forbidding, timeless landscapes.

The interconnected stories of her new book, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, continue to explore this signature territory, this time in the haunted cobbled streets of Europe. This book, however, also contains a central organizing theme: the mystery and power of keys, with stories that in multiple ways explore what is contained and revealed by the locks to secret gardens and libraries, private chests, prison cells, hearts, and dreams. It is another tour de force of the imagination for the young author. Goodreads spoke by phone with Oyeyemi, who recently moved from Prague to Kentucky, about ghosts, the hidden lives of puppets, and the magic of Sleeping Beauty.

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Goodreads: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is an exquisite book of stories, all very different and yet each sort of glancing off each other. This is already your sixth book, and I know a lot has been made of your young age in the past. Now after more than a decade of publishing, how do you see yourself as a writer? Have you changed much?

Helen Oyeyemi: Well, I feel like I'm finally getting closer to the kind of writing that I hoped to do. I had a sort of goal in mind in the beginning, and for a while it felt like I was never going to get there. Around the time I was writing Mr. Fox, it felt like it might be my last book. So I thought I'm just going to have fun and write this one, put all my energy into it, and then just be done with it all. But then I just couldn't stop. So it feels like I might actually get there in this lifetime, and that is quite exciting. I feel like I've sort of gotten closer to what I want to do with What Is Not Yours and the idea of keys. I think that having the limitation of a theme somehow helped free me up. I felt like I could say anything just as long as there was a key in the story!

GR: Yes, I wanted to ask you about the idea of the keys and the way the stories are linked. Was that something you started out with in mind, or did it occur to you as the pieces came together?

HO: It was always going to be a book about keys. I sort of left them out of my "Bluebeard" retelling because keys have such a big role in that story. It's the keys that betray Bluebeard's final wife. And I knew there was something just so evocative about them that I could easily end up writing a whole book about keys, which I did but later. So I saved the idea up for when I had more time to think.

GR: Tell me about the meaning behind the title "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours."

HO: It has to do, again, with the idea of keys and property, and how keys keep the things that belong to us safe and also keep other people's things safe from us! And I'm not talking about just physical property but also intangible property—and the relationship between keys and power, and what we're able to control with this small thing that we hold and so frequently lose.

GR: Goodreads member Naomi wants to know about your inspiration. She asks if you have any special muse?

HO: I don't have a muse, but I do have very immediate readers. People who read what I'm writing and help me figure out some very essential things. Sometimes when I'm writing, I think, "Will it make this person laugh?" Like the first story, "Books and Roses." I wrote it for my Spanish publisher. He died last year, and he never got to read it, but I thought it would make him laugh, and I was writing in the hopes it would amuse him in some way. But since he never got to read it, I dedicated it to him.

GR: The stories in this book are linked thematically but are also connected by some of their locations, moving around the world from Barcelona to Prague and beyond. Tell me about the importance of these places to you.

HO: Again, it was something that the idea of the keys allowed me to do, because part of what I was trying to do by focusing on the keys was to create links where there hadn't been links before, to reveal intangible connections. And a lot of the key stuff just seemed necessary in the ebb and flow of the book, and not just from person to person but in time and spaces, too.

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GR: Some of the European cities you describe are haunted, in a way, by their own historical ghosts. You write about how Prague's streets "combined sepia-filtered rainbows and shapes of nightmarish precision."

HO: Yes, Europe is just so old! I'm in Kentucky right now, at the university, and the older buildings and things just feel so cute compared with Europe! Of course, Europe is full of old territory and old injustices and lots of old stories as well. Everything has just been mixed together over the centuries and created such an interesting world, culturally, architecturally. In Prague in particular there is such a sense of layered history.

GR: Goodreads member Veronika actually wanted to ask about your own experiences in Prague. She says she was surprised to learn in an interview that you were living there and wonders "what brought you to Prague, and what were your impressions?"

HO: I think it's a strange and beautiful place that has this quality of mystery at its center. And it feels like a lot of different places at once, which is probably why there are always film companies trying to make Prague look like, say, Paris. There are places in Prague that surprise me even now, if I haven't stumbled across that part of the city before. It's very casual about its beauty, and it's very...I don't know, I just find something very evocative about it as a place.

GR: Did you move there for your work, for any special reasons?

HO: No, not really. I was just looking around for somewhere to live, and I found Prague.

GR: But it did affect your writing, right? I mean, you've managed to use it in these stories.

HO: No, not really. Not anymore than anywhere else. I feel like all places are mostly imaginary anyway. I don't feel that affected by place.

GR: OK, let's move on to some of the recurring characters in this book. There's this sense that you're playing with assumptions about race, gender, relationships, even who or what is human. Take, for example, Rowan, a talking puppet in the story "Is Your Blood as Red as This?" He appears to be male to some, female to others, but describes himself as "mostly tree"!

HO: Well, the great challenge of that puppet story was trying to imagine the life of inanimate objects. I think it's something that Emily Dickinson is always trying to do in her poetry as well, where she is trying to imagine that moment going from a living being to a piece of matter—which I guess is our inevitable fate! I wanted to present a puppet's eye view of humanity, and explore issues of what we can control and what controls us, and what impact we can have on the world. So that whole puppet story stretched my brain in lots of ways.

GR: Yes, these stories question the divisions between puppets and humans, dogs and humans, ghosts and humans...

HO: Yeah, and what it means to be embodied, what is the impact of that.

GR: As in your other work, fragments of fairy tales appear in this book, too. In the past, you've reworked aspects of "Snow White" and "Blue Beard"; here it's "Little Red Riding Hood" in the story "Dornicka and the St. Martin's Day Goose." Goodreads member Elisa wonders what your own favorite fairy tale was growing up and why?

HO: I've always loved "Sleeping Beauty." There's something about a girl being so powerful that she can fall asleep and have an entire palace of people fall asleep as well and freeze time that I find fascinating. And that's something that I hope to write about more. Maybe late in my career, when I'm at the place I want to get to, I can retell "Sleeping Beauty" in my own way. But I think that's still a long way off!

GR: Another Goodreads member, Rob, is curious about what connections you have, if any, with Nigeria, where you were born. He wants to know if Nigerian literature or folktales have influenced you as well.

HO: No, no connection.

GR: Here's a more theoretical question from Goodreads member Aiyana: "Is there something that compels you to write? And do you find that writing helps you achieve a clarity about yourself or ideas you've been struggling with?"

HO: Yes, I think there's a way in which the writing and reading of fiction helps us to work out problems. Like what I was trying to say about the puppet story and the very strangeness of being in a body and being aware, the limits between being conscious and being able to exert your consciousness. There are also questions of mortality—I just think fiction helps us work out the things that scare us and helps us figure out what can be endured and what needs to be changed, what requires courage and what requires patience.

GR: How do you prefer to work then? Does it change between novels and stories? Has it changed over the years?

HO: Well, it's different. It changes from book to book. With these stories, I think I was up very late at night, writing, like, at 2 a.m. And then I'd just sleep a lot and wake up and write some more. But with other books, I've had much more structure. It really differs and depends on lots of factors. I'm curious how the next book will work out. I'll just have to see what works!

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GR: Your books have all been very well received. You've been compared with amazing writers such as Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Edgar Allen Poe, and Angela Carter, among others. But who are some of the writers you feel have been especially important to you and your work?

HO: I really love Barbara Comyns. She wrote a book called The Juniper Tree, which was told from the perspective of a wicked stepmother and made me want to write my own wicked stepmother story! Barbara Comyns's tone is something I aspire to. It's both light and philosophically serious, and it's a perspective that is just really charming and engaging and absorbing but also creeps up on you and then hits you. And I love Silvina Ocampo. She's a voice, again, of darkness and light in equal measure, and psychologically fluid. Her works contain so many symbols and signs. I love the early 20th-century writer Kosztolányi. I guess he was Hungarian, though he probably would've just said that he was a European writer. I also like Robert Walser. He's so compassionate to his characters. Even when they have their grubby little intentions, he understands everything!

GR: What books are you reading right now? Are you reading anything in particular at the moment?

HO: I am, but they've just gone straight out of my head! Let me pop into the other room and I'll tell you in five seconds. [Long pause.] OK, I have Love Trouble by Veronica Geng right here on my nightstand. And a book called Lonesome You, which is a story collection by Park Wan-Suh.

GR: Wonderful, thank you for everything, Helen. And good luck with all in Kentucky!

HO: Thank you, Andy. Yes, it's been a real change of pace, but so far I like it.

Interview by Anderson Tepper for Goodreads. Anderson is host and curator of the international writers series at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Learn more about Anderson and follow what he's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Sikiru (new)

Sikiru Oritola Congrats, Oyeyemi

message 2: by Olufisoye (new)

Olufisoye Ojo I congratulate you Helen, you have always beimg phenomenal. Olufisoye Ojo the kindle Author of 'The 11 Secrets of Super Successful People'

message 3: by Rufus (new)

Rufus Evison Helen, you won't remember me, but I was in touch when you were a college. I am not on Facebook and wondered what is the best way for me to get back in touch? I think that you are one of the few people who had a copy of the first book of that I made by hand.
Rufus (Evison)

message 4: by Rufus (new)

Rufus Evison Helen, I remember you from college, do you remember me? I gave you a copy of the first book that I made by hand. You encouraged me to try to get it published. I would love to catch up.
Rufus at sign Evison dot com

message 5: by Ahmed (new)

Ahmed Lavalie Congratulations Helen! You are a very talented author.

message 6: by Veronika (new)

Veronika Hanusova What is the point of asking a question when it gets so heavily edited its meaning changes completely? I asked about racism, and it was turned into the perfectly safe and innocuous "what are your impressions of Prague".

message 7: by Alex (new)

Alex Agyei i dont know what to say

message 8: by Rosalie (new)

Rosalie Banks I love Helen's prose and her almost avant garde collection of books. But I disagree with her to say she has no connection to Nigeria. Is her name Oyeyemi not a Yoruba name? If only she's aware of the great heritage in Yoruba culture which she has atavistic connections to, then she would well understand the reason why her prose reads like poetry sometimes and the source of her metaphysics. Yoruba race is the most metaphysical of all human race- she should ask Prof Wole Soyinka.
I still love her all the same, all the way. Best of luck to her

message 9: by Doris (new)

Doris Raines Hi. Doris. Here. This. A. Great. Book. Title. What. Is. Not. Yours. Is. Not. Yours

message 10: by Doris (new)

Doris Raines Hi. Doris. Here. Love. The. Story. Helen. Oyeyemi. Writes. What. Is. Not. Yours. Is. Not. Yours

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