Writer Helen Oyeyemi was in Cairo when she became fixated on keys. Walking through bazaars jumbled with delightful objects, she noticed that no matter how varied the content of the stalls, each had at least a handful of keys for sale. “They’re often physically inconspicuous but symbolically and mechanically powerful,” she told Women in the World, describing how keys can seem “strangely animate” due to their failure to stay where they were put. “A key’s the sort of object you can make a lot of guesses about and that appeals to this brain of mine, which is hardly ever sure about anything.”
The 31-year-old author’s sixth and latest book, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, brings together essays that are both realist and semi-mythical, inspired by an object that, with a turn, can open worlds (or lock them in for the keeping). Oyeyemi’s work combines the supernatural with wholly mundane elements of human life, like relationships, crushes, work and university culture — well-crafted modern fairytales that raise hairs, with sharp lines certain to elicit laughs as pages turn. The motif — “keys versus people”— brings out the best and worst of her characters: men, women and puppets alike, characters that boast beautiful names like Tyche, Radha, and Safiye. “Tyche struck me as a good name for a girl who’d temporarily despaired of her own fate,” Oyeyemi said. “Names can be more suggestive than keys.”
In “Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” a narrator has been asked to watch the “House of Locks” twice a week for two years. Character Tyche Shaw has a plotline heavy in magic — including a ring that makes her feel that a love exists specifically for her “and it was on all the time” — but her character’s “superpower” is the stuff of real life, described as “picking emotionally unavailable partners.” It is humor like this that makes Oyeyemi’s stories so accessible, and though she did not set out to explore relationship dynamics, she examines myriad different partnerships and struggles. Oyeyemi’s women and girls are robust, limitless characters — personalities both great and terrible, free and kept — and sometimes find themselves present in more than one of the book’s individual tales, while the motif keeps plots moving and characters nimble.
“When humans are chasing and sometimes avoiding the influence of keys through the pages of a story, both the men and the women automatically get to be considered more on the basis of individual temperament [rather] than gender and any of the other typical ways of typecasting people,” Oyeyemi said.
That she doesn’t carefully outline her story ideas is clear: wheels are almost visibly turning on the page, leading the eye to eagerly follow. While writing, Oyeyemi would ask herself, “Which of the two [keys or people] is weirder, more stubborn, more crafty?” and move with the energy. There’s a sense that the author’s imagination could fill many more pages — an easy, flowing dreamscape, even as the semi-interconnected plotlines change — and it makes the work a delightful, contagious read.
Born in Nigeria, Oyeyemi grew up in South London, a city she left after a disturbing incident in which a stranger in a park laid his head in her lap while she was reading a Norman Mailer book. “The man asked if he could lay his head down on my lap. I said no. He laid his head on my lap anyway,” Oyeyemi told The Guardian in 2011, according to Newsweek. She’s traveled and lived globally ever since, calling cities like Paris, Toronto, Berlin, and Budapest home (current location: Prague, a city she mused on this week in Lenny Letter). The influence of such interactions with the world make their way into her work by way of “interferences” from characters that help show “unexpected inabilities to access our own thoughts and emotions and the reasons for those inabilities.”
A lifelong reader who cites Little Women as the novel that sparked her career in words, at 18 years old she wrote her first book, The Icarus Girl, in seven months while studying for her secondary school A-Levels. Her five preceding books — all novels — have been awarded honors, including the Somerset Maugham Award in 2010, and her last book, 2014’s Boy, Snow, Bird (a reworking of the fairytale of Snow White, but with a character and tone inspired by a Marina Abramovic performance) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2014.
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours — available through Riverhead Books on March 8 — boasts ambitious stories written masterfully by an adventurous author, and is another example of Oyeyemi’s skill at finding inspiration in the smallest and most ephemeral details. (Oyeyemi obliquely credits, for example, the genesis of a story about the partnership between a bad wolf and a woman, who grows an odd lump she feeds to a goose, to a moment in 2014, when “on St. Martin’s Day … a vegetarian passed through Prague’s Old Town on her way home from the library and was mildly nauseated by the [smell of] roast goose all over the place.”)
When asked how she prefers to write, she explained that working on planes and trains have been most enjoyable because “You’re in motion and so are your characters.”
Portals to another place? Only fitting.
Follow Alli Maloney on Twitter.