Helen Oyeyemi was at Greenlight Bookstore to discuss her latest collection of stories What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours with author Catherine Chung. Each story in the collection includes a key.
Oyeyemi and Chung met in the woods. They were both attending a writing retreat. In the house Oyeyemi was staying in, someone kept moving the furniture around in the middle of the night. This occurrence presented a rather odd situation for the six women on the retreat spread out in cottages in the woods.
Oyeyemi says she feels she is frequently the center of strange happenings and what she does is channel those events through writing as a way of accepting the strangeness. She explains that she is nearsighted and that means that when she gets up close to something, it ends up being a surprise when she can see it. She adds that she is constantly making strange eye contact with people because she thinks she knows them even when she doesn’t.
Oyeyemi admits it might appear odd to write a book centered around keys. She had been planning on writing it for a while and was grateful her previous book was successful enough to allow her to write a short story collection, and one focused on keys at that. She believes there is something about keys that refuse to be explained. As she was writing the book, the keys kept slipping through her hands.
There is a struggle of the object against language that drives Oyeyemi’s writing. The joy is in trying to find the right words. It felt like she was curating the words of each story.
“I have an interest in disrupting sequence,” she says.
If there is a common thread through her work, Oyeyemi says that it is stories about stories.
“I don’t think language is my friend.” Her books are about making friends with language.
If there is a specific way to read her books, it is in forgetting the individual. “I think the best way would be to forget the ‘I’ as a specific person,” she says, explaining that she doesn’t feel that she writes from a single self.
Oyeyemi sees herself as yet to work her way through the “whole modernist thing.” She shares the modernist suspicion of stories crossed with the belief that stories can also serve us. Persistent in her line of thought is whether stories are our friend or our enemy. It is possible to feel different things about them on different days.
Next up for Oyeyemi is a BBC special on the Bronte sisters. To film the program, she and the other authors representing the sisters were allowed to stay in the Bronte house and touch many of the objects in their lives. Oyeyemi also walked out onto the moor. Here, she says, she could finally understand the power and mystery of the moor.