The VICE Channels

Author Helen Oyeyemi on the Politics—or Not—of Writing Black Female Characters

Mar 9 2016 6:20 PM
Author Helen Oyeyemi on the Politics—or Not—of Writing Black Female Characters

Photos by Manchul Kim, courtesy of Riverhead Books

In Helen Oyeyemi's new short story collection, "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours," keys aren't always, well, the key. We spoke to the 31-year-old fiction writer about the book, her nomadic lifestyle, and whether she considers her work political.

The Ibadan-born, London-raised, Prague-inclined fiction writer Helen Oyeyemi is currently living in Lexington, Kentucky, a city that greeted her January arrival with an ice storm. ("Quite unnerving.") Oyeyemi, whose sixth work of fiction and first book of short stories, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, was published by Riverhead this month, is in town for a residency at the University of Kentucky. Oyeyemi is notoriously nomadic—she spent her 20s going from European capital to European capital, looking for a city she "could be in a relationship with"—and I expected the dreamy yet very much cosmopolitan author to be a little out of her depth in Appalachia.

But the dreaminess she brings to her fiction, which draws from a variety of mythological traditions, seems to carry into her life as well. "I find it quite hard for the place I'm physically in to make a dent on my mind," she told me over the phone. "It might actually be because I read so much that I'm already in other places, so it's just a difficulty in even knowing where I am at any given time."

Read more: Following a Trail of Dead Ladies and Trying Not to Kill Yourself

Despite the collection's straightforward title, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours has a similarly evasive quality. The stories revolve around the theme of keys, often to hearts but also to libraries, gardens, and puzzles, and although they may seem fixed, defined by a singular purpose, these objects are deceptive in Oyeyemi's mind. "They almost seem to have a will to circulate," she said. "You're always losing them and finding them, and I think it's a good way of talking about things we think that we have control of but are actually a little bit trickier at the second or third glance."

For Oyeyemi, the same is true of writing itself. She began her proposal for What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours with a line she said came from one of her favorite books, Kornel Esti by the Hungarian writer Dezsö Kosztolányi: "There's something I must tell you all, and it's something about keys." When she went back to find the quote, it wasn't there.

If you're wondering how someone can be on her sixth book (seventh if you count the collection of "really bad plays" she feels like she "can't disown") at the age of 31, Oyeyemi says it's because she thinks slowly, but writes fast. As for whether this signifies, along with the constant moves and the interest in keys, some kind of personal quest, the answer seems to be both yes and no. Oyeyemi's speech is peppered with sort ofs and something abouts, but it's not because she's inexact, or aimless—it's because she's careful. When I ask if writing is something she stumbled upon, or found, she responds with a characteristic thoughtful equivocation. "I'm not convinced that I know how to write," she says. "When it comes to writing, I'm still very much learning on the job, which is OK." Read more of our conversation below.

BROADLY: You've published six books since you were 18, but this is your first short story collection. How do you feel about it?
Helen Oyeyemi: I'm really, really fond of this one. I think, out of any other thing I've written, I'm equally fond of Mr Fox. There are links between this and Mr. Fox, in that it's Mr. Fox retold through this [key device], but I sort of left keys out of [Mr. Fox] because I knew that if there were keys in it, I would get fixated on the symbols and start weaving all sorts of things around the symbols. So I left them out for another time, and it was nice to come back to this device and dedicate a whole book to it.

What's so fascinating to you about keys?
I think it's the way that we can't really hold onto them. There's something about these objects that are inanimate—I was going to say "supposedly inanimate," but I guess nobody can prove that keys move of their own accord—so they are inanimate, but they have this power. They almost seem to have a will to circulate. They can't stay with you. You're always losing them and finding them, and I think it's a good way of talking about things we think we have control of but are actually a little bit trickier at the second or third glance.

A lot of the characters in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours seem to be seeking something, and a key is often seen as this thing that's going to solve your problem, opening a literal or figurative door and getting you where you need to go. Do you see those ideas as being connected in the book?
Yeah. A key has this sense of having a journey packed up within itself—it leads you to the lock, but you get there by some route that's not necessarily logical the entire time.

You move around so much—do you feel like you're looking for something?
I think I was. I was looking for a city that I could be in a relationship with. I guess that sounds very lofty, but—ha. So I was in Paris, Berlin, Budapest, looking around and looking around. And then Prague was just it. I still like to look around in general, but I feel like Prague is the place. So I'll just look around and then come back to Prague.

Do you speak Czech?
Badly, but I'm determined to become good. I've been studying on and off for a year and a half now, so I can do childlike things, like say, "I want that!" I can't eavesdrop yet, but I feel like, with most languages, I understand more than I can say, so people can talk to me for a long time and then I'll respond with, like, five words. But they'll be a really meaningful five words. I think that a nice thing about living outside of English is that you can misunderstand and be misunderstood and it's not really a big deal.

If a novel is good, then it should contain as much of life as possible.

Do you bring your experiences traveling—or living—in different countries into your work?
Not really. I find it quite hard for the place that I'm physically in to make a dent on my mind, for some reason. It might actually be because I read so much that I'm already in other places, so it's just a difficulty in even knowing where I am at any given time. The writing is never really about places—it's about what we imagine about places.

It sounds like you went into this one wanting very specifically to do an entire book about a device. I'm wondering if you feel like you have an overarching theme you want to work through with all of your books, or if you see them as discrete works.
It's book by book. In the proposal that I wrote for this short story collection, I opened with, "There's something I must tell you all, and it's something about keys." I [was quoting] a line from one of my favorite books, and I said, "I want to do what this book is doing, but with keys." I went back to that book, and that line was not in the book! That's when I knew I would have a lot of trouble with keys. I was like, The line got lost! I reread the entire book looking for this line that I so confidently quoted.

The line, "There's something I must tell you all, and it's something about keys"?
I said that that was the first line of this book, Kornel Esti by Dezsö Kostztolányi. When I went back to it, obviously, I opened the book looking for, "There's something I must tell you..." and it didn't begin with that. I was like, Let me just keep reading, and maybe the line will appear? But at least I got to reread the book.

When you misremember something, it doesn't feel like you've achieved it, but you made it. You know? That's your line.
It makes me really uncertain. This is why I have sympathy for plagiarists to some extent—because it's really hard to know what you've invented and what is someone else's invention that you've absorbed.

Did anyone call you on it?
No. I was the one who eventually owned up to it, just in case!

How long did it take you to write the book?
There were two stories that were really, really—the puppet story almost broke me, and that took really long. So did the first story, "Books and Roses." I think it actually took about seven months. At the same time, I was writing the puppet story. So I was thinking, I'm going to be spending years on these stories! But the other stories came really quickly after that.

Does it usually take so long? You've written a lot of books for someone so young—do you feel like you write fast?
I think that I think slowly, but I write fast. The writing time is just months, but I take a long time to figure out what I want to do with the story or the book or the voice I want to tell it in. I have to sort of inhabit it and talk myself into it a bit.

I was reading an interview with you on NPR from 2014, and you said that you want to write as many books as you're allowed to publish. Do you still feel that way, or do you think you'll ever slow down?
No, no, no! I'm gonna just keep going! I feel like I have a lot of things that I want to do, and I'm worried that I don't have enough time to do them.

Do you feel like anyone taught you how to write, or did you sort of stumble upon it?
I'm not convinced that I know how to write. I'm very confident that I can read. I feel like I'm such a good reader—ha. Yay! I can read!

Read more: Valeria Luiselli: The Novelist All Your Smart Friends Are Talking About

No, reading is hard!
But when it comes to writing, I'm still very much learning on the job, which is OK.

When you publish your first novel at 18—I don't know. I read stuff I wrote a few years ago, and I understand Virginia Woolf saying to never publish anything until you're 30. Zadie Smith also talks about how she hates White Teeth and can't read it. Can you relate to that, or are you at ease with it?
I definitely relate to that, though with my first novel I sort of feel like, Well, I did my best. What are you going to do? Also, I think it helps when somebody comes to you and says something about [your work] that makes you realize that the way they read it did something good for them. Then your head's like, Then it should exist, and that's fine.

You do a lot with women's issues and racial issues. Do you see your work as political in any way?
Am I doing a lot with women's issues and racial issues? Or is it just that there are women and black people in my stories?

I read so much that I'm already in other places, so it's just a difficulty in even knowing where I am at any given time.

I think a lot of people would argue that it's not possible to put women and black people in a story and not have it be political.
I don't know. 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. I think that art and politics are inseparable in lots of different ways, but you can't force these things, and you can't separate things out into these categories, like, Oh, this work of fiction deals with this or that. If a novel is good, then it should contain as much of life as possible. Some of that is the way that we try to live through all of these structures that attempt to control and separate us, but some of it doesn't fit into any category at all. I think a novel is a big mix of things.

Do you resent criticism? Not in the sense of "negative criticism," but in the sense that people are writing a lot about you. You would have fewer outside interpretations connected to your work if you were less successful.
I'm wary of—how do I put it—"getting tagged," I guess, but I also understand the need to try and do that. When I try to think about my favorite books, I'm still not quite sure how I found them. There needs to be something you can say to people that lets them know that they might like this book, but I sometimes worry that the kinds of things that people say about what I write would not help my books find the readers I intend. I feel like most writers write for people who just read, who would open a book and jump in and see what's there. But burdening a book with promises that once you've read this book, you'll understand this issue or that issue—it's not good.

Helen Oyeyemi's new short story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, is available now from Riverhead Books. You can read an excerpt here.

A version of this article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

More from VICE

The Latest