Helen Oyeyemi is an author for whom categorization is impossible. She’s written five novels—including a haunting take on Nigerian mythology (The Icarus Girl) and a reimagined Snow White narrative (Boy, Snow, Bird)—but the unifying theme throughout her work is an emphasis on humanity. Crafted with equal parts surrealism and realism, her stories never sacrifice substance for style. For that matter, her style is substantive in its own right.
Oyeyemi’s new short story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, centers on tales involving literal and metaphorical keys. In her email interview with Paste, Oyeyemi describes the shift from writing novels to short stories, the Czech equivalent of “once upon a time” and what she’s working on next.
Paste: You’re comfortable writing in a variety of genres. Do you have a way you want to tell a story before you begin writing, or does the story/plot/etc. suggest how it should be told?
Oyeyemi: I’d intended to just say that the stories seem to dictate their own style—sometimes it does seem as if they arrive speaking different and distinct languages, like passengers filing off an aeroplane. But there are a couple of stories where I’ve begun with style and followed the style into a story. The first line of “Drownings,” for instance, was begun whilst thinking of a Czech analogue for “once upon a time”—bylo, nebylo, a literal translation of which would be there was, there wasn’t.
Paste: You’ve written entire novels in which you’ve retold fairy tales in a new context. What is it about the stories in this collection that made you believe they merited a shorter length?
Oyeyemi: I wanted to try and look at keys from a number of perspective—without any one view of what a key does getting set in stone. Nine stories about keys seemed to offer more possibilities than one continuous narrative.
Paste: How do you keep your stories and characters relatable given the quality of magical realism that permeates them?
Oyeyemi: Glad they seem real; thank you! What a reader means to say when categorizing something as “magical realism” is probably a longer conversation to be had some other time, but what I am conscious of is the modernist and surrealist underpinnings to the things I write—modernist in that some element of the stories usually tends to be about stories themselves and whether they can be believed or trusted, and surrealist in terms of bringing seemingly contradictory images and symbols as close together as possible. These seem to be things that our minds very casually do anyway, all day long, awake and asleep.
Paste: Your writing style has been praised for being both sparse and detailed, humorous and sobering. How do you decide when any particular type of prose is necessary?
Oyeyemi: It’s very encouraging to be read so kindly. I’m still working on establishing my own style, but what I know so far is that I instinctively lean towards understatement and sometimes have to really rethink sentences to bring them past the point of mere hinting.
Paste: Who were some of the writers you were thinking of as you wrote these stories?
Oyeyemi: At times I thought of Dezso Kosztolanyi, Silvina Ocampo, Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England...loads more, and they did vary from story to story.
Paste: What can we expect from you in the near future?
Oyeyemi: Normality…something…normal. [Laughing]