Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Format/Source: Paperback/Purchased
Published: March 2016
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton 
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Short stories (literary/magical realism)
Why I Read: Favourite author
Read If You: Like new and fresh short stories, with a hint of the surreal about them
Rating★★★★½ 
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is Helen Oyeyemi’s debut short story collection. The book contains a number of excellent tales that demonstrate her maturing talent. Her prose exemplifies this growth best. This is the first time I’ve followed a young author’s works as they are published, and been able to experience the evolution of their writing. White is for Witching (which Oyeyemi published in 2009 at 25 years old) will always be my favourite Oyeyemi tale, but a distinct difference exists between that story and the ones in WINYINY. I feel that Oyeyemi’s prose has become even more of what it was – she has grown into her style (and will hopefully continue growing).

Mr. Fox is also, to some extent, a ‘short story’ collection. Mr. Fox‘s stories strongly connect through an overarching storyline and characters. WINYINY‘s stories do connect, but in a far looser manner. Some characters who feature in their own story may receive a brief mention in another. My understanding of WINYINY will likely benefit from rereading – for the individual stories themselves, and for how they connect together.Overall, I enjoyed WINYINY a lot more than Mr. Fox. I didn’t find myself enjoying any story less than the others.

Oyeyemi’s vivid creativity impresses me. I could hardly begin to imagine stories like the ones she pens. Her writing doesn’t usually take grand or unexpected turns. Her creativity exists in something more refined than that, little details or small turns in action that truly fuel the story. I thought about giving an example, but that spoils the effect. All the stories in WINYINY exemplify that creativity.  It imbues her stories with something refreshing, allowing their reader to feel like they’ve experienced something new (at least for this reader of few short stories).

All of Oyeyemi’s works demonstrate diversity, and these stories feature a varied cast of characters. Just as she did in White is for Witching (which features an interracial lesbian couple),  the ‘diverse’ aspects of the character’s feel natural and almost incidental (not in a bad way) to the story. Sexuality and racial identity are not used as token diversity markers. But, the stories would not be the same without these aspects of identities. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is, Oyeyemi has found the balance between writing diverse characters who are only their diversity and writing diverse characters who are wholly separate from their diversity.

On that note… If you’re familiar with Boy, Snow, Bird, you may recall the problematic portrayal of a trans character. This collection contains one minor trans character in “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society”, whom I identified mostly from this statement: “Pepper wasn’t always on the surface, but whether [Day] was with Pepper as Pepper or Pepper as Michael, Day had found one she’d always be young with […]”. Day initially meets and dates Michael, who transitions to Pepper. This transition is not a major plot point or a catalyst for another character’s development. I think Pepper’s portrayal is realistic and not transphobic, but I would be interested to hear a trans person’s opinion on the portrayal of a trans character in this story vs in Boy, Snow, Bird.

The Bottom Line: Though I understand Oyeyemi’s work is not for everyone, I recommend this collection for those who are curious about her writing. Her creativity and prose are at their strongest in the stories of this collection.

Further Reading:

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