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

The short stories in this collection are inherently weird, but Oyeyemi makes it work with her transformative, deeply moving, and well-crafted style.
These are stories about a variety of characters—from different backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, sexualities—and I loved how certain characters were woven into each other’s lives. Recognizing a character in a newly told tale and feeling connected to them for having known other parts of them in a previous story was the best feeling. And also important side note: The stories in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours are linked thematically by keys of all kinds that added an extra layer of mystery.

But looking back over the course of Oyeyemi’s nine tales, I seemed to have taken favor for three pieces that I’d like to share next:

books and roses:

This piece was the opening story, and it completely knocked my socks off. Especially towards the end when we got to know a tragically beautiful story about two lovers’ fates. It made me question everything.

Plus, there was a beautiful passage about reading that won my heart over:

“I went into the library at night and found peace and fortitude there.
I didn’t know where to begin, so I just looked for a name that I knew until I came to a life of Joan of Arc, which I sat down and read really desperately. I read without stopping until the end, as if somebody were chasing me through the pages with a butcher’s knife. The next night I read more slowly, a life of Galileo Galilei that took me four nights to finish because his fate was hard to take. I kept saying, “Those bastards,” and once after saying that I heard a sound in another part of the library. A library at night is full of sounds: The unread books can’t stand it any longer and announce their contents, some boasting, some shy, some devious. But the sound I heard wasn’t the sound of a book.”

It really stuck with me throughout my reading.

“sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea:

I read this at just the right time in my life. “sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea is a crucial piece on fame, abuse, and victim-blaming. It’s told through the eyes of the narrator, who’s boyfriend’s daughter is a disillusioned fan seeking an apology from a pop star.

This short story lays down how messed up an abusive situation can get, especially in front of the public-eye. When a woman uploads a Youtube video, where she speaks of how famous pop star Matyas Füst assaulted her, all she wants is to get an apology. A sincere one. But instead she receives this:

“Ah yes, the comments.
Noor couldn’t make himself look, so Aisha and I read some of them aloud. There was a lot of LOL cool allegations junkie, maybe it was all a dream? and LMAO people will say anything to ruin a good man’s reputation stay strong Matyas!
If only that was the worst of it. Aisha’s haggard face as she read: Oh boohoo. What’s this one complaining about? He paid her, didn’t he? She hit him, didn’t she? Admitted all this herself. Does she think you can hit someone and just walk away? I read: She should count herself lucky: men probably treat broken down old whores worse than that in her country. And she got to bang Matyas! Matyas Füst can beat me up any time baby LOL
Then the apologists came out to play: Even if this is true is it the full story? We know that Matyas wouldn’t just lash out like that so we need to be asking what she did . . .”

The comments that followed in where just horrible to read in the sense that it was real. Too real. This isn’t some fictitious situation…these things have happened and keep happening over and over because victim-blaming is very much real and alive. And it was a real wake-up call to see it written so honestly in here.

I seriously have only love and respect for Oyeyemi for tackling such an important subject that made me re-evaluate everything.

a brief history of the homely wench society:

I hadn’t noticed it until I had moved on to the next story, but this piece features the same character that was mentioned in “sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea, and I loved her (Dayang Sharif, the sister of the disillusioned fan) even more in here.

It’s set while Day’s in college and among a lot of happenings, she meets Hercules Demetriou, who made me swoon a damn lot. I was fully rooting for their budding romance, even if all they did was try to not look at each other and almost never talk (aka my kind of romance).

“Day found Hercules Demetriou sitting at her usual desk in the library. Rather than talk to him she went to his usual desk, which was unoccupied, and set up her laptop there. He looked over at her three times; she looked over at him once. Just once, and he came over. Argh, was it that pitifully obvious?”

The author perfectly describes that moment of catching unwanted feelings.

And, oh, this next part where he invites her to an infamous dinner made my heart content on a whole new level:

“I can see you believe you lot are new and improved, but to have this dinner where each of you brings one person to show off to the others . . .”
“Isn’t that what all socializing’s like when you’re in a relationship?” Hercules asked, resting his chin on her palm. This boy.
“Yes, well, I don’t know about that—”
“Never had a boyfriend? Girlfriend?”
She took her hand back, stood on tiptoe, and whispered into his ear: “Ask someone else.”
“You’ll be jealous,” Hercules whispered back.
Day waved him away and climbed the last few steps to her door. “I won’t. Goodnight, Herc.”
He cupped his hands around his mouth and walked backward down the stairs, calling out: “You like me. She likes me. She doesn’t know why and she can’t believe it, but Dayang Sharif likes me!”

I’m grinning ear to ear right now. This boy.

Also, apropos of nothing, this next piece is extremely noteworthy!!

“Ed was working on a piece about hierarchies of knowledge for female love interests in the early issues of her favorite comic books; how very odd it must be to operate within a story where you’re capable, courageous, droll, at the top of your field professionally and yet somehow still not permitted the brains to perceive that the man you see or work with every day is exactly the same person as the superhero who saves your life at night. “Seems like someone behind the scenes clinging to the idea that the woman whose attention you can’t get just can’t see ‘the real you,’ no?”

Oyeyemi is telling it exactly like it is.


Overall, I was incredibly pleased with the storytelling in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. I love magical realism quite a lot, and Helen Oyeyemi made it work just right in this collection.

4/5 stars

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