On Helen Oyeyemi | An Essay
July 19, 2017
It was Helen Oyeyemi who first made me realize what I’d always found dissatisfying about short stories. A short story is not a story. A short story is an abridged novel. There is always a novel latent in every short story. And it prevents the short story from exhibiting what Oyeyemi calls “faith in storytelling.”
A story, on the other hand, is more like a tale. It does away with lengthy descriptions and extensive psychic exploration. Characters are vague and ghostly. Space is airy and light. Some of the best novels—Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians—are endlessly beautiful because in their heart of hearts they are novels dreaming of becoming tales. Oyeyemi’s fidelity to the “story” in short story is what makes her debut collection What is Yours is Not Yours a near-perfect book.
Novels are written with an ethnographic intention. A novelist labors to show the world or the mind of the character or the historical context of the character in great detail. As a result, novels can sometimes seem too much. Isn’t it Virginia Woolf who said that the novel is by nature “clumsy, verbose, and undramatic?” A storyteller speaks from the standpoint of a traveller recounting a half-remembered tale about a distant world. This recollection comes tainted with a magical haze. Spaces lose their historical exactitude. Time becomes less real. For the novel reader who desperately wants to be grounded—whether in Rivendell or Lagos—reading a tale can feel like levitating.
When Oyeyemi begins “Books and Roses” with “Once upon a time in Catalona,” she doesn’t expect the reader to care that her Catalona has little historical or ethnographic reality. The thrilling story about a mixed race orphan girl Monteserrat and two lesbian heist women could have taken place anywhere, in Lagos, London, or Limbe.
Every story in the collection takes place in a perpetual present. The Catalona story set in medieval time could have taken place in the present day London of “If a Book is Locked.” Time in the collection is something unmarked by history. Time is a flat surface that stretches from the first story to the very last one, making each story slip and slide into one another along a mythical continuum. Which is, perhaps, why it doesn’t feel entirely weird that a character from one story would suddenly appear in a different story.
There is magic in her stories. When I say magic I mean fantastical moment that pop up out of nowhere in a largely realist canvas. It would, however, be erroneous to lump Oyeyemi’s work into that absurdly imprecise category called magical realism. Magical realism of the Okri and Marquez sort are blindingly fantastical. This effect derives from the fact that what we might term as magical in the story is always in contention with the realist element. Magical realism draws attention to its intent to interrupt realism. The force of magical realism derives from holding on to the tension of a realist world rudely interrupted by something magical. It’s like history wanting to confront its own suspension. Things quickly get awkward and messy.
Oyeyemi does magic differently. What we might term magical in her story is subtle. It is more of a posturing than a grand disavowal of realism. Hers is a kind of realism that accommodates the fantastical without all the pomp and flare of magical realism. In “Drowning,” the idea of a tyrant who drowns his political enemies is realistic enough. But when the narrator tells us, rather off-handedly, that the drowned victims had built a city in their watery burial ground, it is hardly startling. It feels right and unremarkable. I still can’t recall at what I point I realized that the puppets in “Is Your Blood as Red as This” could talk. Her fictional world is open. Anything can happen. The realist stuff feels real. The magical stuff feels real. The line separating the two is so paper-thing that you miss it even when you’re looking really hard.
So maybe magic or fantasy is the wrong word to use for what doesn’t feel quite real about Oyeyemi’s stories. Maybe what we want to say is way more simpler, that there are these moments when the narrator refuses to explain things to us. The lump of living-dead flesh that appears on Donicka’s thigh is not necessarily magical. If only the narrator would explain what it is, we’ll probably shrug and get on with out merry day. What makes the story appear magical is simply that we do not know what is what. What we experience as fantasy in her novel are really just the sublimation of our frustration of being in the dark. Unlike magical realism where the opposition between the magical and the realistic is preserved and exploited, in Oyeyemi’s work, it is the impossibility to differentiate the two that lends the story its distinctive feel.
Oyeyemi’s language is spare. Like a gemcutter, she slits and shapes, and polishes sentences and imagery till they are transformed into precious narrative bits. She exhibits a narrative efficiency, of which Kafka and Achebe have been known to be masters—a kind of brevity, an economy of words, a compactness of style. Every word is accounted for. Nothing is wasted. This carefully curated collection of words and imagery that make up the stories is put together with a slightly magical artistry. Words fall together, like feathers, as if they bear no weight, as if they mean to say very little.
Read “On Alain Mabanckou”