Violence, Beauty, Charm: How Helen Oyeyemi’s Fabulist Fiction Embraces the Brutality of Language

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In literary fiction, the word “fabulist” is as hard to define as any. To be sure, it designates a writer who mixes the fantastical with the quotidian. But it also suggests a quickened mind that is unafraid of allowing the quotidian to be surprising and the fantastical to be routine. For critics, an act of enduring fabulism is about the ratio of the possible to the impossible, the layering of the real against the unreal. Unlike the magical realist, the fabulist is unconstrained by the sometimes oppressive, formulaic nature of allegory. In the world of the novel, in other words, the fabulist is the magical realist who is also an able, self-possessed storyteller.

Already, at the age of 31 and over the course of five books of upbuilding quality, Helen Oyeyemi has established herself as one of the premiere fabulists in the realm of the contemporary novel, one who is all the better because she is unafraid of violence, or even the violence nascent to lively language. Of her predecessors, in this regard, I’m reminded of Jose Saramago, whom she otherwise resembles not at all. Aimee Bender wrote, of her capacious, bemusing, and dangerous novel Mr. Fox: “Oyeyemi casts her word-spell, sentence by sentence, story by story, and by the end, the oppressive lair has opened up into a shimmering landscape pulsing with life.” It often takes a master fabulist to demonstrate how the ghostly brutality of language can be generative.

When fabulists move to shorter forms there is always a danger that the stream of shifting realities and unrealities may be choked off by limited space. Thankfully, in the case of Oyeyemi’s new collection of nine short fictions, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, this is not a problem; like Italo Calvino, she relies on story more than plot; and like Bruno Schulz, she allows for recurring images and totems that link the stories in often surprising ways. She otherwise resembles these writers not at all.

In the first story, “Books and Roses,” Oyeyemi winds her way through and around her title images to to tell the story of a Black Madonna, a “wriggly and miniscule” baby named Monserrat, who later becomes a laundry servant — and still later comes into a strange inheritance. In another way, however, it’s the story of a lock and a key, images that abound in What Is Not Yours.

Keys return in the second story, but not before Oyeyemi has switched the time and continent — to present-day Suffolk. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” begins as the story of one old friend doing a strange favor for another: as Ched, a musician of some renown, returns to his homeland for military service, the narrator is charged with caring for his Siamese fighting fish. But it eventually becomes something much stranger and larger, a story that enfolds family and friendship in the aftermath of a disturbing act of sexual violence. Soon enough — because she gives her characters the keys to the kingdom — it circles back around. The narrator eventually enlists the help of his work friend to guide his husband’s daughter through her dangerous, even weird obsession with a scandal-prone celebrity. The way Tyche, until then a minor character, aids her colleague is meaningful; just as important is the way he describes her before she matters to the story.

Tyche reappears in the collection’s third story, “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” But the showstopper here is the young narrator, who addresses someone named Myrna:

Clearly I hadn’t arrived in your life a moment too soon. You looked at me, and this is how I saw you, when first I saw you: I saw your eyes like flint arrows, and your chin set against the world, and I saw the curve of your lips, which is so beautiful that it’s almost illusory — your eyes freeze a person, but then the flickering flame of your mouth beckons.

A paradoxical and disconcerting blend of mature drive and unworldly sentiment commingles in this voice: you might call it a ratio of the real to the unreal, of violence to charm. And like all of the voices in this collection, it’s one that serves beauty and violence in equal measure, but is beholden to neither.