One of the hardest things to sell while working in a bookstore is “a collection of short stories”. Before even getting the phrase out of my mouth, customers’ eyes glaze over.
“I don’t like short stories. As soon as I get into it, the story finishes.” Well, that’s the whole point. A great short story is like a whirlwind. It appears almost out of nowhere and after only a moment, it leaves you re-evaluating your life.
In my opinion there are only a few authors who have mastered this art. With her new collection What is Not Yours is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi (The Icarus Girl, The Opposite House, White is for Witching) is one of them.
Like all fables, each of Oyeyemi’s stories passes on a lesson. One of the more brutal lessons happens in ‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea. Two young teens become disillusioned by a pop superstar after accusations surface on YouTube that he abused a prostitute. The story follows the teens as they attempt to continue their adoration for the superstar in the wake of the revelation.
Of all of the stories, I found this one the most confronting. Not because of the nature of what happens in the story, but by how believable it all felt. There are all those girls on Twitter who are so pro One Direction or Justin Bieber that they are ready to say some pretty horrible things to people who dare talk badly about their heroes. People don’t like to think their idols could be flawed. Look at the allegations about David Bowie having sex with a 14 year old girl. I love David Bowie’s music and it’s hard to frame him in a flawed and horrible light. The struggle that the girls in the story have is something we all face.
There’s a fair bit of magic and surrealism that fills these stories, but the crux of the stories lies in the humanity of the characters. Yes there are ghosts, sentient puppets, and drowned cities, but it’s in the characters’ actions that the real magic happens.
Excitingly, the characters are of all varieties of ethnicities, gender roles, and sexual orientations. They aren’t shoehorned into any preconceived roles. They’re trying to get through life like everybody else. I can’t begin to say how refreshing that is to read. In most of the stories, none of the characters are exoticized by their appearance or orientation. No one is put on display because of their differences. The worlds these stories take place in are ones of acceptance. Having two dads is a normal thing. Falling in love with an androgynous puppeteer is just a thing that happens. Things are different. It’s neither bad nor good.
Then, of course, there is the style. Not only does Oyeyemi manage to fit so much into such short stories, she is able to do so with such craftsmanship. The writing is so vivid and imaginative. She is able to make something so new and different feel so old and familiar at the same time.
There’s a famous saying, “Always leave them wanting more”. After finishing this collection, I am definitely ready for it.