Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours

It’s almost a shame I loved Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Yours is Not Yours so much: I devoured it in an evening and a morning, so quickly that it barely had time to make an impression on my memory.

It’s a collection of magic realist short stories, though that description is far too limiting. In one story, “Sorry Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea”, a family falls apart as one of their daughters’ idols, a famous pop star, is revealed to be a misogynist abuser. In another, “Is Your Blood as Red as This?”, puppets come alive, possessing or being possessed by their puppeteers in a confusion of theatre. Here there be fairytales, SFnal grief simulators, hotels you can never leave, feminist student societies, lesbian conwomen, haunted houses and brilliant libraries: a profusion of wonders. And as we read it becomes ever clearer that these stories are linked: we meet characters again and again in the backgrounds of each other’s stories, we find recurring motifs (a key, a book, a rose).

The stories are non-traditional. That is, they are often inconclusive or discursive – they offer no neat ending, or they begin as the story of one thing and end as the story of something else. Or they offer a series of narratives, none of them ended or begun as we expect. Together with the recurring characters, that makes the experience of reading What is Not Yours is Not Yours one not of (conventional) narrative but of imaginative space or potential. We are reading about an extended community, living lives that are full of wonder and that exist outside the confines of traditional narrative.

This feels like a literature of resistance. It’s right there in the title of the collection; and the characters who people it are LGBTQIA+, they are people of colour, they are women, they are disabled, they are almost anything but white, straight and male. Oyeyemi is confrontational about this: she allows us to assume, for a few pages perhaps, that we are reading white straight characters, before she slides in a detail that wrong-foots us, that shows us exactly where our biases lie. There’s something a little uncomfortable about using minority identities in this way, as plot “twists” rather than people (and, in fact, this discomfort reminds me of the end of Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, its unexpected transphobia marring an otherwise achingly perfect fable about race and misogyny); but the technique does weave fractured seams of resistance through the text. The stories resist traditional Western narrative – with all its assumptions about whose narratives are worth telling, about the shapes that “successful” lives take – just as the members of the community they describe resist, with varying degrees of success, the pressures of conventional Western society.

What is Not Yours is Not Yours is a lovely book, rich and polyphonous and diverse; it has its problems, but it’s also exactly the kind of fiction I want to see more of right now, fiction that can imagine new ways of living. And, c’mon. Look at that cover!

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