What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

Here. Take this key. It might open a house, a heart, a secret.

What links each of these stories in Helen Oyeyemi’s collection is keys: keys that are gifts, threats, invitations, gateways. Keys that haven’t found their locks. Here, as characters slip from the pages of their own stories only to surface in another, you will find vanished libraries and locked gardens, lovers exchanging books and roses, and a city where all the clocks have stopped…

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What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a delightfully magical collection of short stories by Helen Oyeyemi. Her small but richly imagined worlds are captivating, and at the end of every story I was left aching for more.

The sweeping stories in the collection range from magical realism to utter fairy tale, and though they are diverse in terms of setting and narrator, all of Oyeyemi’s characters seem to share a sense of being at a loss, whether it’s the stepfather who seeks to comfort his teenage daughter, grieving after the discovery that her favourite pop star and the erstwhile love of her life, Matyas Furst, is a violent criminal, to Monste and Lucy, two women with nothing in common but the keys they wear around their necks, both of them symbols of a person who promised to return, but, thus far as least, hasn’t.

The collection is like a tangle of threads, with side characters from one story suddenly appearing as the narrator in another. A character we might have perceived as evil in a previous story suddenly pops up elsewhere, totally changed observed by a different pair of eyes. In perhaps my favourite pair of stories “is your blood as red as this? (no)”  and “yes”, we first read the story of trainee puppeteer Radha’s unrequited love followed by what happened next, narrated by Radha’s puppet, Gepetta.

As you’d imagine just because of the form, some of the stories are deeply, and, I think, deliberately, unsatisfying. They seem to end just as it’s getting good, and I was left reading the final pages repeatedly, looking for the resolution Oyeyemi had denied me. The characters almost always left me before I was ready for them to go, and I think it’s a testament to Oyeyemi’s skill that in such a short period of time she had me utterly invested in narrators who often did nothing to ease me into the situation. More often than not the story would start in the middle of the action and it was the job of me, the reader to put the pieces together and catch up from the clues she dropped along the way. Other stories were very and surprisingly cathartic, with baddies getting their comeuppance and some, and centuries-old conflicts ended by one person willing to wave the white flag.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours took me by surprise. As I’ve mentioned before, short stories aren’t always my thing, but these captivated me and I have not stopped recommending them to people.

I have decided I for sure need some more Oyeyemi in my life. Fortunately for me, she’s written plenty for me to choose from.

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Her Body and Other Parties

In her provocative debut, Carmen Maria Machado demolishes the borders between magical realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. Startling stories map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited on their bodies, both in myth and in practice.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the mysterious green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague spreads across the earth. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery about a store’s dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted house guest.

Bodies become inconsequential, humans become monstrous, and anger becomes erotic. A dark, shimmering slice into womanhood, Her Body and other Parties is wicked and exquisite.

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Does anyone else really dread reviewing certain books? Please tell me that it’s not just me.

Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado came to me, like so many of my reads, through the Belletrist book club. I found this genre-bending short story collection challenging, confusing, disturbing and often beautifully expressed.

I would classify the reading experience as: uncomfortable.

This collection of erotic horror fairy tales isn’t made for a passive reading experience. As the title suggests, Machado’s collection is intimately concerned with women’s bodies in their desires, peculiarities and wounds. It isn’t for the faint of heart – or stomach. From the first story, called ‘The Husband’s Stitch’ (if you live in a world where you don’t know the meaning of that term, I can only advise you remain that way and don’t Google it), Machado unflinchingly studies the violence women’s bodies undergo by society, partners and themselves – there is more than one very sensory depiction of squeezing out a puss-ey lesion in this collection. Think Josh Chan’s recent staph infection on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But worse.

Machado uses her collection to engage with the various ways that women’s bodies are under attack. In ‘The Husband’s Stitch’, we see much of the narrator’s life, from meeting her husband and falling in love, to having a child and in turn seeing him grow up. She’s consumed by passed along tales of woe of women who tried to step outside the boundaries of the roles ascribed to them by their gender only to have it all end in disaster, and self-polices her own desires accordingly. She considers her marriage happy – if interspersed with moments in which her husband’s lack of respect becomes clear. Their marriage has only one real conflict. The narrator has worn around her neck for her whole life a green ribbon, and she will not allow her husband to touch it. Though she shares herself with him in every other respect, he cannot get over the fact that he is not allowed to touch this green ribbon. He can’t allow her to be the sole owner of even one single part of herself, and when she finally gives in and allows him possession of the thing she so desperately wished to keep as her own, horror ensues.

In another story, ‘Eight Bites’, a woman has weight loss surgery only to find the removed fat assembles itself into a creature that lives in her house. The creature has no eyes or ears or nose or mouth and when the woman comes into contact with it for the first time, she attacks it – kicking it, stabbing it, ripping it to pieces.

“I find myself wishing she would fight back, but she doesn’t. Instead, she sounds like she is being deflated. A hissing, defeated wheeze.”

This violence against the self – first more ethereal before becoming painfully, flinchingly literal is familiar to us all as we are bombarded everywhere we look of images of the ‘ideal bikini body’, where weight loss isn’t a cause for concern but for praise. I always remember this one time when I went to see a Katherine Ryan stand up show; she spoke about her divorce and how the trauma of it caused her to lose a ton of weight. When she saw herself in the mirror she thought she looked like she had a horrific disease. Everyone else? Well, they complimented her on how great she looked so skinny.

Her Body and Other Parties is a haunting collection of mostly horrifying stories built on the truths of patriarchy. From the episode-by-episode rewrite of Law and Order: SVU – a show which creates entertainment out of sexual violence against women – Machado tells the haunting tale of a detective followed by the ghosts of murdered women, to ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, in which women across the country are becoming incurably incorporeal – the faded women haunt the streets of cities and have themselves sewn into the seams of designer dresses – she tells the disturbing tale of what it is to be a woman in a world in which your body is forever under attack.

Not all books are supposed to be comfortable, and Her Body and Other Parties definitely took me to my limits of self-inflicted anxiety. It’s a strange book that I find difficult to recommend, exactly, but would encourage you to read anyway.

The Opposite of Loneliness

I just finished an English Literature degree. I’m used to reading words by dead people. But so many of the authors I wrote essays on were the kind of famous that makes people stories in themselves, their deaths no more real to me than their fiction.

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I could not fictionalise Marina Keegan. She died in a car accident in 2012, five days after she graduated from Yale University. She was twenty-two. She wrote an essay a few days before that went viral after her death. Seeing her writing touch so many people, her parents and her teachers gathered her best essays and fiction into a book named after that viral essay: The Opposite of Loneliness.

Initially the grief that this book is wrapped in makes it difficult to experience Marina’s writing for what it is. In her essays she mentions the future a lot – as all twenty-two year olds do (I would know) – and it’s jarring.

I’m one of those people who worries about dying a lot. Reading the book made me anxious.

But Marina’s writing is so good, I found myself forgetting about the grief and the death and my own anxieties. I suppose because not many of us get published, I don’t feel that I get to read much in the way of writing by people in their early twenties, like me. Utterly bewildered by life (happy free confused and lonely at the same time), like me. It was kind of like listening to 1989 for the first time and marvelling at how Taylor got dating in your twenties down so perfectly. Actually Marina does too, in Cold Pastoral, a story about a girl whose sort-of-but-not-really-boyfriend passes away, suddenly. She’s faced with grieving for a boy she was considering breaking up with, someone who was kind of boring her until he permanently idealised himself by dying. We all want what we can’t have. I really felt that sense of being a tourist in someone else’s life – the places and customs that glide past you, barely significant to someone who doesn’t plan on staying long.

My favourite of Marina’s essays was Even Artichokes Have Doubts, about how high proportions of Yale students go on to work in the consulting or finance industries. It’s not finance or consulting that are the problem, it’s the dreams that working for them replaces. Rather than starting their non-profit, or making their films or writing their songs, Marina saw the people around her instead signing up to be a part of a machine that served nobody. She saw the world losing out on the gifts her friends could share if they were only brave enough.

And here lies the conundrum of the nearly-graduate art student. Do I commit to my art and work a crappy job, or do I commit to a decent job with decent money that isn’t what I want? I think this quote in Marina’s essay, from Kevin Hicks, former dean of Berkeley College sums the whole argument up pretty perfectly:

“The question is: where do you need to be with yourself such that when the time comes to ‘cast your whole vote’, you’re reasonably confident you’re not being either fear-based or ego-driven in your choice… that the journey you’re on is really yours, and not someone else’s? If you think about your first few jobs after Yale in this way – holistically and in terms of your growth as a person rather than as ladder rungs to a specific material outcome – you’re less likely to wake up at age forty married to a stranger.”

Now that is advice to carry into the future. In the book, Marina mentions a few times that she wants to be a writer. But from what I can tell she already was one. It made me think that perhaps we are already what we want to be, but that in the real, non-university world of 9 to 5 and money and responsibility, we find ourselves forgetting. Re-reading The Opposite of Loneliness will be how I remember, I think.