Keys Are The Key To 'What Is Not Yours' Writer Helen Oyeyemi's new collection features nine stories all linked through the idea of keys that open rooms, doors, even hearts. She says she felt haunted by keys while working on the book.
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Keys Are The Key To 'What Is Not Yours'

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Keys Are The Key To 'What Is Not Yours'

Keys Are The Key To 'What Is Not Yours'

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We are about to hear a key to a writer's mind. Actually, that's sort of a pun. The writer in question is the acclaimed novelist Helen Oyeyemi. She has now written a book of short stories that all have something in common. Every story involves a character who has a key.

HELEN OYEYEMI: There's something about a key in and of itself that's so suggestive, even the shape of it. You can hold a key and just imagine so many different things about it.

INSKEEP: A key opens a door or a chest, some hidden space. Oyeyemi's new book is called "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours." Often enough, her stories wander a little past the edge of realism. And that style is characteristic of this British author. She is world traveler who was born in Nigeria, has lived in Eastern Europe, is now at the University of Kentucky and who fell in love with keys while in Egypt. She went with a friend to look through the markets of Cairo.

OYEYEMI: We were wandering around these bazaars, and they all had swords and keys. As souvenirs, keys are probably more portable (laughter) so I just collected - I collected keys.

INSKEEP: You don't get stopped at the airport metal detector.

OYEYEMI: Yeah, you know, with questions about your intentions. Yeah, so it was - it was better to carry these keys away with me and think about them.

INSKEEP: But help me out here because throughout these stories, people have keys around their necks. They're unlocking doors and so forth. But you were talking about a key as if it's almost as dangerous as if you'd bought the sword in that Cairo bazaar.

OYEYEMI: Yes. There is a strange way in which that is true. I think that keys can cut. It divides property. It separates what is yours from what is not yours. The key defends what you have, but it also protects other people's property from you.

INSKEEP: Well, I want people to know there are bits of traditional storytelling in here. The first words in the book I believe are once upon a time.


INSKEEP: But I don't want to say that these are in any way traditional stories. I feel that what happens is you have a young woman, she's an orphan. She's got a key around her neck. And so you're...


INSKEEP: ...Sort of understanding her life as a very modest laundress. But then a door is open to the studio of an artist. And all of a sudden, we're with the artist. And we move from character to character almost as if when I'm conducting Internet searches. You know, you're looking for one thing and then there's a link to something else. And that plunges you into something else, and you don't even know how you got ultimately to whatever you're reading.

OYEYEMI: Yes, I think that is the interference of keys right there. And trying to write a story about keys, you find yourself unable to write about the key directly. But you sort of make all of the leaps that a key makes. You sort of tumble.

INSKEEP: Does this happen in your life?

OYEYEMI: I think - I think it's the way my mind works. I used to be sad about it, but now I just embrace it (laughter).

INSKEEP: There's a particular passage I wonder if I could get you to read. It's in one of the short stories in this book. Sorry Doesn't Sweeten Her Tea is the name of the story. You describe a character who is in a big house, lots of rooms.

OYEYEMI: Oh, the house of locks, yes.

INSKEEP: Yes, the house of locks, there we go. And would you just read this passage that gives a sense of what it's like to be standing there in the house of locks?

OYEYEMI: I'd love to. (Reading) Nothing has actually happened to me in there - not yet anyway. But every time I go into that bloody house, there's a risk of coming out crazy because of the doors. They don't stay closed unless they're locked. Once you've done that, you hear sounds behind them, sounds that convince you've locked someone in. But when you leave these doors unlocked, they swing halfway out the door frame so that you can't see all the way into the next room. And it's just as if somebody's standing behind the door and holding it like that on purpose.

INSKEEP: There's something hidden no matter what you do.

OYEYEMI: Yeah. I was thinking about how I try to write about hidden things but also try and draw close to them without revealing them because there's something about actually revealing them that diminishes them, I think.

INSKEEP: Have you had a personal experience that was like standing there in the house of locks in some big empty house?

OYEYEMI: No. No, actually. I just imagined it.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

OYEYEMI: Ninety percent of my life is imagined.


INSKEEP: You clearly love fairytales.


INSKEEP: You're going after the sophisticated fiction, but you keep referring back to "Snow White," as you did in a famous novel, or a number of - "Little Red Riding Hood and this book of short stories. What do you do in there?

OYEYEMI: I am trying to find out what endures 'cause these stories are so old and have been retold by so many tellers and in so many different forms. There's a way in which when you retell a story, you're testing what in it is relevant to all times and places. Bits of it hold up and bits of it crumble. And then new perspectives come through. And I like that the fairytale is, like, one of the only stories that can bear the weight of all of that.

INSKEEP: Did you read stories like "Snow White" when you were a little kid?

OYEYEMI: I did, and I was so uninterested in them.

INSKEEP: So you're an adult convert to the power of the fairytale.

OYEYEMI: That's right. I don't think that - I don't think - I actually don't think they're for kids.

INSKEEP: What were you reading when you were a kid?

OYEYEMI: I was reading lots of orphaned girl stories - so "Anne Of Green Gables" - what else? Oh, "Narnia" stories, "Peter Pan." And I was also very interested in stories about process. So, like, I don't even particularly like horses that much, but stories about girls learning to ride horses or, like, ballet stories. And I was never interested in the bit where they became amazing and everyone was like you're so amazing. It was the falling and getting up and falling and getting up and what changed between each fall and each rise that was most interesting to me. Like, that was the story. That was the real story for me.

INSKEEP: Did that speak to something you were going through in your own life?

OYEYEMI: I think the things that I go through in my own life are the books that I read. I am so - I am so in my head that that's the - I feel like everything that's happened to me has happened in a book. So I don't know what life I have had.

INSKEEP: Well, this is interesting to think about. Are books more real then - I don't know - the smell of the bluegrass in Kentucky or the airplane that you were on or whatever?

OYEYEMI: I think everything is equally real. I think that's that's part of my (unintelligible) and just say everything is real. It's just a question of different categories of reality, I guess, and not giving one greater precedence than the other.

INSKEEP: Helen Oyeyemi is the author of the book of short stories "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours." Thanks very much.

OYEYEMI: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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