Samantha Harrington
April 22, 2016

I’ve been trying to find the words for this post for two weeks now. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do Helen Oyeyemi’s collection of stories, What is Not Yours is Not Yours, justice.

The stories are magical, heartbreaking, beautiful, surreal and so real. All at the same time.

Each of Oyeyemi’s characters are as intricate and complicated as the stories themselves. They explore their identity through different nationalities, races and sexual orientations. Yet those categories that we so often use to define people play a secondary role to the individuals themselves.

Helen Oyeyemi. Photo by Manchul Kim.
Helen Oyeyemi. Photo by Manchul Kim.

Though the stories in the collection are very different, they share common themes. Some characters even show up in multiple stories.

The main theme connecting each story is that of keys. Oyeyemi explores all the possibilities and roles and stories that those thumb-sized, grooved pieces of metal contain. Keys manage to be, in the very same moment, both ordinary and extraordinary objects.

We all have a key story.

A key sits on my desk. One day in the summer of 2013, I painted it with sparkly blue nail polish, stuck it into a frame and placed it on my desk. So it’s remained ever since.

There are keys in my pocket and keys in my purse. There are keys I’ve turned in after moving out of places and there are keys I’ve lost forever.

The key on my desk doesn’t open anything, or at least I don’t think it does. It did once, but my guess is the locks have changed since then.

I sometimes think about turning that key in it’s lock and pushing the heavy door open. Inside is laughter, and memories and nutella-peanut-butter-banana, grilled sandwiches.

The memory coats my tongue in tangy, fresh orange juice and scrapes my toes against the sandy floor– the only downside to living near the beach.

I thought of that key while reading the final story in Oyeyemi’s collection: if a book is locked there’s probably a good reason for that don’t you think.


Unlike the other stories in the collection, if a book is locked features you as a character.

In the story, you wind up with the diary of a former co-worker, Eva, in your possession. The book is locked but you think there might be an address inside that will tell you where you can return it. So you open it.

“While you were looking for a pen and paper the diary has been unfolding. Not growing, exactly, but it’s sitting upright on your tabletop and seems to fill or absorb the air around it so that the air turns this way and that, like pages. In fact the book is like a hand and you, your living room, and everything in it are pages being turned this way and that.”

The air fills with chatter, “ It’s mostly men you’re hearing, or at least they sound male. But not all of them. Among the women Eva can be heard shushing herself.”

When you finally find the address and return the book to Eva you assure her that you didn’t read her diary.

“So you still think that’s why I locked it?” Eva responds.

Sometimes we have to lock away our past in order to move forward. Sometimes the memories we lock away are good, sometimes they are bad. Locks aren’t always intended to keep people out. Sometimes they’re intended to keep the past from seeping into who we are today.

This is the magic of Helen Oyeyemi. Each story is a fairy tale. But it’s not all sparkly utopias full of endless gardens of love. Instead, she plays on the magical qualities of reality. She shows the multidimensional ways in which we understand who we are, the moments we live through and the memories we lock away.

Throughout this collection, Oyeyemi proves that fairytales aren’t an escape from reality but rather a lens through which we can understand the broken and confusing parts of life.