Fans of short stories have something new to look forward to with the recent release of the latest from author Helen Oyeyemi, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Featuring a variety of stories, each tale shares a common element: the idea of keys, whether the literal kind that opens a door or the mental kind, like the key to a person’s heart. The book has already received a plethora of positive reviews from the likes of The New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune and the Miami Herald. Story titles contained within include “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” “Books and Roses,” “’Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” and “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think.”
But despite now having five novels, two plays, and now a short story collection under her belt, you may not know much about Helen Oyeyemi herself. Or maybe you hadn’t heard of her before today! Either way, we’re here to help, and maybe even inspire you to pick up one of her books. Here are some facts about successful author Helen Oyeyemi.
Oyeyemi was born December 10, 1984, making her 31 years old today. Though born in Nigeria, she spent her youth growing up in Lewisham, South London with her parents; her mother worked for the London Underground (the name for the city’s subway system) and her father served as a substitute teacher. As of early 2014, she lives in Prague, though she has previous taken up residence in Berlin, Canada, Budapest, and France as well.
Helen Oyeyemi’s love of writing came from her love of books. She once said that she would spend most of her free time at the library since books were scarce at home. She specifically cites Little Women by Louisa May Alcott as starting her down the path of a writer; however, it was not from of inspiration. Rather, she had issues with the plot, so she wrote her own ending. From there, she went on to continue writing her own original content and characters.
Determined to write, Oyeyemi worked on her stories even when she had other commitments. She wrote her debut novel, The Icarus Girl, in 2005 while she was still in school and studying for her A-levels (a test in the U.K. that must be passed to graduate secondary school). Her two plays, Juniper’s Whitening and Victimese, were performed and published during her post-secondary education.
Helen Oyeyemi calls herself, “ugly but interesting,” which plays a lot into her work. According to her, she was a frequent target of verbal abuse when she was young, constantly being told she was ugly. While it upset her at first, and she even had suicidal thoughts as a teen, she claimed to eventually stop caring and became “dehumanized” to it, “because they’re all monsters and demons and beasts who are out to kill you, so you become a beast and a monster yourself.”
Oyeyemi’s writing is notable for being rather dark despite usually being about things seen as positive and uplifting. For instance, one of her novels—2014’s Boy, Snow, Bird—is a twisted modern take on the popular fairly tale of Snow White and features racism and physical and sexual violence. The author says that the idea came from realizing that the character Snow White seemed to be way too happy and well-adjusted considering everything she was going through, making it appear as if her attitude was a front to hide her suffering.