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We Talked to Author Helen Oyeyemi About Lost Keys, Nomadic Life, and Her Latest Book

Broadly speaks with prolific author Helen Oyeyemi about her new short story collection, 'What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours.' Despite publishing her seventh book, Oyeyemi insists she's "still very much learning on the job."

by Lauren Oyler
Mar 24 2016, 12:00am

This article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

In January, the notoriously nomadic novelist Helen Oyeyemi moved to Lexington, Kentucky, for a residency at the university there. "I find it quite hard for the place I'm physically in to make a dent on my mind," she told me by phone. "It might actually be because I read so much that I'm already in other places, so it's just a difficulty in even knowing where I am at any given time."

Oyeyemi's first book of short stories, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, will be published by Riverhead this month. The collection's stories revolve around the theme of keys. Although the essence of a key seems fixed, defined by a singular purpose, it's as elusive as locations are in Oyeyemi's mind. "They have this power. They almost seem to have a will to circulate. You're always losing them and finding them, and I think it's a good way of talking about realms and things we think that we have control of."

For Oyeyemi, the same is true of the written word. Her book proposal started with a line she thought came from one of her favorite books, Kornel Esti by the Hungarian writer Dezsö Kosztolányi: "There's something I must tell you all, and it's something about keys." When she went back to find the quote, it wasn't there.

"I was like, the line got lost!" she said. "I reread the entire book looking for this line. That's when I knew that I would have a lot of trouble with keys."

Oyeyemi said she thinks slowly but writes fast, which explains how she's on her seventh book at age 31. Whether this, along with the constant moves and interest in keys, signifies a personal quest, the answer may be both yes and no. "I'm not convinced that I know how to write," she said. "When it comes to writing, I'm still very much learning on the job, which is OK."

A longer version of this interview appears on Broadly.

This article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.