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What does it mean to be an immigrant? And what if the country of your ancestors isn’t the country of your childhood? How many times must you be removed from a place before you can no longer call it home? In Helen Oyeyemi’s The Opposite House, these questions gnaw at Maja, a 25-year-old black Cuban who moved to London when she was 7, the age “beyond which it is impossible to lift a child from the pervading marinade of an original country, pat them down with a paper napkin and then deep-fry them in another country, another language like hot oil scalding the first language away.” Maja is pregnant with her white Ghanaian boyfriend’s son—or at least she senses a son. Oyeyemi’s characters, as the reader discovers early on, exist on the periphery of the physical world; Maja puts more stock in abstract sensation and spiritual suggestion than baby books and ultrasounds. As her pregnancy progresses, Maja begins to lose her already weak grip on her past in Cuba, and her “hysteric”—a facet of her personality that encourages dramatic, and perhaps dangerous, overreaction—begins to take hold. Though her parents—her most direct link to her Cuban childhood—also live in London, neither of them are eager to reflect on the country they left behind. As Maja struggles to connect to her elusive past, she finds that she can’t look to her mother, a devout follower of Santeria, or her father, a judicious academic who is intensely bitter that, under Castro, his homeland has become oppressive and hostile. Maja’s story is interspersed with surrealistic vignettes narrated by Yemaya Saramagua, a Santerian goddess incarnate who lives in the “somewherehouse”—a place with one basement door opening to London and the other to Lagos. The connection between Maja and Yemaya remains ambiguous, but it is clear that both Maja and Yemaya suffer, physically and mentally, from displacement. Yemaya seems to exist in limbo as a deity without a homeland—she waits, “trusting home to find her”—and Oyeyemi deftly uses this uncertainty to inform Maja’s personal identity crisis: It comes as no surprise that Maja can barely function as she struggles, rootless, with one foot in Havana and the other in London. The Opposite House takes its name from an Emily Dickinson poem, and Oyeyemi’s writing is often poetic. Oyeyemi describes Maja’s longing for Cuba as a need for a place that induces “that strange, safe Old Testament feeling…peace in the centre of a locust swarm. The sting that catches you before you have a name for it.” Other parts of the novel smack of magical realism, but in modern-day London these characters watch Vertigo on repeat and have younger brothers who listen to N.W.A. And though Maja is pregnant—a condition that often leads to precious prose—there is no hint of sentimentality here: The underlying tone of the novel is disarmingly sinister, and it’s hinted that Maja’s pregnancy may be the cause of her descent into madness. Oyeyemi is a young writer—she published her first novel, 2005’s The Icarus Girl, before she graduated from Cambridge—but she’s established a wonderfully distinct style that’s both elliptical and sensitive. She successfully ignores the common trope of the immigrant as a simple stranger lost in a strange land and instead depicts displacement as an internalized condition with complex—and possibly grave—mental implications.
Oyeyemi reads Wednesday, June 20, 7 p.m. at Olsson’s Books and Records, 418 7th St. NW; for more information, call (202) 638-7610.