"I read The Opposite House with rare happiness. The voice in it is so sure, the risk it takes is so good and the intelligence in it is a sheer relief."
—Ali Smith, author of The Accidental
Maja Carmen Carrerra was only five years old when her family emigrated to London. Growing up, she speaks the Spanish of her native land and the English of her adopted country, but longs for a connection to her African roots. Now in her early twenties, Maja is haunted by thoughts of Cuba and the desire to make sense of the threads of her history. Maja's mother has found comfort in Santeria—a faith that melds Catholic saints and the Yoruba gods of West African religion. Her involvement with Santeria, however, divides the family as Maja's father rails against his wife's superstitions and the lost dreams of the Castro revolution.
Maja's narrative is one of two parallel voices in Oyeyemi's beautifully wrought novel. Yemaya Saramagua speaks from the other side of the reality wall—in the Somewherehouse, which has two doors, one opening to London, the other to Lagos. A Yoruban goddess, Yemaya, is troubled by the ease with which her fellow gods have disguised themselves as saints and reappeared under different names and faces.
As Maja and Yemaya move closer to understanding themselves, they realize that the journey to discovering where home truly lies is at once painful and exhilarating.
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H elen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels, most recently White Is for Witching, which won a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award, and Mr. Fox, which won a 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. In 2013, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. She lives in Prague.
TELLING IT SLANT
Sometimes a child with wise eyes is born.
Then some people will call that child an old soul.
That is enough to make God laugh. For instance there is Yemaya Saramagua, who lives in the somewherehouse.
A somewherehouse is a brittle tower of worn brick and cedar wood, its roof cradled in a net of brushwood. Around it is a hush, the wrong quiet of woods when the birds are afraid. The somewherehouse is four floors tall. The attic is a friendly crawl of linked rooms, aglister with brilliant mirrors propped against walls and window ledges. On the second floor, rooms and rooms and rooms, some so tiny, pale and clean that they are no more than fancies, sugar–cubed afterthoughts stacked behind doorways. Below is a basement pillared with stone. Spiders zigzag their gluey webs all over the chairs. The basement's back wall holds two doors. One door takes Yemaya straight out into London and the ragged hum of a city after dark. The other door opens out onto the striped flag and cooking–smell cheer of that tattered jester, Lagos—always, this door leads to a place that is floridly day.
The Kayodes live on the third floor, in three large rooms crisscrossed with melancholic skipping ropes of gauze. All day and all night they mutter, only to one another, and only in Yoruba. The smallest of the Kayodes is a boy with eyes like silver coins. For hair he wears a fuzzy cap of skull–shaped film. He is so old that he walks about on tiptoes, his ragged heels doubtful of bearing his weight unshattered.
The second Kayode is asleep most of the time. Her braids are woven into a downy coronet. From the arms of a rocking chair by the furthermost window, the sleeping woman traces out her dreams on vellum. Kayode allows the sheets of paper to skate off her lap and meet the floor as she finishes each drawing; the figures in her dreams are dressed in witch–light. The third Kayode is tall, thickset and bushy–headed; his silhouette cuts the shape of a round–headed meat cleaver. His eyes, black disks cast with a rising glitter, unsettle with a glance.
When Yemaya, or Aya, came to the somewherehouse, her battered trunk full of beads and clothes came too. Her bottleful of vanilla essence was wrapped up soft in the centre. And the Kayodes were already there. They had called to one another, harsh–tongued, Kayode, Kayode, Kayode, from room to room. But when Aya settled, they took flight and clustered together in their rooms.
If you were to come in through the front door of the somewherehouse, you would walk into the air born in Aya’s pans, the condensed aroma of yams and plantains shallow–fried in palm oil, or home–smoked cod, its skin stiffened in salt and chilli. The smell clings to the rough blue carpet underfoot, drifts over the holes worn into it in the corner where the shoes are stacked. The smell ropes and rubs itself against your hair and skin. You turn, and you are only disturbing the motion of this holy smoke before it settles around you again. On Sundays, Aya cooks a feast for four and takes tray after tray upstairs to the Kayodes, plates piled high with yellow rice and beans, slivers of slow–roasted pork and escabeche. The Kayodes will not talk to her; the Kayodes don’t eat, but Aya doesn’t understand about waste.
Aya overflows with ache, or power. When the accent is taken off it, ache describes, in English, bone–deep pain. But otherwise ache is blood...fleeing and returning...red momentum. Ache is, ache is is is, kin to fear—a frayed pause near the end of a thread where the cloth matters too much to fail. The kind of need that takes you across water on nothing but bare feet. Ache is energy, damage, it is constant, in Aya’s mind all the time. She was born that way—powerful, half mad, but quiet about it.
His last name shall be his father’s name.
His second name shall be his grandfather’s name.
His first name shall be a name for his ownself, but unknown to him, all those fathers before his grandfather live in this name. That is something a mother has the power to do to her son. Anyhow I am going to be a terrible mother; my son has raised the alarm. He is desperately pushing my stomach away from him.
On Monday I wake up and spend about an hour in alternation between vomiting and breathless whimpering; with tap water I rinse away far more food than I could have eaten. I am afraid to open my mouth and taste air. Air tastes like grease; air tilts my stomach until it spills yet more. I prop up my legs on the closed toilet seat and lean my head against the sink so that the bathroom is holding me. At some point Aaron comes and ties my hair up in a high knot, rinses my face, gentle, with warm water. For some reason he checks the whites of my eyes. Then he wraps himself around me and hugs me, hugs me. He goes away when I mutter “Go away” and vomit over his shoulder.
On Tuesday I buy a pregnancy test, and two blue windows have me wincing; they tell me my son is coming.
He is coming, yes, out of my inconsistency, my irregular approach to pill popping, which bores me.
He is coming, my son, from an inaccurately remembered chat about the rhythm method in sex education lessons at my Catholic school. The Church doesn’t want the rhythm method to work, of course it doesn’t. Babies, hurray, and so on.
My son. I don’t even know where I got the idea of him from. When I was five I discussed him with Mami, and because I was years away from having a period, she laughed and humoured me, suggested names, until I seemed to forget about it. I didn’t forget about it, I just didn't talk about it. I realised quickly that people would think I was crazy if I seemed too convinced that I was due a son. But I just knew. I fast–forwarded over the process of getting a son
(I had vague ideas about one day having to do something large and bloody, put my eye out, or split my forehead open)
and instead I just had my boy, warm, alive, walking beside me, gaining strength from me. He was full of laughter and he wanted me to be happy and so I was.
My brother Tomás was born when I was nine, and I loved him straightaway, curiously and wholly in my imagination, with the kind of affection that one doesn’t touch for fear of breakage. Because he was a quiet baby and gave my parents less night trouble than I had given them, I watched Tomás for cot death when my parents were asleep. Sometimes Tomás saw me. I wonder what he saw—a big face flitting over him, mouth open for suction, searchlight eyes picking out his breath. I wonder if it seemed I had come to kill him. Babies are not trusting. Tomás mewed at me the first few times I broke sleep to visit him, then he just watched me back, or slept.
Tomás was in no way my son. He designated himself Papi’s son—I think the real reason why Tomás learned to walk was because of his need to keep track of our papi. There are photographs of Tomás determinedly weaving along behind Papi, Papi slowing down and looking back, rapt, at this tiny beauty who places a firm hand on the back of Papi’s knee, gathering the trouser material into a peak in his fingers, not as a restriction but as a reminder. Papi would say to him jocularly, “Tomás, Tomás, T–boy,” but my brother wouldn’t respond to that kind of talk.
They thought Tomás might be autistic, but he wasn’t autistic.
He was just serious. Already he was serious.
Sometimes Papi and Chabella call Tomás “the London baby.”
But before Tomás, when Papi, Chabella and I were in our Hamburg house, I was a sleepwalker. I went to bed with everyone else, fell asleep, tottered in circles around the house and woke up to the sound of early–morning bicycle bells and wheels soft–shooting over paved stone. I woke wherever I had dropped in exhaustion—curled in a ball under the kitchen table with my long nightie dragged down longer and wound around my numb feet.
Mami took the opportunity to ask me if we had rats; she thinks that a house at night is a kingdom of rats. I wasn’t in any position to notice rats. But when I started sleeping normally, I remembered that two silent girls had been there with me when I sleepwalked. They never let me go outside, never let me take down the bolts Chabella so fastidiously fastened every night. The girls detained me with their small, fuzzy selves, embraces, smiles, their scent; we played hide–and–seek, but they were always easy to find because they smelled of Chabella. They were completely bald, heads smooth and deep brown, small–boned faces with eye sockets like vast copper settings for their frozen amber eyes. They saw me and their pupils dilated as if darkness had just fallen, as if I was their endarkenment.
Often the girls were wet, their clothes soaked through even when the weather outside was dry. I communicated to them about my son. I can't remember who told what to whom. But I never said anything to my mami about the girls—she would have had me exorcised or something. She keeps saying that when it came to being born, I was a difficult one to persuade. She miscarried twice, early in each pregnancy. When she told me about her miscarriages, I felt accused.
I said, “It’s not my fault,” and Chabella shrugged.
I don’t know how long my son has been around, but I have been eating crap. Now the boy needs seeds and fresh fruit and oily fish and folic acid and carefulness and stuff. So I am disturbed when Chabella, my mami, brings me a plastic bucketful of pineapples and half–ripe mangoes and unripe papaya. I don’t want to tell Chabella anything, but I think she Knows something, and I sit as far away from her as possible so she can’t smell me. Chabella asks after Aaron, whom she loves and calls her moquenquen, her pikin, her heart child. Of Aaron Chabella says, “So handsome! And, praise God, he doesn’t know it.”
Aaron knows that one of Mami’s favourite singers is Melanie Safka. He bothers with Woodstock singing more than Papi or I or Tomás do; he gets the way that the singing never moves beyond the conversational, the way the music escapes through a percussion–tiled back door into a cry of care that is meant to find a softer sigh as answer. Like Mami, who listened before she knew what the words meant, he knows exactly when the lift in voice is going to happen and breathes out, ah, when it does.
To Chabella Aaron never forgets to murmur, “You're beautiful people...you look like a friend of mine...”
Chabella says, “You.” She smiles like a sun brought down.
He tells her, “Don't let it get to your head."
But on this visit, Chabella just sits there and eyes me and drowns seven tablespoons of sweetener in milky tea. And she criticizes discusses my hair, which is now inexplicably seeping oil from beneath the bands and clips I've held it up with.
I have such a head of hair that Chabella had to put aside twice the time she needed for her own hair to sit down and grapple with mine. In Chabella's hands, my hair seemed tall, thick and mysterious; her fingers got lost in it as she struggled to relocate partings she'd made seconds before. I know that my friends from my sleepwalking days have something to do with all the hair I have.
And it was my hair that told me on Monday evening that something different was happening in my body. As I sectioned my hair and seized strands from the root to wrap them in cotton thread, my hair told me, No. It came away in my hands in soupspoon curls. My hair has never had anything come between it and my system before. Mami never let me have my hair relaxed--the smell of hair chemicals makes her ill. While this is probably true, her reasons are also political.
Sugar makes Chabella sick, too; she doesn’t even want to have a look at it. It has to do with the year Castro called for Cubans to harvest ten million tons of sugarcane to pay off Cuba’s debt to Russia. Papi's memories of that time are brief because they are bright—Papi, who knew just as little as Chabella does about sugarcane farming, cheerfully tried to fulfil his quota, whistling, his tongue shifting coca leaves around his mouth while he worked.
Chabella is much younger than him, so she wasn’t there in the fields. But she has stories from her aunts who struggled amongst the leaves and cut themselves on sharp stubs left from poorly harvested cane. Sugar makes Chabella cry. She hints at other memories, other sugar horrors, ancestral. Since Chabella only bakes with sweeteners, Papi sometimes complains that the texture of her cucuruchos is different from that of the ones his mother used to make. But he doesn’t complain too loudly or persistently.
From Chabella I've learnt how to fight anyone, man or woman, whilst sitting down completely still. It's all in the quality, not the quantity, of the tears; the soundless shudder as if the water comes from a deep place lined with rocks. When Mami gets sick, she cries like that, and the threat of that was enough for me not to bother with hair relaxers.
Chabella tried to teach me Gelassenheit—the longing to let go and collapse under holy madness...long before I read anything by Hans Denck. I drank Gelassenheit in by the litre at the kitchen table, where I sat on Mami’s lap and watched her twist rice paper into graceful shapes whose petals were melded together with fine honey. The prayer flowers were ships built to sail nowhere—set aflame they unreeled a bitter scent and carried the tiny pleas scribbled on their petals only as far as the limits of the glass bowl before they died.
Mami recited letters to me; they were from friends she had grown up with, friends who had spread out to Granma, Camaguey and Holguin. There were letters from her cousins in Villa Clara and Pinar del Rio, photographs and notes from her sister in Matanzas reminding her how lucky she was to be abroad, how lucky, querida, beloved, not to have to constantly pit yourself against la lucha, that struggle for life! The tone of the letters wasn’t envious, only kind. There news was that people were getting married, being born, people eloping with lovers to Santiago de Cuba and getting caught and told off and given family blessings. People were winning street-wide cooking contests for the best ropa vieja, people were ripping off hapless tourists. As Mami spoke her alien litany to me, she depressed the centres of each flower with a deft thumb so that each one could host a fire in its heart. Each petal read:
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