"The Opposite House": An exclusive extract from the new novel by Helen Oyeyemi.

Dominique and I were good friends until we lost interest in each other. We had only really been friends because she lived two doors away. Then she moved, and nothing. Chabella was disappointed in us both: "You're black girls, as good as sisters!"

Chabella made me phone Dominique a couple of times. I wasn't allowed to mention that I had phoned against my will. Dominique phoned me a couple of times as well. It was excruciating for us both, and then we were allowed to stop. Even after I stopped, it was awkward for a little bit.

Dominique was in my class from primary school right up until we left sixth form for university. Either I had never looked at her properly, or her face receded beneath the swathes of her hair until I forgot it.

Dominique is from Trinidad and she had beautiful hair, soft and thick, which her mother, like mine, banned her from straightening and helped her comb out into a fan. People teased her about it all the time and called her "picky head". Dominique took the name calmly, without offering any insults of her own, which I couldn't understand. But then some people give off a strange sense of preoccupation, as if there is something in their lives so important to them that they have to keep it silent, and close. And to keep this thing close, they make sacrifices.

Of course, Mami loved Dominique's hair. And she loved Dominique, who ate everything Mami served at dinner with genuine relish. Dominique tried to teach me some of her sunny, rolling patois. I couldn't pick it up, but I offered to teach her Spanish. She said, "No thanks."

Dominique's mum, Cedelka, was a cleaner; she became good friends with Chabella, and her stories about the everyday filthiness of the people she cleaned for racked Mami with guilt. Their conversations always ended with Cedelka assuring Chabella that Chabella worked just as hard as she did, taking care of her family and doing "all that language stuff", and Chabella rhapsodising on Cedelka's natural wisdom.

Cedelka wore dreadlocks and she was all soulful eyes and beautiful lips. When I played or ate dinner at Dominique's, or when Cedelka came to collect Dominique from my house, she would reveal an instinct for freezing gracefully, a way of turning her face to the light when she stepped outside.

I always knew when Chabella had been talking to Dominique's mum because she would start to mutter, "I don't work hard enough, I'm not useful, all this paper and scribbling is making me soft." Chabella would take out her sponges and scrubbers and bleach and get on her hands and knees to clean the kitchen and bathroom from corner to corner. Papi didn't like that. He especially hated it if I helped her, which I did to stop her from crying. "I don't want to see my wife scrubbing away like that," he would say. "I write textbooks! Chabella, use a mop, or we'll get a cleaner. And please, my daughter is not your assistant. Maja, go and have a bath and read a book or something."

"Get a cleaner! And you just equated this hypothetical cleaning woman with a mop!" Chabella's eyes filled with tears.

Papi kissed her, sweat and soap suds and all. "I was joking. Forget it."

He didn't know that mostly the cleaning was fun once we'd started; it was only the idea of it that made me sigh and drag my feet. We were never very thorough and it was more like play-acting, down on the floor with soapy rags and cleaner rags on our heads as we mimed to the Supremes and the Drifters and Melanie Safka's "Brand New Key".

Cedelka said to me, half-jokingly, "Please don't try and teach my daughter Spanish! Black people ain't meant to speak Spanish!"

"Black people ain't meant to speak English, neither, then. Or French Creole," I said, using exactly the same tone.

Cedelka swatted at my head. "You must get that big brain from your big-brain parents."


I remembered what Cedelka said when I was in Year 9, when the most popular girls in my and Amy Eleni's form were those with African parents; girls with perfectly straightened hair and mellow gospel voices that changed the sound of the sung school Mass; girls who had (or pretended to have) Igbo, Ewe, Yoruba, Chiga, Ganda, Swahili. They built a kind of slang that was composed of slightly anglicised words borrowed from their pool of languages. The code sounded impossibly cool if you had the right turn of the tongue for it, which I didn't, although some of the white girls did. Lucy, who started up the slang, was Ugandan; she had a pretty heart-shaped face and a rabidly intent method of marking her netball opponent.

At school, a lot of the other girls brought flags out on their countries' independence days. With permission from the teachers, they tied them around their upper arms or waists and tied their hair up with ribbons in their flags' colours. On Nigerian Independence Day, one girl did a special assembly on her country and passed around an overwhelming amount of fried Nigerian snacks. Amy Eleni and I were at the back. Amy Eleni put her hand up and said, "Can I just ask you what you think of this idea: if your parents taught you to be so proud of Nigeria, how come they're over here?"

The girl stammered and fiddled with her tie-dyed head wrap. People started hissing disagreement with Amy Eleni. Amy Eleni and I hissed back. Isn't living in your country the best way to show that you think it worthy of love? You choose to live in a country because there's something there that makes it better than anywhere else. You set your daily life down regardless of the restrictive conditions. It's the same sort of thing Clarence talks about in True Romance - he says real love is remaining loyal when it's easier, even excusable, not to.

The talk about Nigerian independence continued. Amy Eleni sighed and wrote a long note in small letters on her hand. The note was so long that she had to take my hand to write on, too, and we could only read her note to me by placing our Biro-splotched palms alongside each other. The note said:


You know what, if you want to talk about your original country, if you want to be serious about it, fine. But you don't need to pretend that you love the place. People need to stop using love of some country that they don't live in as an excuse for their inability to shut up about it.

We kept the note on our hands all day, smiling enigmatically and turning our hands palms-down when other girls wheedled, "Let me see."

Dominique was at home sick the day Lucy came up to me at registration, peeped at me through heavy lashes and said, "You know, a lot of the others have been saying that, out of you and Dominique, we like you better. You're all right. You're roots."

I must have seemed stupid to her. I said, "Huh?" I thought a black girl was a black girl. Why did it come down to a choice between me and Dominique, and not any of the other girls? Then I got it; we were both black without coming from the right place. We were the slave girls from Trinidad and Cuba; not supposed to speak Spanish, not supposed to speak English either. I wanted to curse Lucy Cuban-style, but I was afraid she'd understand; she was predicted an A star for GCSE Spanish.


Tonight I am singing a set at a café whose poetry-night theme is "Solitude". They've asked me to start with my three least-favourite songs: "In My Solitude", "Black Coffee" and "Misty Blue". When Michael from the band called to tell me about it last week, he anticipated my response, chanting "Oh, whine, whine, whine" along with me. "Don't worry about it - next week it's Ronnie Scott's, with our own songs . . ."

I hastily assemble my things so that they're in the general vicinity of the full-length bedroom mirror - make-up bag, a selection of black stiletto heels, armfuls of dresses on hangers, hair tongs tangled in their own plug lead, sheer tights that are to the best of my knowledge unladdered. My boyfriend Aaron's side of our dresser is analytically tidy: a small city of glass-bottled gift colognes and sable-backed hairbrushes, mostly unused, alongside a depleted bundle of the tough, dried-wood chewing sticks he swears by - my teeth ache just looking at them. The only things on his bedside table are a water glass and a photograph of him and his best friend, aged ten. In the picture Geoffrey is cola-dark, with astonishing, vine-like sideburns. Aaron is defiantly pale and chubby-cheeked; his hair is slicked into some attempt at a Jheri curl. They both have carelessly gappy smiles; they stand together in a heaving Accra sidestreet swept with umber dust, against a battered blue backdrop that says "PepsiCo".

I have yet to meet Geoffrey, who still lives in Accra. But the fact that Aaron always refers to him as "Geoffrey", never "Geoff" or "G", makes me think of him as diffident and kind and slightly stuffy. A boy who felt the pressure of being a cabinet minister's son and tried his best to behave himself, growing up into the kind of man who rolls his English around in his mouth as plummily as he can.

I strip to my underwear and study myself in the mirror; it is a bronzed sorrel woman with a net of curly hair who looks back, and she does not look Jamaican or Ghanaian or Kenyan or Sudanese - the only firm thing that is sure is that she is black. Mami says only Cubans look like Cubans; put three Cuban girls together - white, black Latina, whatever - and you just see it. It is as if you could take away my colouring and I would be a white Cubana - a white Cubana not being, after all, particularly white.

My eyes are long rather than wide, meagrely lashed and slanted unhurriedly upwards at their corners. In my blood is a bright chain of trans fusion: Spaniards, West Africans, indigenous Cubans, even the Turkos - the Cuban Lebanese. My shape is that of a slightly distorted heavy pear: slender, Chabella-like shoulders and a gently rising collarbone cast lines that soften and swell past a high waist to what Amy and I refer to as "loot in the boot" - hips that escape spread fingerspans - then the line returns.

I prod my thigh and, standing on one leg, run my hand down my calf. I sink to the floor, sink to the middle of this slew of things that are supposed to tease out, bejewel, enhance, improve on what I have. I coat my hands with cocoa butter and slowly, slowly start to reconcile myself with my skin, inch by inch. I am scared to touch my stomach, not because it is tender, but because it has begun to swell beyond the point where it can be comfortably rubbed with one hand. If I cup it with both hands, the bump might rise to the space I allow it.

When Amy Eleni calls I am fiddling, trying to adjust the V-neck of my black dress so that it falls away from my shoulders and skims the arms left bare by my sleeveless polo neck.

"Hey, Maja. I'm coming to hear you sing to night after all," she says.

"Good. How's Jenny?"

"I don't know; we broke up."


"That's all you're getting on the phone. What of Aaron?"

"He's . . . tired a lot, and out a lot."

"Can I place the first bet on when he's going to pack the trainee-doctor thing in?"

"Come on, Amy Eleni."

"No, you come on. It's not like he needs to work. His dad is like, ker-ching."

Before I can object, she asks, "What's tonight's theme?"

"Of make-up, or the café?"

"Both -"

I tell her: make-up, purple; café, solitude.


Amy Eleni teaches A-level English language and literature; she has nothing but murder in her heart for amateur poets. She keeps telling me that most of them don't read anyone's poetry but their own, and that's why they always think they're doing something new, and why it's always so appallingly not. I keep telling her that the people in her class are seventeen and eighteen and that she should give them a break. I remind her of her own amateur poetry at seventeen and eighteen and am told, "Shut up! My poetry was never amateur!"

I hold my tights up to the light. They are laddered after all, and I have to hang up and look for another pair. Mami slips into the room with good-luck kisses for me and an opalescent white gardenia on a coiled green stalk. Before I can thank her, she starts jabbing at my polo neck:

"What is this? Why are you wearing this? It's such a lovely dress, and you're spoiling it -"

I am just trying to protect my throat. Before I realise what I'm doing I have taken her hands and pushed them back at her hard, too hard; she stumbles and laughs, astonished. I catch myself and take the flower from her.

"Chabella," I say, "I can't wear this . . ."

Mami throws up her hands. "Your brother chose it. I told him it was ugly."

Tomás, a pencil behind his ear, comes to look at me. "What's wrong with it? Billie Holiday used to wear one, didn't she? I thought you liked her? Are you off her now?"

I try to put the corsage box back into Mami's hand, but she skips away, giggling.

"It's just that, you know, she's . . . I can't explain. She's . . . well, it's just not right to wear her flower. And this is not a big-deal occasion. Even if it was a big-deal occasion, it still wouldn't be right to wear her flower."

Tomás rolls his eyes and withdraws. Mami stamps her foot. "Am I a bad mother?" she demands.


"I said, am I a bad mother? Didn't I always tell you how beautiful you are and what a good singer you are? Who is Billie Holiday, anyway?"

"Mami! She's -"

"Yes, I know. Anyway, you're better at singing than she is. She just growls. And you're better-looking, too, even if you spoil your dresses with strange tops. So put that flower on."

I turn to the mirror and comb my hair into an upsweep so that I can clasp it, but Chabella dives at me with the gardenia and fixes it at the back of my head with a hairclip. She puts her hands on my shoulders, her face a little behind mine, and looks at us in the mirror. We smile.

"When are you going to make up with Papi?" I ask. I have to ask while her gaze is on me.

"Is my altar back yet?" she asks. It is not a rhetorical question; she is not being stubborn, she looks so hopeful. And that's worse. I close my eyes because I had not expected to be taken by this feeling of steam, angry like a new player in a game where someone has suddenly changed the rules.


The wood-panelled café is low-lit and arranged like a Fifties speakeasy, with tables ranged in concentric circles around a makeshift stage with a microphone stand. Chabella's pretty hair is driven back with minuscule black pins so that it tickles her shoulders from high up, like a long feather. She clasps her hands and looks around, enraptured.

"They'll have a spotlight on you, and you'll look like a princess, except for that purple lipstick," she tells me.

Having blown Amy Eleni kisses and pointed out to Chabella those seats that I consider safe for her to sit in, I am the last of our band to arrive in the boxroom behind the café. Michael is there, tense as ever, waiting with one arm curled around his propped-up saxophone, drinking water in tight swallows that don't even wet his lips. When he sees me, he nods and smiles, but I know he's only pleased to see me because now we can start our sound check. Maxwell, dreadlocks swaying in the rush of their own weight, body bumps me, and Sophie, our tall, prettily spoken cellist, gracefully offers her cheek to be kissed. She is from Senegal, and she is, just as Maxwell (who has been trying to ask her out for six months) says, sexy like chocolate.

When we go out to warm up on the stage, I am happier than I thought I'd be, my foot tapping as Maxwell's taps, but it's always that way when I allow the song to come to me without question. Maxwell's face is serene as he drums, never airless, never strained. He beats time for himself and Sophie - and for Michael, who sways as his fingers ride his saxophone's polished stops. They are letting me take my own time, letting me fall in after them, but they know that I'm with them.

Really it's Michael's band; he cares most, he's the one who calls for all-day rehearsals, he's the one who helps us to understand where we've gone wrong when we fail to move together. I joined the band mainly because, after graduating, everyone became anxious that I should find something to do. Papi handed me weekly sheaves of job listings and told me to "start my life". Tomás said, "It's cool that you're home, but you're disturbing my growth." I kept beating him at Nintendo; he didn't like it, I knew. Chabella found me a post as an assistant librarian - one of her friends ran the local library. That roused me in a way that Papi and Tomás had been unable to. I screamed at Mami, "A books job! Chabella, are you mad?"

Amy Eleni came by with some cassettes for me: Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. With no real interest in the answer, I asked her how her teacher training was going. With no real interest in answering, Amy Eleni shrugged and said, "It's going." I wanted to defer the future indefinitely, and I sort of wished that Amy Eleni would, too. But I listened to the cassettes. And I started singing in a way that I hadn't before, a kind of singing that made Mami and Tomás say, "Waaah, didn't know you could do that!" though Papi said nothing.

I sang to Amy Eleni. She didn't say "Waaah", but she came back with a bunch of ads put out by instrumental groups who wanted singers. I auditioned for Michael's because his ad was the shortest and the least demanding. He wanted someone to do standards, no particular look or age, and he'd added, "No divas."

Michael didn't seem impressed at any point during the audition, but I thought maybe he'd taken me on because he did an internal "Waaah" at my voice. When we were better friends he told me I was the only one who'd showed up for his auditions. He said, "I suppose I offended all the divas."

Standing discreetly near the back, the café's owner watches us with her fingers in her mouth - her eyes are boiling-water blue and she looks as if she might snap if she's not hearing good sounds. But I'm not ready to try my voice yet; we just test the microphones for static, and I follow the pieced strands of song that Maxwell and Sophie and Michael carelessly let swirl.

Amy Eleni, now contemplatively smoking a cigarette in a silvered holder, has seized Mami and they're both sitting behind glasses of Bacardi and Coke

(Mami smiles a small and unforgiving smile if I ever refer to the mixture as a "Cuba Libre")

their backs are to the other seats, which are filling with sprawled legs and talk. They're sitting at the table that falls directly under my gaze. Amy Eleni is wearing purple-tinted shades. Chabella waves and smiles at me; I shake my head sorrowfully at Chabella because this is not one of the tables I told her she could sit at. Amy Eleni is wearing a black hat identical to mine over her smooth, shiny blonde bob. She is swathed from top to toe in black. She is wearing red stilettos, and jiggling her feet with impatience under the table.

I am certain that Amy Eleni's students fear her. It's not just that her expression constantly suggests that she's about to say something extremely harsh. She wears mirrored sunglasses indoors as often as she can get away with it, walks with her shoulders, and snaps her fingers when things aren't happening fast enough for her. But she doesn't look like a woman at all; she has all the angular, callous, radiant and uncompromising beauty of a girl who has only just grown into her body and barely has an understanding of what has happened. Her eyes are bright and keen and worrying.

When we were seventeen, she told me that she was gay. I was nonplussed; I kept expecting her to say "jokes". I thought she hadn't had boyfriends and never confessed to crushes because she had yet to meet a boy brave enough to take her on. I asked her if she was sure, because I hadn't noticed any struggle inside her, any extra-special looks levelled at girls, or any of the things that lesbians were supposed to do. Amy Eleni was resolutely non-tactile - at our school, friendship was intricately tied in with touch; girls pinged each other's bra straps and poked each other's bellies and crowed "puppy fat!" and flicked their skinnier friends in the taut bands between their ribs. That was affection. Amy Eleni dispensed winks and air-kisses. That was distance.

I pointed out Amy Eleni's no-touching thing as one of the factors that made her not gay. She winced, laughed. "It just means that I don't feel like running around grabbing people. It just means I'm sane," she said.

When I told Chabella, she left her wooden spoon in the stew she was stirring, closed her eyes tight and asked me in a near whisper, "Are you gay as well?"

"I don't think so, Chabella."

"All right, because don't think I don't know that you've been kissing as many boys as you can."

I half-heartedly denied that, but Mami waved me off.

"I am very sorry to hear that Amy Eleni is gay. Her life will be harder than yours, you know."

Chabella gave me a topsy-turvy stone amulet on a piece of clean rope and told me to give it to Amy Eleni. I did, and Amy Eleni said, coldly, "What is this, something to make me straight?"

I told her no. That wasn't Mami's style.

"You're not going to ask me who my first crush was?" Amy Eleni asked me. She was playing with Chabella's amulet. I hastily said, "No, no." Amy Eleni looked at me then, with a soft, auroral reproach that made my heart flip over and made me ashamed of myself and my arrogance and made me want to promise her something that I couldn't and made me think that I'd gone down in her estimation - all these things at once.

Mami had not always liked Amy Eleni; when she became the second girl after Dominique that I bothered to bring home for dinner, Mami was tense that entire first evening. The table was quiet whenever Amy Eleni lifted her fork to her mouth, and Chabella leaned forward a little, as if she wanted to snatch the food out of Amy Eleni's jaws, as if she didn't think Amy Eleni should ever know what a good Cuban stew tasted like. Amy Eleni suspected as much, and to me she seemed more polite than I had ever seen her. Throughout the meal she said "Delicious" in varying tones and volumes. With a grin that admitted that she would listen but not understand, Amy Eleni asked Papi about his work, and she told Tomás all that she could remember about the glory days of WWF wrestling. But when Amy Eleni went home, Chabella stopped me as I was going to bed and said sorrowfully, "You'll learn that the white girl is never your friend. She works to a different system. She only pretends to understand."

I said, "And what about Brigitte?"

Mami said, "Brigitte was my teacher. You know that."

The café is full now; shadow-spotted faces encircle me. I close my eyes, and my Cuba comes, and the band is with me and then it lets me go and I am free.

This is an extract from Helen Oyeyemi's novel "The Opposite House", which will be published on 4 May by Bloomsbury (£12.99)

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis