What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Riverhead Books, 2017)
Have you ever read a book and felt like the author inserted their stories straight into your mind, and you can’t quite shake them after? That’s how I felt after reading Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection of short stories, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky. I read this book about a month ago now, but the characters and stories still follow (haunt?) me.
The stories are all told from the perspectives of women. Men play key or supporting roles in some of the stories, but relationships between women—mothers and daughters especially—take the main stage here. The culture of Nigeria infuses many of these stories—some as the actual setting, others as familial/cultural ties. Many of the stories also employ magical realism, which adds to the way these stories stick to you. Arimah suspends reality in the details to achieve the big picture reality, placing her finger on the intuitive truth of the matter.
Some of the most haunting stories are the ones where the main characters seem to fight against their own nature, or their inherited nature/gender/class/grief, all the while circling around the inevitability of it. Stories such as “Who Will Greet You at Home”, which was originally printed in the New Yorker here. This story achingly embodies the way Arimah uses magical realism to suspend reality to better highlight the truth:
Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material if they were to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves, like moin-moin: pedestrian items that had produced a pedestrian girl. Ogechi was determined that her child would be a thing of whimsy, soft and pretty, tender and worthy of love. But first, she had to go to work.
As Ogechi crafts baby after baby, our hearts break as we watch in horror the cycles passed on by class and gender. This is what I mean: these stories will latch onto you, not unlike Ogechi’s baby. These stories reveal truths that are sometimes hard to see; yet Arimah tells these difficult truths in such a way—through gorgeous, crafted, precise language—that her reader can’t help but digest them.
Another factor of these unrelenting stories lies in their surprise. Despite some element of inevitability that I described earlier, Arimah still finds moments to flip the reader upside down, disorient, and surprise. An example of this is the opening story, “The Future Looks Good”, which starts with a woman knocking at a door, and the rest of the story backtracks leading up to that moment. The final sentences deliver a swift shock. Yet other stories take their time and don’t upend the reader with surprise, but rather, coax us along with their slow build. With this mix of styles, Arimah deftly balances the danger of over-exerting her reader while calling our attention to difficult, soul-wrenching things.
I had the opportunity to meet Lesley and hear her talk about this book in my role as producer of The Loft Podcast, where she was a guest recently (you can listen to the episode here). One of the things she said that I immediately felt echoed my own experience, was how there was an early point in her career as a writer where she knew what and how she wanted to write, but didn’t have the skill to write it yet. I feel that particular sense of frustration in my own current capacity as a writer. I was talking to my dear friend Timothy (yes! our same dear Hazel & Wren friend and past contributor!) about this recently, who in response sent me this article/video featuring a quote from Ira Glass on success. In it, Glass says, “Nobody tells people who are beginners […] that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, […] It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer”.
Clearly Arimah has found the sweet spot where her work has met up with her taste and ambition to create this magical, haunting, groundbreaking collection of stories. And, my fellow worrying writers: maybe there’s hope for us, too.