Farafina Books

What The World Does To Daughters

 

A review of What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah.

Cover image: Farafina Books; Art: Victor Ehikhamenor.

I

n 2014, a friend sent me a link to Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story The Future Looks Good, published in Pank Magazine. I read it twice, then I put my tablet away and waited for my heart to stop racing. For a while, it did not. A mix of wonder and envy sluiced through me, pooling into a question: just how did she do it? Four years later, with the publication of her debut collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky, Arimah has again stunned me with the radiance of her prose.

In this collection of twelve sharply humorous and sometimes heartbreaking stories, Arimah tells myriad miniature stories about the lives of women. The author flits across continents and realities, gathering threads to weave a brilliant tapestry of the lives of Nigerian girls and women, both home and abroad. Shying away from the stereotypical sympathetic female protagonist, her stories portray girls and women in their varied and complex selves.

Arimah gives us girls as manageably pretty; girls who demand and take more than they are offered; wild and disappointing daughters; those who have learned to protect themselves from their mothers; those who must learn how to mother; mothers who hoard love and those who suffocate; and mothers who do not know how to love at all. In all these women, the author finds a way to subvert societal notions of what it means to be a good daughter, a good wife, a good mother, or a good woman.

 

MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS

In an interview with The Rumpus, Lesley Nneka Arimah revealed that in writing her collection of stories, she found herself drawn to the “many different ways family dynamics can manifest.” One familial relation that this collection seems to focus on is the relationship between mothers and daughters. Generally, the mother-daughter relationship can be fraught with tensions. In this collection, magnified under strict societal rules and pressure to be ‘good’ mothers who raise ‘good’ daughters, the relationships become landmines, a source of worry and disappointment to the mothers, and painful pressure to the daughters. Many of the daughters in the stories share a similarity: the propensity to disappoint their mothers.

Bibi, in The Future Looks Good, earns her mother’s ire by ignoring her advice. When Bibi realises her mistake and returns home, her reunion with her mother is not tender and loving. Neither is the one between Uche and her back-from-the-dead mother in Second Chances. In Wild, War Stories and Light, mothers try to smoothen the rougher edges of their teenage daughters, so that they can better fit into the mold that society has pre-designed for good daughters, good girls. To do this, they try to flatten their daughters, make them fold themselves away and subdue the bright flames of their personality by convincing them that the world needs them to be less.

We teach girls shame ... They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think.
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

To paint an accurate portrait of the lives of Nigerian girls and women, Arimah addresses the culture of shame and the ways it manifests. In Buchi’s Girls, Buchi struggles, in the wake of a heavy tragedy, to do what she thinks a good mother must do, and realises too late that she is hurting her relationship with her daughter Louisa. Glory, the eponymous protagonist of Glory, despite her forceful personality and tendency to blurt out exactly what is on her mind, finds herself biting her tongue when she has sex with her boyfriend, Thomas.

Though Arimah said in The Rumpus interview that she wanted to explore the many ways family dynamics can manifest, this collection seems to focus solely on the negative, without any example of a healthy, well-balanced mother-daughter relationship to hold up as foil. This is noteworthy. Perhaps, it is impossible for such relationships to exist under the heavy cloak of shame and pressure to be ‘good’ that permeates Nigerian society.

 

HUMOUR AND THE HUMANISATION OF WOMEN

Arimah’s characters are exquisitely crafted, but one in particular struck me: Glory. Born with “a caul of misfortune hanging over her face,” Glory makes all the wrong decisions, says and does the wrong things, and cannot resist a low thrum of schadenfreude at the misfortune of others—even people she claims to care for. She is small and petty in the most ordinary ways. Yet, I found myself inexplicably drawn to this character, empathising with her, seeing myself as her. Here, Arimah turns away from that easy-to-follow route of writing likeable characters.

Instead, she creates a character who, ordinarily, should repulse the reader. Yet, I rooted for Glory. This, the author achieves through the use of delightfully droll humour. Arimah displays masterful dexterity in deploying a particular brand of humour I like to refer to as ‘Achebean.’ It is difficult to write humour into any work, but this brand is particularly troublesome. Chinua Achebe is, of course, the master of this technique as can be evinced from the timeless A Man of the People. With this collection, however, Arimah shows that she is a force to be reckoned with.

On the surface, Arimah’s use of humour serves a more mainstream purpose: introducing levity to relieve tension in the stories. The last story, Redemption, narrated by an unnamed 13-year-old girl, proves to be Arimah at her hilarious best. Though she is dealing with sexual abuse, underage domestic workers and the blossoming of forbidden feelings between two teenage girls, she makes the reader laugh with lines such as: “Mrs. Ajayi was very old, creeping on that age when life begins to lose all meaning, fifty, I think.”

On a closer look, the humour in the stories does far more. By employing deadpan humour and off-the-cuff quips which are not overly concerned with themselves, Arimah does the very necessary job of humanising women. With an unrelentingly witty internal monologue, she creates characters like Glory—not always likeable but definitely relatable. Perhaps the best thing about this collection is that Arimah imbues all her female characters with what Lilith in Marlon JamesThe Book of Night Women calls ‘true womanness:’ the freedom “to be as terrible as you wish.” She kicks away the uncomfortable pedestal of the ‘good’ woman, the ‘good’ character, and shows us, through the lens of humour, how terrible people can be in the most quotidian ways.

 

MAGICAL REALISM

Some academics and literary enthusiasts might have a problem with Arimah’s collection being labelled as magical realism. In the academic community, the term ‘magical realism’ is widely accepted as the purview of Latin-American writers, who explore colonialism and postcolonialism by drawing on mythical or fantastical elements in an otherwise mundane setting. Critics label Arimah’s work as surrealist fiction or slipstream—a term best defined by American writer, Kelly Link. Arimah herself has no problem with whatever name is given or not given to her work, “as long as what is said is understood.”

I, however, consider what Arimah does as more than ‘magical realism.’ There is a fluid blending of the fantastic and the realistic, so that the realistic stands out in stark relief. In doing this, she shows the baser side of human character. People like to believe the best of themselves. We like to think that, given the chance, we will prove ourselves as unequivocally good. However, there are stories in this collection that use fantastic elements to disprove this belief.

Stories that ask what you would do if you were given a second chance with the mother to whom you were an utter disappointment? And, what you would do if the world turned on its head and, suddenly, you were in possession of the power to relieve people of their grief, pain, and anxiety? Most would like to think that they would do the ‘right’ thing. With Uche in Second Chances and Nneoma in What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, Arimah shows that there is no single right thing, and each choice made has consequences—the terrible cost of being human.

This collection is a stellar mix of singularly unique and brilliant stories. At the heart of it lies Who Will Greet You At Home—a story that deserves special mention. Using a brilliant combination of fantasy, humour and intricate world building, Arimah captures the texture of yearning—for love, belonging, and material wealth. Though all the other stories in the collection can hold their own, none quite live up to the exquisite high that is Who Will Greet You At Home. I consider this collection to be a first-rate work of literature, and a brilliant debut for an author with a sterling career ahead of her.

 

A review copy of Lesley Nneka Arimah's What It Means When A Man To Fall From The Sky was kindly sent to The Book Banque by Farafina Books (an imprint of Kachifo Limited), in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Naaki.



 

Huchu's 3Ms: The Maestro, The Magistrate And The Mathematician

 

An exclusive excerpt from Tendai Huchu's The Maestro, The Magistrate and The Mathematician.

Tendai Huchu's The Maestro, The Magistrate And The Mathematician tells a layered story of three Zimbabwean exiles as they chart the course of their new lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. Each distinct in background, personalities and thus, in their narrations, they share a paradox of belonging and identity, and a conflict of cultures — respectively affixed to immigration.

The Magistrate, as implied by his name, was formerly a custodian of justice in Zimbabwe. In Edinburgh, however, the ladder rungs are reversed, and he is forced to take on menial jobs for survival. This excerpt, stirring yet hilarious, provides a glimpse into his jarring reality and the disservice political unrest is capable of instituting.



T

he Magistrate waited, listening to her strident advice, while she did not even look in his direction. He felt small, a gnat, intruding on her space. The office had two desks placed together in an L shape. The other desk was empty. Both were untidy with paperwork chaotically stacked, a scattering of empty mugs with dried lipstick stains around the edges. The Magistrate remembered a time when he walked into places and people rushed to serve him. Mwana wamambo muranda kumwe. The wastepaper basket between the two desks was overflowing. The windows were grimy.

The bench was a lifetime ago. It pained him to think of his past, to recall memories of what once had been. If only he had no memory, no sense of his old successful self, then it would be easier to accept his new circumstances.

“Men like that need to be taught a lesson. If my boyfriend did that I would chop his thing off… Yeah, he knows it.” The woman on the phone was explaining her philosophy for a stable relationship. The Magistrate involuntarily crossed his legs. Attempted murder? Grievous bodily harm? A crime of passion? The most popular one with aggrieved women back home was to pour boiling cooking oil over the philanderer’s face, though none of those had ever reached his court. He’d dealt with a lot of domestic violence. But then again crime feels common if it’s all you deal with day in day out. In his line of work it was natural to assume society was sick. The law was rather mute on couples that actually loved one another, except, that is, for marriage, a ceremony he disliked presiding over.

“Excuse me,” he said.

“Can’t you see I’m on the phone?” The woman returned to her caller.

“Some people are just so rude, ha, they can’t wait just a few minutes.”

“I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes!”

The woman continued her conversation as though he was not even there. He could feel rage swelling up within him. He stood up abruptly and his chair fell over. “Calm submissive state, my arse,” he thought. The woman gazed admiringly at her nails.

“Have a nice day,” he said, making for the door. As he opened it, Alfonso fell in, struggling with several plastic bags.

“Aikaka, Magistrate, you’re here?” Alfonso blew air from his mouth.

“I was just about to leave.”

“And go where? I’ve just arrived,” Alfonso said, ushering him back in. “I’d just gone to Lidl for my shopping. It’s called multitasking. I have a theory–”

“Your receptionist is very unhelpful.”

“I’m an administrator,” the woman called out.

“No, no, there must be some misunderstanding. Don’t worry; I’ll take care of you. Here at Busy Bodies Recruitment and Employment Solutions we aim to provide First World service to Scottish businesses, governmental departments, the charitable sector, and other not-for-profit organisations. We are the one stop shop for all your recruitment solutions.” Alfonso was really trying to say he was sorry but couldn’t do anything about it since she was his small house. “Please, please, sit down. Let me just put these to one side and then we can talk.”

The Magistrate was reluctant but Alfonso’s imploring face with its comic meerkat-like appearance stayed him. Alfonso rushed round to the other side of the desk and sat down. He straightened his tie. He was a small man and behind the desk he cut a ridiculous figure.

“So, what brings you to our offices?” Alfonso smirked with apparent relish.

“I need a job,” the Magistrate replied in a low voice.

“Sorry, I didn’t get that.” Alfonso cupped his left ear and leant forward.

“I need a job.”

“Aha.” Alfonso leapt up. “I told you he would come, Spiwe. Didn’t I tell you he would come?” He looked intoxicated, gleeful; casting his hands wide open as if embracing the whole world. “I knew it. I just knew it. How long has it been? A year?”

“Not that long.”

“Near enough.” Alfonso nipped round his desk, grabbed Spiwe’s phone and cut her off.

“What do you think you’re DOING?”

“I told you he’d come.” Alfonso spoke in a frenzy. “This man is like a brother to me. He’s smarter than me; he has a degree, a Master’s, and many, many certificates. But let me tell you one thing, he doesn’t know the UK like I do. I tried to tell Mai Chenai. I said to her, ‘Look, tell him to stop applying for those posh jobs in the newspapers. They are not for the likes of us.’ This country now uses a system I call voluntary slavery. They used to bring you people in big boats, shackled together – you didn’t even need a passport, and then you started refusing, saying you wanted equality. Now you flood their borders looking for work. What do you expect them to do? I’ve seen it all before, many times: Nigerians, Jamaicans, Polishans, Congoans, Russians, Indians, you name it. There was an electrician from Bulawayo, you know Mdala Phiri… of course you do. Phiri came here with his wife, a nurse, he thought he was going to get an electrician’s job. I told him, ‘Phiri, this is the Civilised World, forget it,’ but he didn’t listen, no one listens to Alfonso. So, he went for an interview and do you know what the man said to him? He said, ‘Look here, why are you bothering us? Can’t you see the electricity we use is different from the electricity in your country?’ You don’t believe me? I swear it. Phiri himself told us. Spiwe here is my witness.”

“Leave me out of your stories, Mr Pfukuto,” said Spiwe.

Alfonso strutted around the room with a limp, as though one leg was slightly longer than the other.

“It’s even worse with the law, Magistrate. I tried to say it but no one listens to Alfonso. They think we come from the jungle. They think we have kangaroo courts. They will say, ‘How can you practice law here when you couldn’t even preserve the rule of law in your own country?’ I knew your applications would come to nothing. They didn’t even reply you, did they?” Alfonso ignored the Magistrate’s obvious discomfort. “Only nursing is the same, because no matter where you go in the world, wiping bums is still wiping bums. But don’t worry, that’s why I’m here. I am going to make sure you get a good job with good rates of pay too. You’re not like these tsotsis weaving and ducking without papers. No, you will get a good job, a very good job.”

Alfonso threw an application form in front of the Magistrate and gave him a pen. He picked up the phone, flicked through a diary and dialled out.

Spiwe, help him to fill it out.” Spiwe gritted her teeth, but she stood up and went to the Magistrate anyway. She hovered over him as he filled the document in. He was slow, thorough, reading each question carefully before writing. He was used to going through legal documents where he could not risk misinterpreting the contents.

“Hallo, hallo, is this Olu?” Alfonso asked, in a faux Nigerian accent, to someone on the phone. “Oh, my sister-wo, how are you in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord and Saviour… Yes, I am fine… Listen, Olu, there has been a problem with your shift tonight. They have cancelled it… I know it’s terrible. I said to them, ‘Why did you book it if you knew you were going to cancel it?’ Don’t worry I will call you as soon as I get something. You are my number one… God bless you, my sister-wo.”

He got off the line and smiled at the Magistrate. “I’ve got you a shift. You start tonight. First we must give you a pair of safety shoes, a tunic and some industrial gloves… Don’t worry we’ll deduct the cost from your first pay cheque… It’s okay, don’t thank me. That’s what friends are for.”

 

Tendai Huchu's The Maestro, The Magistrate And The Mathematician was published by Kachifo Limited under their Farafina Books imprint in 2015.

Read reviews by This Is Africa and Wawa Book Review here and here.



About Tendai

Tendai Huchu is the author of The Hairdresser Of Harare. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Manchester Review, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Gutter, AfroSF, Wasafiri, The Africa Report, Kwani? and numerous other publications. In 2013, he received a Hawthornden Fellowship and a Sacatar Fellowship. He was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing.