Gender

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.



 

Buchi Emecheta: A Legacy Honoured

By Niki

 

In February 2018, Omenala Press played host to a celebration of Buchi Emecheta in London; launching 6 of 12 imprints of Buchi's books. A day of rekindled memories, healing, story telling and conversations, Niki recounts the event and its reinforcement on the importance of Emecheta's work and life.

Image: George Braziller, Inc.

Image: George Braziller, Inc.

 

I

f you are unfamiliar with Buchi Emecheta’s story, do yourself a favour: pick up any of her books and start reading — immediately, too. A prolific writer, her body of work includes articles, plays, both adult and children books, and an autobiography. Her books, though mostly works of fiction, were inspired by her experiences and those of others around her. Just in her 20s, Buchi found herself being breadwinner, mother, wife, dreamer and goal getter in cold racist Britain.

Fearful that a woman could be greater than he imagined, her husband, Sylvester Onwordi, burnt her first manuscript, The Bride Price, in a fit of jealousy. This feeling, which she likened to burning a child, in addition to her deep connection to her Igbo heritage and ancestral hometown of Ibusa, formed Emecheta’s voice — the very voice hundreds gathered to celebrate over eight hours on a wintery Saturday in London.

Over the course of an exceptional career, she lectured at Universities around the world, including the United States, United Kingdom and Nigeria - a place she always longed to call home but was never able to. In the 60s and 70s when she began writing, there were but a few Nigerian women, like Flora Nwapa and Zaynab Alkali, being celebrated for this craft. There were even fewer writing as raw and as unapologetically as Emecheta did in all her work.

 

Forever Young

The event, organised by Omenala Press and The Buchi Emecheta Foundation, was held a year after her passing in 2017; primarily to re-launch her classics. To this, the covers of 12 of her 20 books were redesigned by Victor Ehikhamenor, with 6 released in February. Beautifully abstract, undeniably centred in old artistic traditions yet maintaining a newness, these covers are sure to incite the reader to embrace Emecheta’s narratives with a fresh eye.

This blend of the old and new is reflective of the work everyone involved in the project sought to achieve — that is, giving young(er) generations access to their history and having the older generation see their legacy honoured. Going by the attendance at the Celebrating Buchi event, this intergenerationality was indeed reflected. For an attendee accompanied by her daughter, re-discovering Emecheta whilst going through a divorce was a saving grace, and an affirmation that she could survive the loss. To hear of such a powerful effect that Emecheta’s work could have on one woman and to also see that her daughter could join such a space was symbolic.

 

There Is Joy In Motherhood

The imprints of Buchi Emecheta’s work come as a result of Omenala Press - an independent publisher established by Buchi’s son, Sylvester Onwordi. Following her passing, he shared, he discovered mounds of unpublished Emecheta work, which inspired a journey that has seen him now wear the title ‘publisher.’ This, one can say, is a full circle journey as Emecheta was also a publisher; setting up Ogwugwu Afor Publishingb for the distribution of her books and others like hers in both Britain and Ibusa, Nigeria.

Onwordi’s dedication to his mother’s work contradicts some of the portrayals of the payoff of motherhood in Emecheta’s work. In particular, the ironically named The Joys of Motherhood - her sixth novel which brutally portrays an image of what raising children as a poor woman in a patriarchal society can be like. There was gratitude for Onwordi and the Omenala Press team from both panelists and audience alike.

As echoed by an attendee, The Buchi Emecheta Foundation serves as an important first step in ensuring Emecheta’s work becomes as common a place in British Libraries as Shakespeare and Dickens. That Emecheta’s work needs to be included in curricula across as many educational years as possible was stressed by a panelist, who noted a lack of awareness of the author’s work by librarians. This means that for those looking to explore reading outside certain education pathways, the chances of discovering Emecheta’s work are unlikely.

 

Uncovering Buchi

The day was broken up into panels, workshops and a gallery exhibitionc - The Legacies of Biafra at the Brunei Gallery. The panelists ranged from academics who have spent time studying her work to individuals who had personal connection to Emecheta. As a reader, it was enthralling to be sat in a room with people who had spent time with Emecheta in both professional and personal capacities. To hear about Buchi - the mother, friend and business woman - was to hear about parts uncovered in her novels. It was beautiful to experience an idol being fleshed out from places of love.

Chaired by Delia Jarrett Macauley, one of the panels focused on love and discovery in the work of the author. Panelists linked Emecheta’s work to the personal; family, friendships, marriages and self, emphasising the relatability of Emecheta’s work in the present. The sweetest of all panels, however, was that on legacy and heritage and chaired by Bola Mosuro. The discussions ranged from the disparity in which the wealthy and poor in Nigeria raise their children in Nigeria; to a showcase of Emecheta lecturing across Universities in the United States, and fraternising with beloved African American academics.

The Afrikult. workshop provided further insight into how personal and influential Emecheta’s work has been to Black British women. People shared their first encounter with Emecheta’s work; dissecting quotes from certain novels from critical, personal and emotive perspectives. For one woman, reading Emecheta’s biography, Head Above Water, while training to become a social worker in the 80s, changed her approach to her career. She explained that the book made her understand the cultural aspects of the increasing wave of Commonwealth migrants to the UK; giving her a wider perspective that many in her field lacked.

Emecheta remains an enigma to me as her books enveloped realities too often brushed under the carpet by the women around me, and the expectations that cripple them. For many women and young girls, alike, these expectations are not contextualised, and a necessary fleshing out of the good and bad parts of meeting these expectations is mostly ignored. Emecheta, in her writing, did stretching. By creating her work and in turn, a space, Buchi spelt out the good and bad; thus determining, long before death, her own legacy.

 

Omenala Press will launch the new reprints in Lagos, Nigeria at the Nigerian International Book Fair on May 9, 2018. Find out more about the event on our What's On segment here.


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Notes

a Read more about Buchi Emecheta here.

b In this article, originally written in 1990 and published in print, Emecheta shares with The (New York) Times on why she embarked on the journey of setting up a publishing house. Likewise, in her interwiew with Joyce Boss, Buchi touches on her frustration with Western publishers and her reason for creating her own platform and publishing.

c Emecheta's Destination Biafra remains an important contribution to literature on Biafra; thus, the exhibition made a great fit for the event. This is because both stories - Biafra’s and Emecheta’s - are centred around trauma: living with trauma, surviving trauma, experiencing trauma, and what it does to future generations.

 

The Bride Price

In The Bride Price, Buchi Emecheta is a capable surgeon; slicing right to the heart of what it meant to be a girl in Nigeria in the 1950s. With an uncompromising deftness and an artless charm, she explores the minutiae of life in South-Eastern colonial Nigeria; holding up to the light the many microaggressions that add to the framework of patriarchal oppression institutionalised as culture and tradition. Aku-nna is the conduit, and her life, as well as those of other female characters, explore the enslavement of women by traditional practices such as the payment of bride price, widowhood rites, courting games, marriage by abduction and the Osu Caste system.