9 short stories our Features team think you should read.
A review of What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah.
Cover image: Farafina Books; Art: Victor Ehikhamenor.
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.
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 James’ The 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.
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.
ho Will Greet You At Home is a story about the pressure to create the perfect child and the sacrifices women are willing to make to achieve this. The protagonist explicitly states: “a mother should give all of herself to her child, even if it requires the marrow in her bones.” This statement, whilst seemingly self-sacrificing and noble, takes on a sinister turn in this story. It can be read as critique on the idea that to be the best mother, one must give up the best parts of themselves.
Arimah’s protagonist repeatedly gives away some of her joy in exchange for the blessing required each time a child is created. The giving away of Joy seemed to me a reference to the Buchi Emecheta novel ‘The Joys of Motherhood’, in which children, despite being something of a blessing, also took a great toll on the well-being on the protagonist. In fact, the tragic ending of Emecheta’s protagonist is a warning that has continued to go unheeded by many women in Nigeria, who allow societal pressures to overwhelm common sense.
INFERTILITY AND INFANT MORTALITY
Ajayi, a leading IVF specialist in Nigeria, posits that there is a 25 percent infertility rate in the country, where men make up majority of that figure. The reality in many Nigerian communities, however, is that women bear the brunt of the blame for infertility issues in marriages, often dealing with the emotional toll that the stigma takes, and lacking the benefit of professional support.
Infertility issues can sometimes be short-term issues caused by undetected Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) or toilet-related diseases. In a society where men are sometimes adamantly against such tests, the issue will continue to have more weight than necessary. Of course, the cost of IVF for those with more severe infertility issues is astronomical to the many disadvantaged by the ever-growing wealth gap in Nigeria.
Most striking in Arimah’s story is the absence of men, mainly because Nigeria is a country where there is an average of 1.05 men to every 1 woman. This feature is pronounced in a story about birth and children. By removing men from the equation in her story, the problem of fertility is eliminated. Arimah’s story presents childbirth solely as a female affair; there is a distinct exclusion of men even at the stage of ‘procreation’. The women in Arimah’s world decide when they have babies, yet what cannot be combated is infant mortality.
At the story’s beginning, the protagonist, Ogechi, has lost her umpteenth child because it was an impractical addition to her life. In the world Arimah creates, babies are not made through sexual intercourse but are constructed from day to day materials by the mother, and turn into human babies a year after creation.
The women are thus charged with ensuring the survival of the child for the duration of that year, a feat which Ogechi has repeatedly failed to achieve. UNICEF estimated in 2015 that an average of 2,300 infants under the age of five die daily in Nigeria. This is attributed to lack of proper healthcare and nutrition; a side effect of abject poverty. For Ogechi, this is true, as abject poverty has heavily contributed to the demise of her babies.
HOME AS MORE THAN A PLACE
The story’s title Who Will Greet You At Home, presents home as a place to which all women long to return. Strangers in the narrative, on seeing a woman with a freshly crafted baby, offer the song:
The familiarity of this song is evident in its call and response set-up as well as its repetition within the narrative. There is clear pride in returning home to one’s mother sporting a new baby to be blessed. “Who Will Greet You At Home?” is a marked question, enquiring almost into your lineage. The response, “my mother will”, shows how intricately bonded mother and child are expected to be in Arimah’s world.
I say expected because this is a stock song recited for every child, even Ogechi who, having fallen out with her mother, must now trade some of her joy/happiness to have the ironically named ‘Mama’ bless her child. The figure ‘Mama’ has managed to capitalise on the misfortune of broken families by stealing happiness amongst more tangible resources from poor women around her. In this world, women are not presented as pristine but still take on all the character dimensions of any society.
In Nigeria, a great deal of the stigma faced by ‘infertile’ women come from other women. Relatives, friends and “well-wishers” often chime in their 2-kobo to re-iterate the ways one is failing in the wifely duty of procreation. The presence of the song in Arimah’s novel, sung by familiar and unfamiliar well-wishers, is evidence of the continued presence of public interest in female reproduction be it wanted or no.
THE LIFE POVERTY OFFERS
As previously stated, Ogechi’s babies die due to poverty but her mother also has a great deal to do with some of these deaths, we learn. This involvement by her mother is what leads to the fallout between the two, leading Ogechi into the grasping hands of Mama. Ogechi’s mother is a realist aware of their status in life, and as such implores Ogechi to construct her child out of materials that will give her a toughness for the life poverty offers.
Ogechi is however fanciful, looking to make her child out materials that speak of a delicate life. In this world, status is reflected in the niceness and lack of durability in the items with which one constructs their child. Ogechi’s lack of status fails to deter her frivolous creations and her mother’s insistence that, “soft children with hard lives go mad and die”, only heightens her stubbornness. The brashness of this statement is reflective of experience which Ogechi, young and so wrapped up in the fantasy of perfect motherhood, fails to comprehend till the story’s conclusion.
The baby crafted from wool and that crafted from wrapping paper, which she presents to her mother for blessing, are easily destroyed by wear and water to show her how impractical her crafting is. The craftsmanship of the child determines its ability to navigate the realities of the world it is born into, rather than its fate in life: the lesson Ogechi’s mother tries and fails to impart. For Ogechi, physical appearance is the most important feature in a child, leading to confusion when she comes across a new mother beaming with pride while unveiling her twig baby.
Physicality, rather than substance, holds more weight for Ogechi and this obsession nearly kills her. Ogechi is willing to give up her joy to gain a physically beautiful child, so little import is placed on joy because it is not tangible. Arimah’s story, while seemingly a critique for the pressures on women to produce beautiful babies in a timely manner, can also serve as critique for Nigeria where appearance/status continue to override substance.
Today, young men and women – infants in the workforce – are constantly being charged across the world for crimes of fraud. The need to be seen as having “made it” appearing to be the major drive towards this mode of acquiring wealth. There is a belief that appearance negates the need for work. Ogechi is so concerned with making a pretty child, she fails to consider the impact her role as mother could have on the child’s future. Beauty is skin deep might be a cliché, but clichés are born from experience.
Lesley Nneka Arimah's Who Will Greet You At Home was shortlisted for the 2017 Caine Prize.