Magical Realism

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.



 

Wake Me When I'm Gone

By Husseina

A review of Wake Me When I'm Gone by Odafe Atogun.

Image: Canongate Books.

Image: Canongate Books.

 

B

eing the most beautiful woman in the region, every man, including the chief of her village, sought Ese’s hand in marriage. Ese, refusing all their advances, chooses instead to marry Tanto - the man with she was in love with. This decision to follow her heart is, however, seen as an act of defiance against the chief, costing Ese her family who disown her. The protagonist’s insistence on following her heart gets her in trouble throughout Atogun’s second novel - Wake Me When I’m Gone.

Very early on, Tanto dies from a tragic accident on his farm, leaving Ese and their young son, Noah. Distraught, Ese closes her stall in the market on Main street in order to spend more time with her son. On finding out that Ese had closed her stall, the merchants - who all loved her - stopped coming to the market. Despite pleas from the villagers, Ese refuses. As a result, business drastically declines, causing the village to go into a recession. Adamant to not return, Ese is then turned against by the whole village.

Simultaneously, the protagonist battles a custom in the village which mandates widows to remarry six months after the death of their spouse, lest they give up custody of their child(ren) to the husband’s eldest male sibling. Again, the chief and other young men in the village flock around her, in the bid for her hand in marriage. Ese, however, refuses; standing by her decision to marry only for love. Here, the reader is introduced to Ese’s strong personality and the consequences she faces on the path to fulfil her destiny.

 

Tradition And Modernity: Parallels or Binary Opposites?

An underlying theme throughout Atogun’s story is the contrast between tradition and modernity. In the village, the people adhere to many superstitions cum customs which are enforced by the high priests. Ese, on the other hand, despite being a product of the same environment, is shown to think progressively. She is able to distinguish between what is right and wrong, can make objective assessments and come to her own conclusion.

What is interesting about how the author portrays the contrast is his approach, which strays from the conventional equation of progressive thinking exclusively to exposure or modernisation. It brings to mind, though in juxtaposition, a quote by Aristotle, who once said: “it is the mark of an educated mind to hold a thought without accepting it.” In Wake Me When I’m Gone, Ese has never received any form of education yet she exhibits the traits of an educated mind.

This forces one to rethink how an ‘educated’ person is defined; who is excluded from these definitions and the consequences of that follow. In this, I choose to look at Ese’s story as a metaphor for progress in Africa, and a critique of the modernisation theory of development. We, as Africans, can think of our own organic solutions, and do not need the validation from the West. Just like Ese, we also have the ability to be progressive, and to question what has come to be seen and accepted as the norm in our societies.

 

Tradition As A Tool Of Oppression

Conversely, Atogun explores tradition as a regressive tool. In Ese’s village, orphans are seen as bad luck, and treated very badly. If not taken in by a relative, as in the case of the group of orphan boys Noah meets, they are exiled. Sadly, this idea of the ‘cursed’ child - specifically the orphan child - is no different from existing superstitions upheld in places around the world like India and Nigeria. The belief is that these evil children are responsible for the misfortune that (often) befalls their parents. Thus, they are treated as outcasts and in other cases, killed.

Defiant, Ese takes in the orphans who live outside the village into her house as her own children. As a result of this, she has to flee for her life from the village or face death. On moving to another village after her exile, Ese finds tradition transcends her village. Nonetheless, she cares for an orphan, and this act of kindness results to yet another tragedy. This further fuels Ese in her fight to overturn this custom. With the support of a progressive chief, the villagers and a visiting professor, she is able to banish this custom despite threats of madness, blindness and death by the high priests.

The visiting professor’s contribution was particularly notable as he himself was an orphan that had be exiled from the same village, yet was luckily adopted by a loving couple. The professor, his travels and his accomplishments served as a testimony against the belief of orphans; showing that love and humanity, if given a chance, can go a long way.

"

“You see, the gods the priests they worship are a creation of their evil minds, which they use to put fear in people in order to control them. Such gods do not exist. And the laws they make are the wicked lies of a very ignorant people... there is God up in heaven to whom all power belongs. He is not a god you can access through tradition but through love and it is that love that is lacking in the heart of the priests and all who uphold their laws."

– The Professor.

Atogun, through his protagonist, encourages us to always question the norm, as opposed to accepting things because they have ‘always’ been. Sometimes, culture can be toxic and harmful, and can stand in the way of progress and development.

From honour killings to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), there are many traditions all over the world which are very backwards yet some refuse to let go of them despite how detrimental. Just like the high priests, people all over the world also use religion, culture and tradition to justify all sorts of horrific and unjust acts. Atogun, through his protagonist, encourages us to always question the norm, as opposed to accepting things because they have ‘always’ been. Sometimes, culture can be toxic and harmful, and can stand in the way of progress and development. Atogun highlights this.

 

The Representation Of The Nigerian Woman

I was highly impressed with Atogun’s construction and representation of the Nigerian woman, especially for one who lives in a village. Ese is a very progressive character who is constantly questioning and challenging the norm. She refuses to accept things in the name of tradition, customs and/or systems. This narrative subverts the conventional narrative surrounding women who live in the rural parts of third world countries. The stereotypes that surround such women include – ignorant, backwards and uneducated.

Postcolonial feminist scholar Chandra Talpade Mohanty perfectly articulates the way in which women, third world women especially are generalised and stereotypes as backwards, ignorant and waiting to be saved by the superior being (men or white people) in ‘Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism’. Mohanty critiques representation of ‘third world’ women as a singular monolithic subject. Ese, despite never going to school or visiting a city can be described as a feminist on all accounts. Despite growing up in a deeply patriarchal and misogynistic society, she advocates for equality without ever being formally taught about the concept. So, you who is ‘educated’, what then is your excuse?

Ese’s character makes the reader rethink their assumptions about the regular woman from the village — or any woman, in fact. She is a woman who personifies fortitude, bravery and resilience, yet kind and loving. She is strong yet gentle; she is a beautiful woman of substance. Through her, the idea of beauty and substance is normalised, subverting the misconception that beautiful women are only that, and lack substance. She shows that women are dynamic, and should not be essentialised and fixed to a few simplistic characteristics.

 

Folktale Nostalgia

Surprisingly, I really enjoyed reading Wake Me When I’m Gone. I say surprisingly, because it is not a book I will traditionally pick up. I usually go for the more complex stories with less obvious lessons. This book, however, proves that there can be beauty in simplicity. Reading it brought back memories of my childhood days: watching tales by moonlight and listening to older aunties, parents and grandparents tell folktales. Atogun’s minimalist approach to writing makes it a book all age groups can read. His writing is very accessible with simple and direct sentences reminiscent of that of Ernest Hemingway.

Perhaps for the sake of telling a simple story or spotlighting Ese, the author applies this sense of minimalism to all other characters but Noah. As a result, I found that his characters were undeveloped. Though this does not take away much from the story, it would have been a plus to have more rounded characters. Nonetheless, Atogun's writing and use of magical realism, Leila Aboulela avers, can be likened to Ben Okri and Elechi Amadi.

In order to savour this novel in its enterity, the reader should allow one's self to be swallowed by fiction and be immersed the world the author creates. All in all, Wake Me When I’m Gone is a story that challenges yet embraces tradition. It reminds one that the path to one’s destiny is hardly ever linear but filled with questioning moments. For as long as one keeps his/her eye on the goal and works hard with purpose, even the most impossible is attainable.

 

An Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of Odafe Atogun's Wake Me When I'm Gone was kindly sent to The Book Banque by the author, in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Husseina. Odafe Atogun's Wake Me When I'm Gone was published in the UK by Canongate in August 2017, and will be published by Ouida Books in 2018.



 

Poetry: Abiku by J. P. Clark

Coming and going these several seasons,
Do stay out on the baobab tree,
Follow where you please your kindred spirits
If indoors is not enough for you.
True, it leaks through the thatch
When floods brim the banks,
And the bats and the owls
Often tear in at night through the eaves,
And at harmattan, the bamboo walls
Are ready tinder for the fire
That dries the fresh fish up on the rack.
Still, it’s been the healthy stock
To several fingers, to many more will be
Who reach to the sun.
No longer then bestride the threshold
But step in and stay
For good. We know the knife scars
Serrating down your back and front
Like beak of the sword-fish,
And both your ears, notched
As a bondsman to this house,
Are all relics of your first comings.
Then step in, step in and stay
For her body is tired,
Tired, her milk going sour
Where many more mouths gladden the heart.

Source: John Pepper Clark via African Soulja.

Image: Prince Twins Seven Seven, “Dream of the Abiku Child” via Material Culture.