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.
An original short story by editor and writer, Tope Owolabi, published exclusively on The Book Banque.
y head was on OK’s chest when I heard banging on the door. We were discussing the unruly Civil Service of Nigeria. It had gotten quite intense a few times and I had gently changed the topic by asking him to check if my daughter’s guitar would need new pegs soon.
When we had first began dating, I choked on words each time I asked him to do something. No matter how gently I brought the words out, it still always felt like I was disrespecting my own father. At fifty, he wasn’t as old as my father but he was just as grey. I was thirty. Twenty-seven, but I always bumped my age up. Not on official forms; when speaking to people, people whose faces would judge me if I told them I was twenty-seven, with a nine-year-old daughter.
We met on a bank queue. Me waiting to pick up my new ATM card, he wanting to clear his account, move all his money out so that he could teach the useless bank a lesson in proper customer service. I told him that most other banks were just as useless and persuaded him to calm down. He did, just before going into a little cubicle and demanding from the lady in it that my ATM be produced immediately as I would be waiting only one more minute. I would have waited thirty more, but his tone seemed to be working, so I played the role of urgency required, my hand tapping restlessly on the counter. In five minutes, I was signing for my card and thinking about the randomness of it all, a stranger helping me get my card at a bank I had convinced him to remain at. He even waited around till I had changed my pin. We talked, our conversation mostly involved cursing out Nigerian brands and exchanging customer service woes. I learned that besides being the school head, he taught guitar at Buttercups School twice a week because all the music tutors he had interviewed for the job were too pricey, and so he decided to teach the kids himself even with administrative work piling daily on his table.
“That’s interesting,” I said. “Interesting that you still find time to actually teach while being the boss. Well done sir.” My sentences had been propped with respectful inflections. But sir… you know sir… in fact sir… what I feel sir…
“My daughter is obsessed with her guitar,” I said, as if it was an afterthought. It was true that my daughter loved her guitar but I mentioned her as a buffer, to dispel any thoughts of him wanting his favour returned.
“You have a daughter? That is good. How old?” It was not the response I expected.
“9 going on 99,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Let her meet my daughter. She’s 13, but they can still be friends.”
OK was the first man who hadn’t flinched when I mentioned I had a child after noting the absence of a wedding band. The first who didn’t say, “Oh she’s nine, you must have married early o,” as a way to confirm their suspicions: unmarried mother. When I recapped my day that evening as I massaged night oil onto my face, it was his gentleness that remained the highlight. His humanity and tenderness. Maybe it was something that only came with grey hair for men. He simply asked that his daughter meet mine. Of course, this clearly meant he wanted us to meet again. At the bottom of the bank steps that afternoon, we exchanged phone numbers and just before I pulled my car into the road, he had sent me a smiley on WhatsApp. I took a quick glance at him through my rear mirror. And I allowed myself like him a little, grey hair and all.
He looked like a family man. One to have a dutiful wife waiting for him at home with freshly made efo riro, the palm oil and crayfish smell already greeting him by the gate even before getting through the door. But our conversation did not steer in that direction. Unlike him, from the moment I realized he had a daughter, I found myself wanting to know more. I became the one with the stylish questions in my head.
“Why was there no ring on his finger if he had a teenage daughter?”
“Why did he want the daughters to meet, why not the daughters and their mothers?”
As I lay in my bed, I checked the time to see if the hour was still godly enough to respond to his smiley. It wasn’t. I waited till morning and responded with a smiley too.
Almost immediately, he began typing and by mid-morning we had both successfully concluded that there was no point for the daughters to meet if the parents didn’t know each other first. School was on long holiday. My daughter was at her father’s, his was at her grandmother’s.
The general tone between us was delicate. He, still calling me dear, me, responding with laughing smileys because I didn’t know what to make of chatting with a greying man that was not work related. I asked him blankly about his wife, if he would bring her to the daughters’’s meet up. My head buzzed from doing the same thing I always had done to me, being profiled because of my child. But I needed to know. I regretted typing bring. It felt as though I was referring to her as some toy doll he owned and would bring to make a cameo appearance. No response came to that message even though I saw that he was typing for a really long time. The conversation ended there, until he called me an hour or two later.
“How do people who have wives look?” He asked me, when we met up weeks later for a late lunch at an over-priced restaurant in Victoria Island. The silverware was so wide and shiny I could fix my smudged make-up with it. The food on the other hand was so tiny, so measured, an entire meal just tucked delicately in a corner of the wide plate as though it had been placed there only for viewing.
We had built over six weeks of friendship but it still felt pretentious to call him friend, to introduce him to an actual friend and say the words “Meet my friend Okiki.” I struggled all the time. It was very much easier to call him mentor, maybe even colleague, but he was none of those. He was my friend who sent me funny videos on WhatsApp and ordered me peppersoup to help with a sore throat. He noticed my struggle and asked me to call him Okiks.
“No one would notice,” he assured me.
“It sounds like some Yoruba salutation. People will think you are just hailing me.”
I laughed at his desperate attempt at wanting to be a cool cat and said Okiks out loud a few times, as if trying to test it, to feel its weight on my tongue but eventually, I settled for OK.
It kept the loose nature of the friendship intact and at the same time didn’t make me sound disrespectful.
As soon as I eased into this platonic phase, OK began running things by me almost daily. It was as though he was waiting all along for me to catch up. He suddenly wanted to know if I thought he should buy his daughter a phone or if he should still keep sending a monthly allowance to his late wife’s family. It had been seven years since she died suddenly, leaving him with a six-year-old full of many questions and because of her, he felt he owed them that much. A token. Nothing major.
I remember the slight relief I felt the day he called to tell me about losing his wife, the mother of his 13-year-old. I chided myself for it, for my audacity to feel relief in the face of someone else’s sorrow. I was just glad there was no woman to contend with, no woman to have mixed feelings about. She was better dead than far away in a village. Being alive meant being around, no matter how far away.
“Oya, I’m listening, how do people who have wives look?” He asked again, suddenly scattering all the thoughts in my head.
“I don’t know,” I said and shrugged. “Like you I guess,”
I sipped my water continuously not wanting to be the first to begin eating. When he had gobbled what must have been about five spoons, I began to pick gently at my potatoes, mashed to perfection.
“I don’t know why you ordered baby food,” he said in between laughter. It was not so funny to me but I laughed. I laughed a lot with him; exaggerated chuckles that covered for my inability to bring any decent topics to our conversation, chuckles that filled up the silence that sat between us every couple of minutes, like a third person. But it was obvious I had developed a soft spot for him, because even in my lack of what to say, I always enjoyed his company. I wanted to be around him but didn’t want to be about him. I made no sense to myself but he did to me. I liked that he continued talking whenever he figured I had nothing to add. There was something odd about how fond stories he relayed about himself happened in the year or about the same year I was born but I liked that he was careful not to use phrases like “you won’t understand” or “back in the day”.
Our lunch at VI was the beginning of everything else. We began going everywhere together. I invited him to church, he invited me to PTA. He said he had not much of a social life and PTA was the only place I could see him in his elements. He was right. His voice came out to the parents a little firmer than it did to me. He gave fee ultimatums for the new school year starting in a few weeks and told parents off for letting their children bring phones and gadgets to school. “This will not be condoned next session.” He said unfailingly and by God’s grace a lot. I watched him from behind the staff cafeteria that had been converted into a meeting hall, consciously averting my gaze but making sure still that I remained in his line of sight.
The more we went out, the more questions piled up at the back of my throat to ask him. Like – “What are we?” or “Do you talk about me to your family?” and “Do you make enough money from teaching?” but they all sounded desperate. So, I swallowed them, one after the other. I was hopeful it would come up eventually in conversation, as our friendship or love or whatever it was blossomed. I only asked if he was ever embarrassed, following me around everywhere like a child that needed adult supervision, buying fish in the market, choosing big ones for me, buying sanitary towels in a pharmacy and advising which retained more moisture, according to adverts he had seen on television. He said he was basking in the glow of my youth, being rejuvenated by it and didn’t care what anyone said or thought. I liked him a lot, enough to cook him lunch twice, sometimes three times a week and have him in my bed on some nights, enough to dismiss my worry of what my daughter would feel or how she would react when she met him, dismiss it until it crept back in right after we were done having inelegant sex.
I would take glances at his limp body sprawled on my bed and heaving peacefully almost immediately, as though sleep was his antidote to sex, rehearsing in my head who I would say he was if someone – my daughter especially – happened to find him trudging around my living room.
This was another hurdle I knew I would have to cross, very much like the hurdle of settling on a name to call him that wasn’t disrespectful. Sleeping at his own house may have solved the problem, but only partly. It didn’t solve the problem of the uncomfortable stares I had to endure from his neighbours, piercing me from behind heavy wall curtains and gentle whispers that my ears caught through the runny mouths of security men and cleaning women.
As the knock on the door increased with intensity, I found myself scampering for no reason. Arranging scattered slippers and re arranging throw pillows, pulling OK towards the kitchen. I sprayed puffs of room fragrance mindlessly into the air before speeding to the door, feigning surprise and trying to buy time.
“What’s going on, I thought you were out with your dad?” I probed, my words spilling out in a slight accusatory tone as I watched my daughter edge past me through the door into the living room.
“I’m just here to pick a few more clothes, daddy is waiting for me outside.”
“Your dad is here?” I balanced my shaky voice on the sudden shock that gripped me to keep it steady, to keep me from sounding too surprised.
“Yea, we went to the cinema near here, but there was no great movie showing, so I decided to …come … here...” her voice trailed off as she caught sight of OK.
“There’s a plumber here to fix the kitchen sink,” I said, a little too cheerily from behind her, my eyes averted from OK’s, hoping he looked plumber enough in his camo shorts and black t-shirt.
She walked past him with a slight nod and I walked into her room with her, staying there as she picked the clothes she wanted. Staying there long after she left. Staying there until I heard the ping sound my phone made, a WhatsApp message. I’m quite handy with sinks.
Tope is an editor and a writer whose work explores the delicateness of love and effects of loss on people. In 2015, she was one of the 25 selected to participate in the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop. A literature enthusiast and collector of books, she runs a book club for kids age 3-6 in her spare time.
Image: Tim Okamura.
This short story may not be republished, modified nor stored in a retrivial system without prior written permission from the author, Tope Owolabi, or The Book Banque. All rights reserved.