Debut author Lesley Nneka Arimah’s characters muscle their way through girlhood. They rise to the top of the playground food chain and punch a classmate in the face. They reject a marriage proposal from a seemingly perfect man who offers financial security. They imbue a baby doll made of human hair with life despite their mother’s advice.
Arimah’s short story collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is filled with both the ordinary and extraordinary, and osculates between the real and the surreal. In an array of settings—from Nigeria to Minneapolis to science fiction realms—Arimah’s characters all reckon with the burden of cultural and parental expectation. Childhood concerns mingle with tales of civil war and Yoruba parables, and girls negotiate the inheritance of tradition and trauma while finding their own path. But this message of self-determination is not always clear-cut, as these attempts at individualism often lead back to the deeply entrenched roots.
In “War Stories,” Arimah juxtaposes her protagonist Nwando’s dethroning of the reigning popular girl at school with her father’s wrenching accounts of fighting in the Nigerian Civil War. During their frequent chess games, Nwando’s father tells her stories of his friend and fellow soldier Emmanuel, who has recently committed suicide. Stunned and unable to process her father’s grief, Nwando directs her aggression to the schoolyard, where she describes her cohort as an “army” under her “command,” and her newfound popular status as a “regime.” This twisted form of play comes to a halt when Nwando punches a girl in the face and is reprimanded by her mother. In an attempt to gain control over her father’s tales of senseless violence and death, Nwando has unwittingly turned her social environment into a battleground. Like so many of Arimah’s characters, Nwando is born into a fraught legacy, and is saddled with a history she struggles to come to terms with.
As Arimah’s characters mature into womanhood, they continue to try and evade the perceived misdeeds and shortcomings of their parents. In “Who Will Greet You at Home,” an assistant hairdresser named Ogechi wants to become a mother. To do so, she must first create a child out of whatever material she can find, and then have it blessed. The blessing animates the doll, which then must be kept alive for a year. After a year has elapsed the doll becomes a fully animated human being. Ogechi stubbornly creates children out of materials that fall apart, including yarn, which “lasted a good month… before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unraveled as she continued walking.” Ogechi’s own mother made her out of mud and sticks because of their durability. Ogechi’s mother advises her to give up on her dream of creating a child out of fragile material, saying that this practice is only for rich women, and that, “women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material if they were to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers.” But Ogechi ignores this advice and makes a child out of hair she’s swept up from the salon. This ends disastrously, and the child burns to ash. Ogechi ultimately acquiesces, mixing the ashes with mud and leaves to form a new child. This ending is bittersweet, as Ogechi blends her failed idealism with her mother’s traditional method, which she originally deemed crude and unsophisticated.
Individual grit does not always lead these women back to tradition, however. In “Glory,” protagonist Glorybetogod Ngozi Akunyili—Glory, for short—has a strange deficiency. According to her grandfather, she was born “with something rotten in her,” and “her chi is not well.” There is an element of magic realism here, as Glory lives up to this assessment and “errs on the side of wrong, time and time again,” but the reader never knows for sure if this is curse of coincidence. Glory earns little at the call center where she works, is approaching thirty, and constantly borrows money from her parents. She constructs an alternate life on Facebook in which she is successful, but contemplates committing suicide. One day Thomas, a handsome Nigerian man, is stationed next to her at the call center. She simultaneously resents and is drawn to his good luck and optimism, and they start dating. Things finally seem to be going her way, and her family congratulates her. But when Thomas proposes to her and suggests they move back to Nigeria to raise children, her inner contrarian rears its head. Although she knows that saying no is another potentially reckless act of self-sabotage, the idea of allowing her salvation to hinge upon a man is unbearable. What Glory’s grandfather considers “rotten” is in fact her fierce independence. What he deems “bad chi” is her tendency to choose an unconventional path over an easy or expected one.
Arimah’s endings are frequently ambiguous. Freedom is not always synonymous with happiness, and sometimes her characters fail in their attempts at forging their own paths. These characters are both foolish and mighty. They may not really know what they’re doing, but they’re tough and they won’t back down.
In our current political climate with its rampant animosity towards immigrants, Arimah offers a humanizing portrait of both the Nigerian citizen and first generation young female immigrant. She showcases their flaws, their desires, their victories, and their attempts at carving out a place in a country whose customs and values diverge from that of their heritage.