As Long as What Is Said Is Understood: Talking with Lesley Nneka Arimah
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is the kind of book I can’t stop talking about. Only three or four stories in, I was already recommending it to anyone who would listen: my girlfriend, my officemate, a near-stranger on Facebook. It is the kind of book I want to thrust into the hands of short-story lovers and short-story skeptics alike, for who could fail to be won over by its imagination, its muscularity, its technical prowess, its exhilarating scope?
I was first introduced to Lesley Nneka Arimah’s work through our mutual friend Kendra Fortmeyer, who recommended Lesley’s New Yorker story “Who Will Greet You at Home” as required reading for the lover of contemporary magical realism. As Kendra had promised, I devoured the piece, reveling in its original blend of folktale, horror story, and social critique—the story takes place in an alternate Nigeria, where babies are crafted from materials such as yarn, mud, and human hair, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this presents more than a few complications. That story took me to others, until I found myself waiting impatiently for the release of What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Lesley’s debut collection.
Needless to say, it was worth the wait. The book, out from Riverhead this past April, has garnered praise from critics at the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and elsewhere. Lesley is a two-time finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing and the 2015 winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa; her other honors include an O. Henry Award, as well as numerous grants and fellowships. It’s an impressive list for a debut writer, but it’s no surprise to those who are familiar with Lesley’s stories.
Lesley is like a surgeon on the page—deft and efficient, cutting close to the bone and letting the blood flow to present truths with the power to both wound and heal. Lesley’s fiction reveals, interrogates, and invents, drawing from the realms of literary realism, science fiction, folktale, and beyond to create something entirely unique and captivating.
In emails exchanged in the weeks immediately before and after the book’s release, Lesley and I discussed mother-daughter relationships, story structure, and Spanx as a metaphor for the relationship between art and religion.
The Rumpus: One of the first things that struck me upon reading the collection—after, of course, “Oh my goodness, this is so brilliant, how does she do it?”—was the near-omnipresence of these nuanced, vividly rendered parent-child relationships. I don’t mean this to say in any way that there is something repetitious here: the parents and children that we get are so richly varied, from the goddess of rivers and her twins, to Ogechi with her baby made of hair and Buchi calculating these awful compromises for herself and her daughters—and that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve seen you talk about your interest in this before—the ideas of legacy and the disconnects in what is and is not passed down. In looking at all these stories, if you can talk about what it is that drives you to keep returning to this territory?
Lesley Nneka Arimah: I find myself drawn to the many different ways family dynamics can manifest. What if a child is being raised by parents who dislike her? Or like her so much they’re always in the way? How many ways can a child be disappointing? It’s like walking a maze that can be solved several different ways. I want to try out every path, to encounter something new. I want to think through (and write) all the possible permutations of what a family can look like. By that same token, I’m interested in how varied family legacies can be. What do we pass down to our children that we shouldn’t? How do we cripple them by keeping or sharing family secrets? It’s all very fascinating.
Rumpus: We get fathers here, too, but the emphasis seems to skew toward mothers and daughters. There’s something especially freighted there, I think—I certainly feel it as a daughter myself. What draws you to that particular relationship?
Arimah: This probably falls partly into the “write what you know” category. I know what it is to be a daughter and when I imagine parenting, it’s motherhood I’d have to contend with. The other draw is that we have such strict societal rules about what a “good mother” looks like that I find it more interesting to subvert those rules than I would with fatherhood. Fathers are generally permitted to be distant and sometimes even absent and still fall into the realm of acceptable (or at least forgivable) fatherhood. Women do not have that luxury.
Rumpus: You mentioned on the Loft Literary podcast recently that before you began taking creative writing classes, you actually planned to attend law school—and although obviously I am thrilled that you decided not to go in that direction, I sense in your stories a very real interest in justice and injustice. The final story in the collection, “Redemption,” is a great example of that in the way that it presents the collision of righteousness with a decidedly unrighteous structure of power and authority. How do you think about justice in your writing? (And of course, there’s also the fact that so many lawyers have been prolific writers—I’m constantly thinking of Hamilton, the musical, which gives us a great example of that!)
Arimah: A moment of reverence for the glory that is Hamilton. As for addressing justice/injustice in my writing, while it’s not something I consciously set out to do, I do have ideas about what is right and wrong and so it’s bound to seep into my work. Those ideas can be divided into institutional and interpersonal, and I find that they often diverge. For example, my ideas regarding interpersonal rightness vs. wrongness are less about cosmetics or calls to “be nice,” as I think niceness can mask injustice and make it easier to swallow. In that sense interpersonal righteousness can be flexible (most people wouldn’t think it wrong to call someone kicking a dog an asshole, for example). Whereas institutions must always aim towards justice, rightness, if they are to be useful to all members of society.
Rumpus: So what you’re saying is that, while righteousness can be situational, on an individual basis, institutions occupy a different kind of space?
Arimah: Yes, they do, and in fact that’s what’s so disturbing about the current political climate. Institutions have always been imperfect reflections of the prejudices of those in power, and now those in power are actively and publicly molding public-serving institutions after their own prejudices. Such models are only sustainable by apathy or violence. Again, this is not something I directly address or think about when I write, but it’s always doing its thing in my subconscious, which undoubtedly comes out in my work.
Rumpus: I’d love to hear about your education. You did your MFA at Minnesota State, and I’ve also heard you talk about your experience at VONA. What has workshop taught you as a writer? As a writing teacher, how do you see your role in your students’ development? I’m so interested in the way that we make the journey from novice writer to something more.
Arimah: It must be said that all workshops aren’t created equal. I don’t value workshops for their own sake, but only when then are honest and useful. I think that bad workshops can teach a writer bad habits, especially if they encounter them too early in the process of learning how to write. VONA was an interesting (and life-changing) experience for me because it was the first workshop where I was being read by a group of entirely non-white readers, many from non-US backgrounds, and in that particular case it meant that no one asked or cared about the “exotic” content of my work. The focus was on craft and story and all those writerly things, and it was the first time in my American education that I felt truly read and understood. It’s something that’s easy to take for granted when being understood, on a cultural level, isn’t a thing you ever have to think about. It made me demand a better class of response to my work, which made me demand a better class of work from myself. As an instructor, I try to recreate that for my students, that permission and desire to demand better for and from yourself whatever the workshop dynamics may be.
Rumpus: One thing that really delighted me about this collection was the fearless mixing of speculative and non-speculative elements—the mathematical formula that allows for the extraction of human sadness in the title story or the return of the dead mother from a photograph in “Second Chances” combined with the kinds of real human relationships we’ve already discussed. How do you think about your relationship with the tradition of magical realism? I have heard you use that term for your work before—are there other terms that come to mind also? In some ways, I think that this idea of naming genre can be overly semantic; however, in other ways, I think it’s important and interesting to make distinctions between ways of approaching the speculative or the fantastic.
Arimah: I often don’t care what things are called, or what the right word for something is, as long as what is said is understood. Magical realism, speculative, fantasy, science fiction—these are all terms I (and others) have used to describe my work, and I’m fine with all those labels. I’m sure there are arguments for the appropriateness of one or the other, but I’m not heavily invested (unless someone is trying to disparage any one of those genres. Then I’ll likely come to its defense).
(After penning this response I came across a discussion spearheaded by @justabookeater_ on Twitter that referenced Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Nobel lecture and made the case that magical realism is the specific territory of Latin American writers interrogating colonialism and how more appropriate terms for non-Latin American writers of speculative works that don’t deal specifically with postcolonialism is “fabulism” or “surrealist fiction.” I don’t have a problem with this. There are postcolonial works by continental and diasporic black writers that technically fit under this umbrella of postcolonial interrogation, so it will be interesting to see where the discussion goes from here.)
As for my relationship with the tradition of magical realism, I should say something obvious and true about Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude is in my ancestral cannon), but I keep coming back to the world I grew up in. We accepted the existence of a spiritual world that is as robust and complex as the physical one I’m typing this in. In “Who Will Greet You at Home,” for example, the evil hair baby is related, tangentially, to the old superstition many people are no doubt familiar with that someone could put a root on you if they got a hank of your hair. It’s not a one-to-one correlation, but they’re connected, these ideas of hair and magic. Maybe I was just very suggestible, but growing up I believed just about everything I was told about spirits and witches and angels and demons, so they were part of how I engaged with the world. Growing up in a spiritual and evangelical household means that your realism is actually magical realism, with no distinctions, and so yes, of course a woman’s ghost can step out of a photograph and cook dinner.
Rumpus: I love that. Is there more to say about how the religious aspect of your childhood shaped your writing? How it shapes you now? I love the radio show On Being, and the host, Krista Tippett, always asks guests about “the spiritual or religious background of their upbringing.” Is that a question that interests you?
Arimah: It’s a question that interests me up to a point, typically only if the person has left a restrictive faith. I recently attended the Guillermo del Toro exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and he talks about how Catholicism constrained him as a child. He wouldn’t be creating the work he is if he’d stayed in the church; it’s too weird, it would have been considered “demonic.” That’s what I find interesting, that he had the awareness to see the particular ways in which the church muted him and decided to exchange it for the freedom to be his weird self. I think that there are personalities that can live within those religious constraints and those that can’t. And when you can’t, it’s like wearing Spanx, but all the time, and you are forced to grow into a shape that looks normal, but that you find extremely uncomfortable. And when you finally take the Spanx off, you want to breathe all the air, and eat all the things, and get a set of clothes that actually fit.
Rumpus: In that Loft Literary interview, you talked about originally ordering the collection on a continuum from most realist to most magical—I assume “What Is a Volcano?” was last in that line-up, but which story came first?
Arimah: The first story was “The Future Looks Good,” same as it is now. I can’t imagine starting with anything else. It’s short, punchy and provides a decent thematic summary of the rest of the book. It’s also, coincidentally, the first story I wrote when I finally figured out how this whole short story thing works.
Rumpus: If I’m not mistaken, you’re finishing a novel now. How’s it going? Can we expect to see magical realist elements?
Arimah: Yes, you can expect magical realist elements. As for how it’s going, I need you to use your auditory imagination to conjure up a long sigh. That would be my editor waiting for my final draft (I swear it’s coming).
Rumpus: There’s also a sense of play at work in these stories—both on the level of the imagination and on the level of the line—although the collection as a whole takes on some very serious territory, we get these laugh-out-loud sentences, like “When Glory’s parents christened her Glorybetogod Ngozi Akunyili, they did not foresee Facebook’s “real name” policy” or “My father and I have never spoken of the state he found me in, Alabama.” What’s the role of play or playfulness in your work? In your writing process?
Arimah: I find humor and play to be very important, especially when dealing with heavy topics, both for the reader and for myself. It relieves the building pressure, not enough to deflate the story, but just so that the reader feels safe enough to laugh, lulling them into a (often false) sense of relief. Most of the humor comes to me as the story unfolds, but I’ll sometimes dip into a document where I save all kinds of snippets and one-liners and look for something that pairs well with the story I’m working on.
Rumpus: It seems like there are a lot of conversations these days about “sympathetic” female characters (can we agree that this is probably sexist nonsense?). In reading these stories, I so admired the ways in which you don’t shy away from how terrible people can be, not necessarily on the grand moral scale, but in smaller, more mundane ways. “Glory” is a great example of this. Almost anything she does makes me cringe, but I believe all of it, and I understand why she does what she does. And I may be an over-empathizer, but I totally feel for her.
Arimah: Yes, I find the preoccupation with sympathetic female characters sexist, but also really dishonest. We all know disagreeable or unlikeable people, some of whom are women, so why the jawing when women write women who are objectionable? Why the need to smother this particular rendition of the human experience? It feels less like a commentary on the story itself and more like a criticism of the writer. Because we tend to read works by women as being confessional or inspired by their real life, the underlying question about sympathetic characters seems to be “why would you want to write such an unlikeable character, don’t you want people to like them (and, by extension, you)?”
To actually address your point, I love an unsympathetic female character we can root for (or even one that we can’t). There’s something very satisfying about writing a character that’s flawed, mean, and possibly evil in a way that still makes the reader pull for, or at least understand, them. I don’t think women who create such characters are doing anything revolutionary, we’re just writing full, realistic people. It’s they way these characters are received that turns it into an issue.
Rumpus: “Glory” also completely undermines romance in a way that interests me. They’re going through all the meet-cute motions, but there’s something totally different going on here, and we know that a “happily ever after” is not in the cards. There’s certainly love in this collection—especially the love between parents and children—but there’s not much in the way of love stories. We get a little glimpse of the relationship in “What It Means…,” but that certainly doesn’t end well for anyone either. Yet, I also hear you like romance novels. Me too! Can we talk about that?
Arimah: Is it possible to be a cynical romantic? I’m not entirely sure the two can exist in the same space, but here I am. What I love about romance novels is that we know exactly how the book is going to end (boy and girl get each other), and so the author must make the journey interesting. I’m all about the interesting journey. I hate “will-they-won’t-they” plot devices in any genre of book (such a lazy way to build tension), and with romance novels you know they will, usually around page one hundred and thirty-four. I do find that I have less patience for badly written romance novels since I started reading them again as an adult, but that cuts across all books. With “genre” fiction, there’s a formula to it, and what I enjoy are works that combine the formula (the comfort of a recognizable pattern, routine) with the unexpected. Eloisa James is very good at this.
Rumpus: Speaking of structure, I wanted to ask you specifically about the rule of threes. I think we have this idea that something like the rule of threes is too elementary for “sophisticated writers,” but “Windfalls,” I think, is a great example of a story that uses the rule of threes brilliantly. The story operates around three main incidents that escalate to a pretty devastating turn in the last few pages—the first time I read it, I was in the lobby of a bank, and I found myself so incredibly engaged and satisfied that I wanted to tell everyone standing there about the story. There’s nothing about the use of a three-part structure that cheapens what’s going on—there’s still so much nuance in the detail and characterization and the moral dilemmas presented. In fact, I would say that the relatively simple structure and brevity of the story allows all that to hit us harder. (“Who Will Greet You At Home,” I think, does something similar with structure, in a way that also evokes the fairy tale.) Anyway, all this is a very lengthy way of asking—how do you think about structure as a writer? As a reader?
Arimah: I love structure; I love plot. I love when things happen and then other things happen as a result of things happening and then, and then, and then. I’ll read anything, but as a writer, plot is what keeps me coming back to the page. It’s very satisfying to create a puzzle of events for my characters to navigate. I also think a good plot gives weight and dimension to a character’s introspection. It’s so much more interesting that Ike thinks about his mother when he’s being kidnapped a mile down the street from his childhood home, than when he’s on a walk, just thinking, unkidnapped.
The rule of threes is an intuitive storytelling structure. Hell, it’s practically Biblical. I think its ubiquitousness speaks to something I touched on earlier, the comfort of pattern. Our brains are wired to pattern; it creates a shortcut so that we know what’s coming up next and can dedicate mental energy toward something else. For a writer, this means being free to go crazy with the details while operating within the familiarity of a structure most of us will choose subconsciously. The brevity of a short story compresses the structure, rendering it more apparent, but a good many novels employ the same structure, too.
The other thing with pattern, however, is that it can be pleasant to have those expectations violated. It tickles another part of the brain that, upon determining there’s no immediate danger, is, well, tickled—humor relies heavily on this violation of expectations… (This is starting to turn into one of my class lectures, which I won’t bore you with.)
Rumpus: When I taught elementary school, we used to talk about “mentor texts”—the pieces of writing or writers we turn to as guides for our writing. Is that a term that makes sense to you? Were there mentor texts that guided you as you were working on the story in this collection? What were they?
Arimah: I don’t engage with work in quite that way (consulting or being guided by specific texts as I write), but there are works I encountered at certain points on my writing path that had a significant impact on my writing in general and the collection eventually. I really love the story collection Man V. Nature by Diane Cook. I didn’t read the entire collection until I was well into writing the stories in my collection, but I encountered one of her stories (“Somebody’s Baby”) right after I graduated from my MFA program, before I’d written any of these. I was probably looking for contests to enter, and it had just been published as the winner of Salt Hill’s Italo Calvino Prize. It was one of the works I read around that time that made me realize what a long way I had to go, such a long way that I stopped writing for a while and focused on giving myself a writer’s education (reading and reading and reading). “Somebody’s Baby” also dealt with motherhood in a speculative context, in the tight, brilliant package of a short story, and it stayed in my subconscious, brewing.
Rumpus: Before we finish, I wanted to talk about Twitter for just a minute—what do you get out of it? Is there an itch that Twitter scratches for you? Is that a writerly itch, do you think?
Arimah: Twitter definitely scratches an itch, both writerly and social. I used to live in a rural part of the country and there were very few people to socialize with day to day and so Twitter filled the role of a social group, both keeping me involved in the day-to-day lives of my distant friends and introducing me to new people. If I were living in Minneapolis at the time, with easier access to a social circle, who knows if Twitter would have become as important, but it’s now part of my routine. I follow all the major newspapers and I follow lit journals and blogs of interest and Twitter is the portal through which I visit most of them. As for tweeting, I do it a lot, and it’s enjoyable as an introvert to have conversations without the awkwardness of positioning and interpreting faces and bodies. It’s also just plain fun.
Rumpus: Okay, now here’s a big scary final question: You said in an interview at The Butter, “My perfect piece of art would be daring and unapologetic in a way that is vulnerable, and would be a mirror that reveals the grotesquely human parts of ourselves.” I could write a whole essay (maybe I will!) about the ways that this collection is doing all of these things—but I’m curious to hear from you, is there a part of all this that you think you’re still working on, or striving toward? Or is has your definition of perfection shifted at all in the couple of years since you said that—to what extent is the perfect piece of art a moving target?
Arimah: If I had to answer that question now, I don’t know that I’d give the same response, so I suppose that my definition of perfection has changed. Or perhaps, this book has fulfilled that particular desire, and now my art is moving in a different direction. I’m still drawn to our human grotesquerie, but I find myself interested in going beyond revelation to… I’m not sure what exactly. Now that we’ve got the skin off, I want to peel my way to the core.
Author photograph © Emily Baxter.