Lesley Nneka Arimah Validates the Buzz


Lesley Nneka Arimah is a writer to watch. The author’s debut, What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky (Riverhead), is a collection of twelve strikingly beautiful stories that range from hyperrealist narratives about girls dealing with class issues in Nigeria to supernatural fables in which the wildly fantastic is treated as a matter of course. In “Who Will Greet You at Home,” published in the New Yorker and named a 2016 National Magazine Awards finalist for fiction, a Nigerian woman determined to have a child fashions a living baby out of human hair; the title story, which first ran online at Catapult and was shortlisted for the 2016 Caine Prize, envisions a dystopian near future where talented mathematicians have the power to absorb people’s grief.

In both of these, naturally, plenty of plot-driven trouble ensues, but it’s the 33-year-old’s skill at evoking the interiority of her characters that lends her fiction its resonance. No matter how left-of-center her narratives, there’s a recognizable humanity at their core — a sense of something universal, told in unsentimental language. Consider Nneoma, the title story’s mathematician heroine, who, when presented with a displaced Senegalese teen, explains why she rarely works with refugees:

The complexity of their suffering always took something from her. The only time she’d felt anything as strongly was after her mother had passed and her father was in full lament, listing to the side of ruin. How could Nneoma tell him that she couldn’t even look at him without being broken by it? He would never understand. The day she’d tried to work on him, to eat her father’s grief, she finally understood why it was forbidden to work on close family members. Their grief was your own and you could never get out of your head long enough to calculate it.

Arimah’s extraordinary ability to convey imagined experience, and to give her readers an emotional understanding of her characters’ struggles, has earned her early acclaim in the literary universe. “She has a completely fresh voice and take we hadn’t heard before,” says Becky Saletan, Arimah’s editor at Riverhead Books. “It’s not dutiful work — you know, ‘Now I’m going to tell you tourist-friendly stories about places you haven’t been.’ It’s a much higher bar than that.”

The contrast between registers among the stories — some approaching fantasy, others with a more quotidian tone — throws each into high relief. Arimah’s more outlandish work, like “Who Will Greet You at Home,” is grounded by tales like “Glory,” in which a depressed Minneapolis call center employee begins a hilariously fraught romance with her new co-worker, or “Buchi’s Girls,” where, following a tragedy, a woman and her daughters are forced to move in to her sister’s home and are treated like hired help. Here, too, Arimah is adept at describing psychology: “Buchi always imagined herself a quiet woman whose well ran deep. That when faced with extreme conditions, she would meet them with an inner fount of strength, a will long dormant electrified to life. But these last few months of folding into herself, of enduring one petty disgrace after another, had drained that well dry.”

“Speculative fiction is actually where I cut my teeth as a reader who did not yet know she’d end up a writer,” Arimah says. “And my real life was just as rooted in the spiritual, where demons and angels and spirits were as real as you and I. So these are not necessarily separate sides of my storytelling, but ways in which I’m accustomed to engaging with the world.”

Born in the U.K. and raised “wherever my father was stationed for work, which was sometimes Nigeria, sometimes not,” Arimah moved to Louisiana with her family when she was thirteen. Her father was an engineer for an oil company, her mother a pastor who wrote sermons and religious texts. “I’m becoming overwhelmed just thinking about how confused thirteen-year-old me was trying to adjust to this new social environment,” she recalls. “I did so terribly, mostly clamming up and only able to relax while I was at home.” Books became one refuge. The author read widely as a child, and remembers how she and her sister would take biweekly trips to the library to bring home duffel bags filled with texts. “We consumed hundreds that way, everything from science fiction and fantasy to westerns, romance, classic literature, biographies, memoirs. I had an insatiable appetite and read pretty indiscriminately. Still do, in fact. It’s made me realize how important it is to have a full education of what stories can look like. It gives one room to play.”

For Arimah, reading came first and writing only later, though she says that somewhere in a landfill in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, there’s “a notebook with half-finished fairy tales retold in epic pages-long rhyming couplets.” She received her B.A. in English from Florida State, initially thinking she would become a lawyer, but after taking a class with author Julianna Baggott, decided on writing instead. After earning a B.S. in psychology from the University of Louisiana, she attended Minnesota State University, where she graduated with an M.F.A. Today she’s based in Minneapolis. “When I decided to Become A Writer I wasn’t looking forward to sharing this with my father, imagining that he would very much disagree. Instead, he told me about how he’d always wanted to write himself, but the obligations of supporting a family led him to a more practical career.”

Family figures heavily in her work, as does a sense of place. Many of the stories are set in Africa and revolve around relationships between women; in “Wild,” for instance, a young woman is sent back to Nigeria from America to live with her aunt and cousin. The young woman and her cousin clash at first, the distance between their experiences seemingly impassable, but eventually earn each other’s grudging respect, albeit in unexpected ways. “Lesley is an unbelievably hardworking writer,” says Saletan. “Some of these stories went through many iterations. So often what sneaks up on you and looks completely surprising and powerful wasn’t born that way. I know what it takes to get there, and she brought it all.”

Next up for Arimah is a novel, provisionally titled The Children of Bones. Though she declines to discuss its plot — “You’ll need to file a FOIA for me to discuss particulars about this book, or any book, before it’s done. It’s like letting air out of a tire; I need the tension” — it’s clear from how she discusses her process, writing and rewriting long sections to meet her vision, that she’s applying the same level of focus to it that she has to her stories. Consider the final tale in What It Means: “Redemption” is a heartbreaker about an African girl who becomes infatuated with her neighbor’s maid. Arimah recalls writing initial versions of the story, then letting it incubate for nearly three years before returning to complete it. “That story feels like the friend who knew you when you were a teenager and you thought white eye shadow was a good idea, but you now know better. It was started with enthusiasm and finished with what I hope is an equal amount of enthusiasm and skill.”

What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky
By Lesley Arimah

240 pp.

Riverhead Books