Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is not simply good: it’s fantastic. Her work stands alongside that of the masters who came before her, and anyone who has even a passing interest in Africa, its literature, and/or simply masterful storytelling should read this collection. Immediately.
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky: Stories (April 2017)
$26.00 (purchase through Amazon)
I will readily admit that I do not consider myself an expert on African writing, though I would say that I may have more experience than most. I’m familiar with many of the classics–Achebe, Emecheta, wa Thiong’o, Dangarembga, Adichie–but I don’t feel that I know African literature the way I know more Western incarnations of the form because, quite frankly, having grown up in a Southern U.S. state, my cultural expectations and preconceptions couldn’t be farther from those of writers who grew up in Lagos or Nairobi. Still, I know good writing when I see it, and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is not simply good: it’s fantastic. Her work stands alongside that of the masters mentioned above, and anyone who has even a passing interest in Africa, its literature, or simply masterful storytelling should read this collection. Immediately.
In just twelve stories, Arimah covers a dazzling array of genres and, even more importantly, crafts an equally multifaceted image of modern Africa. She explores Africa’s ties to its own recent and remote pasts in “War Stories” and its interconnectedness with modern America in “Wild” and “Second Chances,” casting fresh eyes upon a continent that is often used to represent the forbidden and mysterious in literature rather than the familiar. She envisions an Africa that is the center of a world ravaged by climate change in the title story, where mathematics has been used to overcome man’s most painful problems only to open the gates to its most violent of solutions. In all of these stories, however, Arimah examines the role of motherhood, both physical and metaphorical, which she blends seamlessly with myth and folktale in ways that are simultaneously familiar and refreshing.
Two stories from the collection stood out to me in particular and are both reasons that I foresee this book becoming one of the most important collections of 2017. The first, “Who Will Greet You at Home” is one of the most creative, terrifying, and brilliantly insightful stories I have read in many years, and its premise left me dumbstruck from the first line:
The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unraveled as she continued walking, mistaking the little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone.
The story tells of the life of a young African woman named Ogechi, who lives in a world where babies can be made of different materials and birthed into existence; only, here, some materials are forbidden, while others lead to babies of incredible beauty. “Who Will Greet You” mixes elements of folk tale, an Edgar Allan Poe short story, and Little Shop of Horrors in a way that shouldn’t be missed.
The second, “What is a Volcano?”, is written in the style of a creation myth about the God of Rivers, the God of Ants, and how all of the world came to be in its present form. At times, it reminded me of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) or its sequel Luka and the Fire of Life (2010) or even Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees (1957) for its joyful storytelling style and its playful, but detailed, toying with its readers’ emotions and expectations. I have read few such stories in my life, and I count Arimah’s among the best ever.
This is all to say nothing of the wonderful and thrilling aforementioned title story “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky,” which imagines a futuristic and highly developed Africa that has become the seat of world power and authority after most of Earth’s continents have been swallowed by rising sea levels. In roughly 25 pages, Arimah represents the almost magical growth of mathematics and technology, the awakening of the dormant colonialist genocidalism of Europe, and humanity’s final desire to turn upon itself, quite literally, in the face of the incomprehensible.
I would also like to point out that I listened to this collection as an audio book, read by Adjoa Andoh, and her use of Nigerian and American accents for the different characters is simply beautiful, and, I think, an indispensable way to encounter these stories. Even if you prefer to read (as I do) and don’t have a commute that gives time for audio books, I encourage you to try to hear Andoh’s rendition of at least one of these stories. You will not be disappointed.
All in all, Arimah’s collection is wonderful in every conceivable way, and there is not a wasted story in it. I wholeheartedly recommend that you read her work not simply because she is a brilliant new African voice in literature (she is), but because her writing is fresh and important and enjoyable and lovingly crafted in every way, sentence by sentence, word by word. To miss this collection is to miss out on a new vision, a new angle for viewing life itself, and let me remind you, oh reader, lest you forget: no one wants to be a wallflower, especially when it comes to experiencing the power of unforgettable storytelling.