I first learned of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of short stories, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (2017) from Levar Burton’s brilliant podcast, Levar Burton Reads. I loved that even though the story that he read—the title story—could’ve been set anywhere, the author chose to situate the narrative in Nigeria. “What it Means When a Man Fall from the Sky” is about a gifted mathematician—one of several in the country—who are also not only empathic, but they can absorb others’ grief through the use of a particular mathematical formula called Furcal’s Formula. It is easily imagined that such a “gift” is also a curse, driving some of the mathematicians to lunacy and suicide, especially in a world in which the great powers, The U.S. and Europe, have, through their own greed, been swallowed by water (the effect of climate change) and thus, invade those lands—formerly colonized—that have been spared.
While I liked the story, especially read as it is so masterfully by Burton, once I got the collection and read the rest of the stories, “What It Means” turned out to be my least favorite.
I had to read the first story, “The Future Looks Good,” at least three times. The prose about a tragic case of mistaken identity is so tight and economical that it was disorienting. Another story, “Wild,” is about a young American woman who, just before heading to university, is sent by her mother to spend the summer with her family in Nigeria. The story raises issues of familial dysfunction, the meanings behind the epithet “wild” and the prison of respectability politics especially in relation to girls and young women, class, and appearances.
Another story to be celebrated for its brilliant insight into respectability politics and female oppression is “Light” about a father in Nigeria who tries to save his daughter from her mother who lives in the U.S. and wants the budding young woman to come and live with her. Both of the stories, along with “Windfall” about a young woman with a scam artist for a mother raise important points about how women can be some of the most fervent defenders of rules of behavior that are most detrimental to girls’ and women’s self-esteem and wholeness.
“Windfall” is so fastmoving and relentless in its assault against human dignity in the name of family that I felt, as the reader, like I needed to take a breath. But I couldn’t put it down because I needed to see it through. The story’s shocking ending—one that I could not fathom—frankly brought me to tears.
Yet another story with a heartbreaking ending, “Buchi’s Girls,” was painful to read, in part, because it was so recognizable. After a woman loses her husband to a freak accident when he tries to help a stranger, she and her two little girls must depend on her sister and brother-in-law to survive. The only way she can see out of her predicament is to “do something a mother just couldn’t do.” (145)
There are several stories that, I’m sure, could be considered speculative or magical. “What It Means” is one. “Second Chances is another. Still another is “Who Will Greet You at Home” about a poor young woman who desperately wants a better life for her child. But as someone who has lived in places where the lines between the “natural” and the “supernatural” are regularly blurred, with, for example, hopeful new brides carrying around and caring for fertility dolls as it they were alive, the narrative seemed familiar if not plausible, though heartbreaking.
My favorite story, by far, was “Glory” about an ill-fated young woman who seems, no matter how hard she tries to make the right life choices, to make the wrong ones. She’s a disappointment to her parents who define success the way that most of the world does: marriage to a “respectable” person, a high-paying “prestigious” job, and having a couple of kids. Glory does not seem to be able to access to any of these things no matter how hard she tries.
She gets wept up in the tidal wave of Thomas, a fellow Nigerian who is “successful” and, like a bulldozer, steadily making plans for their future.
Glory is faced with yet another a decision.
At the story’s denouement, with Glory facing two difficult choices, quite wonderfully, Arimah leaves the question about what she will decide unanswered. I’m usually frustrated when an author does such a thing, but here it is soooo… appropriate and dare I say, satisfying, because, again, there is no simple “good” choice. Basically, the choice, which all of us are called to make on a daily basis, is whether we are going to take responsibility for our lives and what that looks like.
Arimah has garnered many accolades for her craft, including The Kirkus Prize and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is a wonderful escape into reality. As The Seattle Times characterized it, the collection is “chilling, dreamy, often breathtaking.” It is definitely worth picking up and sharing with other lovers of the Word!!
Listen to this wonderful conversation between Arimah and Levar Burton (scroll through the list of podcasts–August 8, 2017)