Last year, April, Lesley Nneka Arima released her maiden anthology of short stories to rave reviews in the Western Media.
She was well received among the Kenyan literati, with the opening of short story light, one of the most poignant:
“When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters.”
Arimah, is not one for happy endings, and most stories will break your heart with the sad ending. But what she lacks in offering hope, she makes up for it with dazzling wit and crafty humour. The stories are a discourse on some of the contemporary problems of the African-immigrant experience, the echoes of the Biafra War and the perfidies modern living in America, the most litigious country in the world, something she addresses in the short story Windfalls.
Silas Nyanchwani and Ivy Aseka, look back at the year of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s magical year.
NYANCHWANI: That was a brilliant maiden anthology! What was your immediate impression of the collection?
ASEKA: Confusion. There are so many themes being passed across by the book, which is okay, but it needs all the attention you can give. It’s not a feel good, ‘passing-time” book. It’s a read to every full-stop and punctuation mark book. What did you think?
NYANCHWANI: I couldn’t believe her sheer brilliance. It was one of those “I can’t believe someone can write like this”, so playful, yet so serious. Not every day you pick a book and upon reading the first story, you know you are dealing with a different kind of writer. I loved the ubiquitous sarcasm and satire. Lesley must be an extremely witty and smart alec in person.
ASEKA: Here’s the thing, when I read the first story, ‘The Future Looks Good.’ Ezinma who grows up yearning for her sister’s affection and dies in the maze of it all.
I thought to myself, “Surely, this is not the end. It doesn’t end this way’’. I figured that the stories would complement each other. And they did, not in the basic way I wanted, but in a way, only the brilliant mind of Lesley could do.
NYANCHWANI: True. Lesley, clearly is not a good-ending type of a writer, quite pragmatic. You know, there are no good endings in real life. Rarely.
ASEKA: Context varies. Isn’t there a good ending in consensual sex?
NYANCHWANI: Ha ha ha.
ASEKA: In all seriousness, I am a sucker for good endings. As a creative, I live in many worlds. Some are good, some are not so good. I like great endings. I like the fairytale, the happily ever after, the redemption, the tears of joy. That said, it is good to remain realistic, which is what Lesley reminds us of. What story did you enjoy most?
SILAS: The better question would be, which ones I enjoyed the least…But “Windfall” was a good one, reminded me a story by Mozambican writer, Mia Couto, who wrote “The Girl with a Twisted Future” where a father forces a girl to become a contortionist. The story is an understated American tragedy, with so many layers, but the humour gets you by. I mean, the mother who makes a living out on dubious lawsuits, is a middle-finger to system when it treats people badly.
Which one worked for you the best?
ASEKA: When I read Windfalls, I thought nothing could top it. It was devastating. What I liked about it was its thematic strength. It talked about fraud, bad parenting, sexual manipulation, miscarriages. But “Glory” did it for me. Glorybetogod was so human in the sense that she was so pushed to become better that she eventually decided to be mediocre. That is the world as it is today. Parents pushing children to be versions of themselves that they rarely get to be. Young women becoming withdrawn beings and shells of themselves, doubting everyone that comes their way and always wondering, “Am I good enough”. All the while resenting themselves for feeling that way, getting lost, trying to find themselves and then going back to try and conform to social constructs.
NYANCHWANI: In a sense, “Glory” sound to me the subtle way of Lesley showing us her version of feminism. There an ambivalent attitude to life, throughout anthology, and where the protagonists are defiant, and go against all the expectations. The struggle for personal freedom and independence, amidst familial and societal pressures.
ASEKA: Which did you like the least?
NYANCHWANI: I think I enjoyed all of them, but struggled with the stories where she tried abstraction. Like the title story, “What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky”, whereas you can understand about the religious charlatanism, it was a hard read for me. You?
ASEKA: It must be that same story. Okay, I get that there’s all the fuss about post-doomsday and all this AI stuff. I didn’t understand that story, and I didn’t try to. It made for a good book title, catch even, but that’s all to it. It was more of a content thing than style thing to me.
NYANCHWANI: Do you think she can excel in longform like a novel?
ASEKA: Yes, she would excel in long form, but not as well as she did with this anthology. Lesley writes in a way that makes you yearn for more. She is not extravagant with information, which longform requires.
What stood out to you, throughout the entire anthology?
NYANCHWANI: I think her intelligence. She mixed the themes so nicely, it was like a 12-course dinner and the two troubling stories are the watermelon or the sugary dessert that you pass on. She is witty, humorous and conspiratorial.
Like in “Wild”, there is a way she puts you inside the two girls’ mind and the American visitor becomes the kind of heroine you want. The one who puts the nosy aunts in their place.
ASEKA: What stood out for me is that she was taking no prisoners with her writing. She was raw, she was blunt, she was relentlessly honest.
NYANCHWANI: In terms of style, what style do you think works the best for Lesley?
ASEKA: I guess satire summarizes it all, the irony, the somewhat aloofness to the situation, I liked how she describes situations and people in a way that is funny and mean but not mean enough to cause offense. Like when she describes Ezinma as pretty, yes, but in that manageable way that
Causes little offense. That aside, I like that she approached every story with the individuality it required. In “Light” we saw the dynamics of parenthood and absenteeism. This was an interesting one because I got to see a woman go out to follow her dreams. In “Wild” we see Ada sent out to Africa to straighten her out yet Africa stinks worse than the west. And in war stories, we get to see trauma, suicide and bullying being given a voice.
NYANCHWANI: And the African immigrant experience that is now an genre on its own. She excels where her contemporaries: Chimamanda and Taiye Selasi has succeeded. Why do you think female writers are now on top of their literary game?
ASEKA: Simple. They are telling the stories that need to be told. They are talking about rape (Redemption), they are talking about complexities of relationships and grief (Buchi’s daughters and second chances), miscarriages, childlessness (“Who Will Greet You at Home”), revenge and the mother-child bond (“What is a Volcano?”). Nothing sells like emotion, raw relatable emotion. This is where they win. While men are too indifferent to these issues, women are getting intimate with them.
NYANCHWANI: Ha ha. Or is it because women are more marketable?