“Some Mathematicians remove pain. Some deal in negative emotions. We all fix the equation of a person.”
So opens Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story, “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky.” Inspired by an unsettling dream Arimah had, the short story was shortlisted for the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing Award, one of the most distinguished literary awards that any African writer can receive. Her story grapples with grief, immigration, neo-imperialism, and our never-ending obsession with defining ourselves by countries and borders; all the while telling a cross-continental African lesbian love story. Set in an undated year, Arimah uses magical realism to interrogate very real and often uncomfortable questions of power and altruism. And when you pull away from her riveting narration and barely catch your breath at its ending, you might find yourself asking “who exactly is Lesley Nneka Arimah?” The answer is as complex as Arimah’s writing.
No stranger to accolades for her fiction, she has been published by Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, and GRANTA among others. She is also the recipient of grants and awards from the Commonwealth Foundation, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), and an Aspen Words Writers in Residence fellow. Her work explores the range of relationships between women and she cites My Little Pony (the reboot) as source of inspiration noting that “the heroes are women, the villains are women, and when you’re forced as an artist to write beyond the token woman doing ‘woman’ things, you end up with characters that are multifaceted.”
Arimah has also been known to serve up epic Twitter take-downs and her feed manages to be both deeply introspective and humorous. When she’s not busy being at the top of her game, she also finds time to mentor aspiring writers, (full disclosure: I had the pleasure of working with her through ‘Drunken Writes’- a closed group literary affair with a happy hour undercurrent). The literature she creates is emblematic of a new crop of creatives of African descent who are rooted in multiple places—she was born in the UK, has lived in Nigeria and currently resides in the U.S.—who are imagining the future of Africa and Africans by telling stories that see us as central characters not because we are the ‘other’ but because we are.
There is affirmation in reading Arimah’s stories which treat her characters as fully developed, complex people while also contemplating their eventuality as Africans or immigrants. Take for instance, her March 2016 Harper’s story, Glory. The short story opens as such, “When Glory’s parents christened her Glorybetogod Ngozi Akunyili, they did not foresee Facebook’s “real name” policy, nor the weeks she would spend populating forms and submitting copies of her bills and driver’s license and the certificate that documented her birth on September 9, 1986, a rainy Tuesday, at 6:45 P.M., after six hours of labor and six years of barrenness.”
Over the next six pages, Arimah paints the colorful, humorous portrait of Glory, a failing millennial caught up in a web of cross-cultural existence and the very real pressures of satisfying African parents and family who see your existence “abroad” as the epitome of achievement. Arimah has made Glory so wholly relatable that as you witness her consume, “one of the burritos that came three for a dollar at the discount grocery store and a nice-looking sandwich that belonged to one of her co-workers…” you know that she could easily be your sister, your cousin, or that one co-worker.
But most importantly, Lesley Nneka Arimah is another name added to the canon of African women writers, a slim book with empty pages where more names should be. Her work, along with that of other contemporary African creatives/writers, such as Akwaeke Emezi and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, resists the erasure of African women’s voices from the literary landscape and celebrates the stories they have to tell. Stories of our very ordinary and extraordinary existences as the daughters of Africa. And this, for me, is the most endearing thing about Arimah’s due literary greatness.