“Girls with fire in their bellies will be forced to drink from a well of correction till the flames die out.
But my tongue stirred anyway. I stepped into view and threw something of my own.”
This book is part of my 2020 Reading Challenge. The following are my thoughts, impressions, etc. surrounding the book I read. This is not meant to be a formal book review – if you would like to know why, you can read about my intentions with this Challenge here. Now onto What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah.
Quickly I want to say that while I have separated the stories out in paragraphs below, I do feel like these stories belong together, bound up under the chosen title and in the chosen order. I talk about that after, and a little within the following list.
- In The Future Looks Good, we learn about the lives of Ezinma’s grandmother, parents, and sister, and that Ezinma is currently fumbling with keys at an apartment door. Rather than satisfyingly placing the key in the lock and entering, Lesley Nneka Arimah leaves us with a dangerous, likely deadly conclusion that, after the nostalgic and insightful look back in the past, makes it difficult to stifle a gasp and tears.
- War Stories are told to Nwando by her father, particularly when she gets in trouble at school. There are veiled lessons that can be interpreted within the tragedies and discipline Nwando’s father faced, but perhaps the most significant one is something he has learned over and over again: above all else, you have to live and take ownership of your self and your choices.
- Ada’s mother sends her to her aunt in Lagos for the summer in Wild, after having “enough.” “ ‘Enough’ had started with stupid teenage things that, magnified under the halo of Chinyere, my well-behaved cousin, made me a bad, bad girl.” Chinyere and Auntie Ugo’s lives (and relationship) are not what Ada expected, however, and through the few but substantial events in the story, I think Ada learned as much self-awareness as a teenager can. “I hadn’t realized how angry I’d been with [my mother] until suddenly I wasn’t. I wanted to tell her about Auntie Ugo and Chinyere, how it seemed they would come to blows any minute, and how even at our most contentious we had never been like that.”
- What better title than Light for the next story? Darkness, maybe, but that really doesn’t need to be said. This story is heartbreaking in every familial sense of the word, and unimaginable for someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to be separated by an ocean from a parent, or being a parent whose geographic separation from a partner becomes an absolute separation from that partner, and then ultimately from the one giving you the title of parent. Be ready to sob.
- Second Chances are given fleetingly to two sisters and their father in this story. They come in the shape of the girls’ deceased mother, who after eight years is now alive. The protagonist and oldest daughter Uche relives not-so-fond memories, grudges, and grief that she worked to move on from, and inadvertently faces the question of if the chance to have someone back meant rehashing anger and moments of hurt and pain, would it be worth it? And how does one come to terms with the emotional and mental consequences of leaving things unsaid – or saying too much?
- Windfalls gets more painful and shocking with each paragraph, as we watch a girl grow up with a mother who grabs at any opportunity to support both of them monetarily. Opportunities like dropping or pushing her daughter in a grocery store so severely that she hurts herself enough to file and win a lawsuit against the store. Which leads to the girl, at six years of age, deciding to fall and hurt herself in a grocery store because she’s realized if she does it herself she won’t be pushed or dropped. Much worse “opportunities” are taken when the girl reaches her teenage years and male salesmen, law clerks, and others preferred to take their meetings and conversations into back offices. And throughout these events are the heartbreaking inner thoughts of that girl with the same theme: “She smoothed the sheets across your shoulders and to anyone looking at that moment she must have resembled a concerned caretaker. Maybe if you continue looking at her from that angle, you’ll begin to believe that too.”
- After the first or second page of Who Will Greet You At Home, I realized I had read it before (when it was published in the October 26, 2015 issue of The New Yorker). If you are sickened by talk and images around human hair, it may be tough for you to stomach this one, but I do recommend it for its reflections on womanhood and motherhood, and more specifically the expectations of Nigerian women. Lesley Nneka Arimah described it as “a myth of [her] own invention,” and found it “interesting that the story was able to replicate the pressure that women feel to reproduce, even though the world has no men. I think the ease of that replication speaks to the systematic, rather than individual, nature of such pressures.”
- Buchi’s Girls is a story about a mother who has no other choice but to move in with her sister and brother-in-law after the tragic loss of her husband. Buchi and her two young daughters have to work in the household in order to stay (per the brother-in-law), and everyday Buchi struggles with her grief, her daughters’ grief, wondering if she made the right choice to keep her daughters with her, and what the future holds, all the while trying to maintain a sense of normalcy. It highlights the uncertainties of life, and the internal grappling of people – mothers – who are presented with trials and questions with seemingly infinite solutions and answers and must decide which solution or path is the correct one. Not just for themselves, but for those they hold dearest.
- The title story is up next: What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky. LeVar Burton read it on his podcast a couple of years ago, and after listening to the episode I sought out the collection that bears its name (LeVar Burton’s reading is definitely the #1 way to experience this story apart from reading it yourself). In this story set in the near future, Mathematicians make “their living calculating and subtracting emotions, drawing them from living bodies like poison from a wound.” The protagonist, Nneoma, specializes in calculating grief, which means she can identify the grief inside people around her, from mild sadness in an adult to overwhelming anguish in a child who continues to experience the repercussions of geographical invasion and xenophobia. Having a mathematician remove an emotion like grief is costly, and these hundreds of individuals with this skill or power are at the top of the class system of this society. If you want to escape the issues of our world, this is not the story with which to do that. If you want to read a story that strengthens the genre of fiction (futuristic and otherwise), this is it.
- Glory is the nickname of our next story and protagonist, whose parents gave her the full name of Glorybetogod Ngozi Akunyili. The author gave this character the best birth date – September 9th – but even more importantly wrote a somewhat ordinary life story in an extraordinary way. It has similarities to other stories in this collection: a female protagonist growing up with familial and societal pressures to fulfill certain expectations. But there is more emphasis on luck and seemingly intangible influences; the narrative has surreal elements but the events, feelings, and characters feel quite familiar and real. This story ends with an excruciating but satisfying cliffhanger (unless you are a reader who views all cliffhangers as unsatisfying), which not only reflects the uncertain theme of the story, but on Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ability to reach and effect readers through her writing.
- I smile thinking about the next story, What Is A Volcano? because its simple payoff is just that – simple. Deliciously, cleverly, marvelously so. I’m not going to spoil it, as that would not be fun or fair, although I don’t want my tone to mislead you about the tone of the story, which is quite serious. It is mythological and folkloric in nature – gods and spirits are the characters here – and deals with tragedy, grief, and power. And by the end, we know exactly what a volcano is.
- There is a lot about the final story, Redemption, that I’ve sat with and considered, and the title most of all. Who is saved or doing the saving from evil, from error in this story? What constitutes a successful redemption? How does one find the road to redemption when the need for redemption is not even realized? What is the significance of these questions alongside Lesley Nneka Arimah’s choice to use both children and adults as protagonists and antagonists? And what is the significance of the title and themes of this story to the others in the collection?
Particularly after finishing the final story, I feel like each one was put in exactly the right place. Common strings of grief, womanhood, and social commentary were not hard to miss while reading, and after thinking specifically about redemption, it is satisfying to discover that those strings make up this greater thread. It is, of course, not necessary for a collection of short stories to relate to one another, and a few of these stories are quite different from others. But Lesley Nneka Arimah’s writing skill and storytelling ability make them equally important and essential.