- Postcolonial Mythologies
Lesley Nneka Arimah
240Pages; Print, $26.00
While writing this review, I read the news of a Nigerian-American graduate student at Yale who fell asleep in a common room while writing a paper and awoke to a white student calling the police on her. When she protested this assault on her freedom of movement, the police told her, “You’re not being harassed.” This incident and its normalization by authorities resonates with Lesley Nneka Arimah’s presentation of Nigerian-American lives in her stunning 2017 debut collection of short stories What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky. These characters navigate between familial expectations of success and the scrutiny that comes with being a minority in America. In Arimah’s story “Second Chances,” the consequences of something so harmless as falling asleep have reverberating consequences. When Uche oversleeps and forgets to pick up her little sister at the airport, the airport police call, thinking her sister has been abandoned. Her mother is furious. “I had violated her cardinal immigrant rule. Live quietly and above the law.” Uche’s sleep and her mother’s anxiety result in devastating consequences on the entire family. In this story like many others in the collection Arimah points to the personal suffering that comes out of a larger climate of injustice.
Arimah herself was born in the UK and grew up between Nigeria and the United States, and this experience of living between two places, two norms, is an integral part of her story telling. Arimah’s stories, which have garnered honours such as the African Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and an O. Henry Award, not only move physically between two continents but also range from kitchen-sink realism to the wildly speculative. In this she joins a cohort of recent Nigerian diaspora authors like Nnedi Okorafor, Helen Oyeyemi, or Chikodili Emelumadu (also shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Literature in 2017) who build on a tradition of literature that pushes beyond conventional realism to mythologize about the postcolonial world. Arimah borrows vampires from the African literary canon and the popular imagination, where consumption becomes a metaphor for exploitation. In pioneering Nigerian author Amos Tutuola’s novel The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), for example, a “half-bodied” baby born of his mother’s thumb eats everything in its path, even resurrecting after his parents burn him to ashes, and in Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o surreal novel Devil on the Cross (1982), a contestant in a competition for “Modern Thieves and Robbers” proposes to build a pipeline of blood from Kenya to Europe and America. In Arimah’s collection, she focuses on family relationships and individual choices, but, like Ngugi, she also links personal harassment to wider structural forms of exploitation and consumption.
The title story of the collection imagines a future world where mathematics explains everything. Mathematicians map out the body and human emotions in code, theorizing a formula they believe to be infinite “like the universe.” They use this formula for flight, “a man levitating like a monk…before shooting into the air,” as well as for healing. Mathematicians like Nneoma and her lover Kioni see grief in human beings, and, like good vampires drawing out venom, they “eat” the pain, draw it into themselves “like poison from a wound.” Arimah’s use of mathematics to plot out the universe reminds me of Nnedi Okorafor’s science fiction novel Binti (2015) where the plucky heroine Binti “trees,” using equations to create technology and make peace between warring peoples. But, in Arimah’s story, there is something of the hubris of Icarus in the mathematicians’ assumption that the formula is infallible, the belief that the “Formula was God, misunderstood for so long. They believed that it was only a matter of time before someone discovered the formula to create life, rather than to just manipulate it.” It turns out, however, that the formula might be finite, “beginning to unravel around the edges,” and that human attempts to make themselves into gods...