Lesley Nneka Arimah was born in the UK and grew up wherever her father was stationed for work, which was sometimes Nigeria, sometimes not.
Her work has received grants and awards from Commonwealth Writers, AWP, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Jerome Foundation and others. She currently lives in Minneapolis. She is on the 2016 and 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist.
In this interview which we had via email, we talked about her 2017 shortlisted story and her debut book, What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky. Enjoy it.
Congratulations for being on the Caine Prize shortlist, Lesley. It’s the second time. Are there any new feelings? Are you perhaps more hopeful this time around?
I am neither more or less hopeful. The shortlisted stories are excellent and any one of them could take the grand prize.
Your shortlisted story, Who’ll Greet You at Home is about women and young girls who had the power to create their own babies. It’s one of the stories in your book, What It Means When A Man Falls from The Sky and when I first read it, I wondered why anyone would write a story about a child made or spun out of hair! I’m curious to know how the story came about.
The story started as many of my stories do, with an image I couldn’t shake, in this case of a child, alive, but made of yarn. I let the story brew over a few months and this was the eventual result.
Ogechi, not coming from a wealthy home herself, decides from the beginning of the story to bring forth a child who would enjoy more luxury than she did even when she couldn’t afford to. And this landed her in trouble. I found the story sarcastic, like mirrorring a society where dreams often die for those who aren’t in privileged positions. I’d like to know what your views on this are.
I think it’s a natural impulse for parents to want their kids to have/do better than they did, but this is not always possible for people of little means. I wanted to write a story that examined that, among other things, but set in this alternate world where the disparities stood in starker relief.
I should mention that I enjoyed reading your book. I like how in most of the stories, the protagonists are children and teenagers/young adults. Yet, you’ve been able to situate these young ones in a text that isn’t children literature so much that as an adult reader, you see yourself in their lives and are compelled to feel just as they feel. How were you able to achieve this?
I once had a professor say that what differentiates adult stories with child narrators and stories for children with child narrators is that the children in adult stories are dealing with the consequences of being children in an adult world. The stories don’t simply concern themselves with the aspects that are within the child’s immediate locus of interest, but goes beyond that to the world at large.
Do you sometimes find yourself obliged to tell stories from the female point of view or is it something that just happens?
The framing of this question, asking if I feel obliged to tell stories about women, implies that stories about women are secondary to some other preferred subject and they are not. I also wonder if any male writer in the history of interviews has ever been asked this question about writing men.
I understand your point, Lesley and I definitely do not mean that stories about women are secondary. For me, it’s more about characterisation. If I read a story where all characters are male, I really would, as an interviewer, want to know why, regardless of the writer’s gender. I’m interested in how writers choose their characters. But away from that, I’d like to talk about the psychological depth of your stories. A friend had described you as ‘dark and intense.’ I confess that I found myself catching my breath at some point while reading some of the stories. Do you often get such feedback and how do they make you feel?
I am interested in the dark and the intense and in laying ourselves bare so all this is good to hear. As for how it makes me feel, I suppose it’s confirmation that I executed my intentions successfully.
I’m curious then to know how you detach yourself in the process of writing. Like how do you throw yourself into writing these stories without them necessarily affecting you? Or do they?
I think that a writer has to be fully empathetic to the characters they portray in order to render them genuine and full-bodied. At the same time, there needs to be enough distance to attend to the craft of this endeavour. One must balance the two.
I think it was in an interview that Maya Angelou quoted this line ‘good reading is hard writing.’ It’s how I feel about your work. Though it deals with serious subjects, your sentences come off as simple and effortlessly written. Sometimes they look like dialogues. What do you have to say about styles and techniques? When does a piece of writing lose its organic nature? And should it matter if it doesn’t?
Telling a story with straightforward language allows the writer to play around with other narrative aspects and still hold onto the reader in a way that overly flowery language can interfere with. This straightforwardness in language might not be “organic” as your question implies, as many people do speak in obscure prose (if we were all naturally straightforward in our dialogues, we wouldn’t have as much miscommunication as we do.)
Bearing the Caine Prize in mind, what are your plans for the future?
My future plans are to continue writing stories, be they of short or novel length, prize notwithstanding.