Leslie Nneka Arimah is the author of What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, a collection of 12 short stories published in 2017.
The stories, set in Nigeria and the US, move from realism to fantasy connected by the thread of humanity. The writer, who was recently shortlisted for the 2018 Etisalat Prize for Literature in Africa, talks about her writing journey and fascinating themes explored in her stories.
In 2017, you attended the Caine Prize shortlist workshop, how was the experience like?
It was an interesting workshop, a nice mix of people who had been writing for a while and people who were just getting started. We collaborated, talked about each other’s stories and helped refine stories –I always enjoy speaking to other writers, because they are the ones interested in the subject as I am.
Did the fantasy, realism aspect of your work come from the African in you or from foreign experience?
If anything, that aspect of my work directly is rooted in my Nigerian upbringing, because we talk about things in Nigeria in a very casual manner and acceptingly of spiritual matters in a way that makes their existence as real as the world we see. That’s where it came from.
Reading your book for the first time, what would one come across?
My book is about the intimate lives of girls and women in Nigeria. It’s a collection of stories set in a realistic world and invented worlds. On science fiction and fantasy, it was important for me to write a collection of stories, because, often times, we were left out of that conversation. So, I wanted to write Nigerian stories that were science fiction, that were fantasy, realistic to reflect the sort of work that I am interested in.
What common thread runs through your stories?
I like to write about women who do not conform to what society expects of them –an interesting ground to explore, especially in a society like ours that expects very proper behaviour from women and proper path to follow that woman should take.
Did any research in Nigeria go into writing these stories?
I did not, because I left Nigeria when I was 13, and I had firm memories of my time there. Besides, I also came back somehow regularly, so it wasn’t an unfamiliar or fun place for me to start writing of that required research. It was part of my life.
Picking women and girls, does this come from a feminist streak, or is it just easier to write about women?
It’s neither a feminist streak nor being easier to write about women. In fact, it’s quite hard to write about the lives of women, because I think that some people just tend to dismiss the women in their lives as being frivolous and, so, I write works that challenges that. I also find it a world more interesting, because they have to navigate a particular set of roles in the society, and how they navigate those roles and being herself is an interesting balance to explore as a writer.
How is African writing perceived in the US?
A couple of years ago I thought it was very hard to be an African writer writing outside of the western stereotype of what topics they wanted to read about Africa. But I think that is changing slowly, as more writers are ignoring the pressure to write about the stereotype to writing whatever they want to write. By doing that, I think they are forcing the market to change.
Does engaging in writing full time sound like an awesome idea?
Currently, writing is my full time job. Before now, I used to work at an accounting firm. For writers just starting out, if your writing is still at the early stage, I think it’s too much pressure to put in to earn a living from it. You need time to just grow or play and discover who you are as a writer. So, I always say you shouldn’t try to make writing a full time job too early; otherwise, you will exert too much pressure on it that it becomes not enjoyable anymore. It’s also hard to become a full time writer. I wish I was in a position that was more readily available for those who wanted it.
How did you break into the foreign market?
In my case, I was already based in the US, which makes things a little easier in terms of publishing abroad. Because you become familiar with the US market, it was a little easier for me to do that. It’s all becoming easier now, because we do have people born and bred here in Nigeria making a splash on the international scene, and I think that’s encouraging.
Did you start out as a writer?
Every writer starts off as a reader, and I was one who read voraciously. When I was young, my parents would try sending my sister and I out to play, and we would say we didn’t want children; we just wanted to stay inside and read. I would say I started writing as a creative person, but writing was a natural progression of that because I loved reading.
Tell us something interesting about you that are not known…
I am a middle child between two sets of twins. I studied English and Psychology with a goal of going into Law. I thought I was heading there not until my last semester in Florida State University in the US when I decided to take a writing workshop that was going to change my path.
There is a lot of humour in your work. Why is that?
I want my work to reflect real life as much as possible, and humour grief and other is as much an aspect as anger that we find it easy to write about and humor should take up as much space as those negative emotions.
Which Nigerian authors are your favourite picks?
The books that were around when I was growing up were Chinua Achebe’s novels, Amos Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drinkard, Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana. I also read the Pace Setter Series, and, because I do have a taste for drama, Jagua Nana remains my favourite.