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Martha Sheridan

Sometimes the hype around a highly anticipated title makes me skeptical. This short story collection by Lesley Nneka Arimah silenced that cranky inner cynic and instead gave me something to celebrate.

Arimah moved from Nigeria to the United States in her teens and now lives in Minneapolis. The stories in What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky have received several grants and awards. Let's hope her writing future is as bright as it looks because the readers will benefit most.

"Light" was the Africa regional winner of the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. It begins with a spark that's familiar for anyone who has seen a daughter suffer: "When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts." In nine short pages, Arimah captures the family sacrifices immigrants make and shows how our hopes to stay connected through FaceTime or Skype are dashed by the fact that technology can only provide the next best thing to being there with your children.

"Who Will Greet You at Home," a finalist for the National Magazine Award, tells the story of a doll woven from human hair that comes to life. It reads like a folktale, but in a 2015 interview with The New Yorker, Arimah said removing men from the reproduct ...

Sometimes the hype around a highly anticipated title makes me skeptical. This short story collection by Lesley Nneka Arimah silenced that cranky inner cynic and instead gave me something to celebrate.

Arimah moved from Nigeria to the United States in her teens and now lives in Minneapolis. The stories in What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky have received several grants and awards. Let’s hope her writing future is as bright as it looks because the readers will benefit most.

“Light” was the Africa regional winner of the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. It begins with a spark that’s familiar for anyone who has seen a daughter suffer: “When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts.” In nine short pages, Arimah captures the family sacrifices immigrants make and shows how our hopes to stay connected through FaceTime or Skype are dashed by the fact that technology can only provide the next best thing to being there with your children.

“Who Will Greet You at Home,” a finalist for the National Magazine Award, tells the story of a doll woven from human hair that comes to life. It reads like a folktale, but in a 2015 interview with The New Yorker, Arimah said removing men from the reproductive process and fabricating babies from materials that later will come to life is a myth of her own invention.

Ogechi, a young Nigerian woman, had tried making her baby out of yarn, but she snagged it on a nail and it came undone. “By the time she noticed, it was too late, the leg a tangle of fiber, and she pulled the string the rest of the way to end it, rather than have the infant grow up maimed. If she was to mother a child, to mute and subdue and fold away parts of herself, the child had to be perfect.”

Ogechi’s first attempt was made from cotton tuft. When her mother held it to give a blessing, she instead pulled it in half, saying: “You need something with strong limbs that can plow and haul and scrub. Soft children with hard lives go mad or die young.”

The title story, which appeared in Catapult, was shortlisted for the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing. Arimah’s sci-fi tale outlines a future in which floods have swallowed the British Isles and Biafra responds with help. “But while one hand reached out for help, the other wielded a knife” and “the Britons had insisted on having their own lands and their own separate government.”

Arimah imagines the human toll of natural disaster and resulting political strife being lessened by a mathematical formula that explains the universe and its inhabitants. It can explain human emotions and change them, but it may have limits. “If the rumor that Furcal’s Formula was beginning to unravel around the edges gained any traction, it would eventually trickle down to the 2,400 Mathematicians like her, who worked the globe, making their living calculating and subtracting emotions, drawing them from living bodies like poison from a wound.” The grief workers subtract a person’s pain, but of course it has to be added somewhere, and some workers have gone mad. It would seem that human suffering remains beyond any calculation.

As good as these stories are, perhaps my favorite is the first in the collection, “The Future Looks Good.” Arimah opens with a woman who is fumbling with keys against a lock. The story roughly shifts from that moment to the past. It’s jarring, but it works.

Her sentences often seem to teeter on the brink of collapse, but then are revealed to be soundly constructed. When I finished, I paused to connect the dots, marveled at the relationship of the past to the present. I was reminded that all the little steps a person takes in a day add up to become her path, her future, and her family’s future. The story is so good that I read it again, right away, before the experience blurred and lost its meaning in the grind of daily life.

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