To be honest, after reading some reviews of “What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky,” By Lesley Nneka Arimah, I opened the first page expecting something akin to Toure’s “The Portable Promised Land,” full of fantastic stories that are both unbelievable and rooted in the truth, metaphors for every day occurrences wrapped in the magical. When I read the first lines of the first story therefore—”Ezinma fumbles the keys against the lock and doesn’t see what came behind her: her father as a boy when he was still tender”—I thought OKAY some time warp thing right off the bat! But couple of pages later, I was a little…is disappointed the word? Not sure. But maybe surprised when the story turned out to be very normal, bounded by gravity and other weaknesses of being human, like surviving wicked stepmothers and war.
But don’t get me wrong, these stories are not your usual run of the mill stories. They are full of all the intricacies that make humans such complicated beings. This book is full of surprises in every turn of the page all the way to the last sentence of each story. There is no doubt about it, Nneka is a master stories teller with a wicked sense of humor that would sometime leave you laughing at misery: “He blinds her with a constellation of gifts, things she’d never had before, like spending money and orgasms. The one time she brings up marriage, he walks out and she can’t reach him for twelve days.”
You can easily tell she spends long hours observing people around her, and in these stories she seems to hover around, just an arm reach away, all the while peeling away at the layers of the skin that holds us to each other. You will recognize both your American self and African family in these stories.
And yes the reviews were correct, there are fantastic stories here that don’t care about gravity and other things we hold to be self-evident that we are just mammals with all the predictable traits of being human; and ants are not deceitful, and rivers are not vengeful. What am I talking about? I am talking about “Who Will Greet You at Home,” that tells about a world where babies are just as easily formed from mud and twigs as they are from porcelain. And then you have “What is a Volcano.” This one is purely in the tradition of African folktales, where inanimate objects have all the characteristics of human beings (. And you, like me, grow up not finding it nearly impossible for a baobab tree to offer wisdom to a travelling man. Perhaps Nneka, like me, knew animals could talk long before we saw Disney cartoon them to show us stories are the same no matter where you are.
Then you have the surreal “Second Chances.” In which a deceased mother comes to life from a picture, and at least part of the family acts as if nothing is amiss. And the title story, “What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky,” could just as easily be an episode of Netflix’s “Black Mirror.”
I think there is something juvenile about Nneka’s voice as a writer. No, no, I don’t mean that as a bad thing. I mean there is something youthful about her voice. I always felt like it was a young narrator telling the stories. This voice is brightest in “Wild,” a story about a slightly rebellious young Nigerian girl raised in the US and visiting Nigeria for a summer vacation. Listening to Ada, the young narrator, I wouldn’t shake the feeling that she was Nneka herself. I know, I was doing that thing readers often do when they read a character that shares some of the same background as the writer. But it is what it is. When you have a feeling, it just is. Anyway, this story is one of my favorites!
On the other hand, my least favorite is “Glory,” a story about an unmotivated, unambitious young woman who would rather believe she is made exceptionally unlucky by the gods. I don’t care for the character, and this story comes across as way too simple among all the deeply layered ones in the collection.
You can tell Nneka is more comfortable with female characters. There are very few men here. It seems somebody is dead in every story. And many of these are the fathers and husbands. However, for the ones that are present, I prefer them to the men in say Chimamanda’s “Americanah,” which I found to be populated with caricature of Nigerian (indeed African) men, especially when they are wealthy. In Nneka’s hands, they are tender—full of “Light”—and all the things African men are not thought to have. I am not talking about Dickson. He is the villain of the entire collection!