Born in the UK of Nigerian descent and (after having spent formative years living there) obvious cultural heritage, Lesley Nneka Arimah has unleashed a sparkling debut collection of short stories. Her stories – in tone as well as temperament – are reminiscent of Helen Oyeyemi’s; there is an undercurrent (and sometimes overt wave) of fantasy quietly portrayed as realism. While some stories are true realism, steeped in the everyday heartaches and happenings, others blithely incorporate dolls that come to life or mathematicians who can calculate away pain without so much as a blink or a wink at their fantastical origins. And this measured, non-flinching approach makes the stories read as modern day fairy tales, where magic is unquestionably real and, often, beside the point.
Arimah’s stories are tied together by sense of longing, of seeking. Whether they are seeking a home or seeking solace, the characters who inhabit her stories nourish a sense of hope in the face of hardship and tragedy.
“Yarn had been a foolish choice, she knew, the stuff for women of leisure, who could cradle wool in the comfort of their own cars and in secure houses devoid of loose nails. Not for an assistant hairdresser who took dance to work if she had money, walked if she didn’t, and lived in an ‘apartment’ that amounted to a room she could clear in three large steps. Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material if they were to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves, like moin-moin: pedestrian items that produced a pedestrian girl. Ogechi was determined that her child would be a thing of whimsy, soft and pretty, tender and worthy of love.”
Arimah’s feminism shines throughout her stories, bubbling to the surface as beautiful passages that wound and reward.
“When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, 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.”
“This is the first time the girl becomes aware that the world requires something other than what she is.”
Similarly, her stories are staunchly pan-African, their settings, heritages, and spirit relishing and honoring the cultures and politics of the continent. I was particularly tickled by the ironic, turned-on-its-head beauty the following anti-immigrant sentiment:
“They drove through the wide streets of Enugu and passed a playground full of sweaty egg-white children. It wasn’t that Nneoma had a problem with the Britons per se, but some of her father had rubbed off on her. At his hardest Papa would call them refugees rather than allies. … ‘They come here with no country of their own and try to take over everything and don’t contribute anything,’ he often said.”
Lesley Nneka Arimah is a gifted writer, with a fascinating and important point of view and an eloquent hand. Her debut collection demands to be noticed and is another exciting exhibit of the seemingly infinite font of brilliant young writers coming out of West Africa.