Aspen Words writer-in-residence Lesley Nneka Arimah releases debut story collection
Lesley Nneka Arimah
230 pages; hardcover, $26
Lesley Nneka Arimah spent October living and working in Woody Creek as an Aspen Words writer-in-residence, chipping away at a novel in progress and enjoying some of the last stretch of anonymity before the publication of her much-anticipated debut story collection “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky.”
The book, published this month, includes a dozen stories about Nigeria or Nigerians elsewhere in the world. Many of the stories are about mothers and daughters. All of them are wrought in gorgeous prose, moving easily between intimate domestic realism and the supernatural and fantastic.
During her residency Arimah, 33 and based in Minneapolis, took a break from writing to read her story “The Future Looks Good” and talk about her craft at Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar in Aspen.
The story falls on the more realist side of the ledger in “What It Means,” but offers an example of her bracingly original voice and the slightly askew perspective she brings to her fiction. It’s about the Biafran War, but instead of writing from a familiar soldier’s story or about in-theater experience, Arimah chose to stay on the periphery in the families back at home in Nigeria.
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“I thought we needed a plurality of different experiences of those who lived through it and I thought this would be a more interesting framework to write about the war, without writing about the war,” she explained at Hooch.
Like many of the stories in the new collection, “The Future Looks Good” began with a germ of Arimah’s lived experience. She was born in the U.K. to Nigerian parents and raised in Nigeria and wherever else her father’s work as an oil engineer took the family. The family settled in Louisiana when Arimah was 13. She recalled how the war loomed over her childhood and how the majority of people who were impacted by it never fought in battle.
“I think of it holistically, because growing up the Biafra War was like a holistic cloud that hung over our family,” she said. “We saw the scars of war in our family tree, but nobody ever talked about it directly.”
Arimah credits her ability to move between gritty realism and far-flung fantasy to her indiscriminate reading habits. The premise of the collection’s title story — about a dystopian future where math and formulas have replaced religion — is pure sci-fi. She’s often described as a magical realist, a categorization she embraces, though with some caveats.
“I read so widely across genres that I wanted to have a collection that reflected my very varied interests in literature,” she explained. “So there’s magical realism and science fiction. The thing that runs through all of the stories is a slight thread of hyperbole.”
Arimah’s work began making it into literary journals in 2014, and quickly began getting anthologized and wining prizes — she was soon placing stories in The New Yorker and Granta, earning many fans in the literary world and making her debut collection one of this spring’s most hotly anticipated titles.
But she came to fiction writing relatively late. Arimah had planned to go to law school after college at Florida State.
“I figured, ‘Oh, I like to argue, this is a good direction,’” she told the audience at Hooch.
She changed course in her last semester after taking a creative writing class and seeing a reading by Gloria Naylor, which convinced her to devote her life to the craft. Instead of law school she went to Minnesota State for an MFA and spent a decade writing, reading and steadily finding her voice.
“It was a lot of reading,” she explained, “a lot of grappling with that space between what you want the story to look like, what it feels like in your head, and translating it on the page.”
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