This was supposed to be a quiet year for Lesley Nneka Arimah. Yes, her first book was coming out, but it was a collection of short stories, and who pays attention to short stories? It’s novels that get the buzz, and she was still writing hers.
“In the back of my mind I was thinking, oh, things will happen with the novel, right?” Arimah said. Instead, “everything happened this year. It’s been quite the whirlwind, and I think it’s finally sinking in.”
Published in April, “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” lit up the world of books like a shooting star. It garnered rave reviews nationally and internationally and won prizes and honors, including the $50,000 Kirkus Fiction Prize. It is unusual for a first book to get this kind of attention, and nearly unheard of for a collection of stories.
“Lesley is a great writer,” said Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which honored Arimah with its 5 Under 35 award. “She produced a collection of stories that are really hard to pin down. They’re funny and intelligent and fierce in their own way, and they’re unexpected. I love that I picked up that book and I had no idea what I was picking up. And I left a bit in awe of her craft.”
Arimah is at the forefront of a growing number of young authors, primarily immigrants and writers of color — in the Twin Cities, as well as across the country — who are writing some of the most original and interesting fiction and poetry being published today.
For all of these reasons, Twin Cities writer Lesley Nneka Arimah is the Star Tribune’s Artist of the Year for 2017.
Her stories defy easy description. They range from realistic to magical realism to speculative fiction. They are funny and tragic — sometimes at the same time, in the same sentence. Most are set in Nigeria, but a few take place in Minneapolis. In these stories, published in the New Yorker, Granta, Catapult and elsewhere, mathematicians no longer work with numbers but work to subtract sadness from people’s psyches; a dead mother walks out of a photograph; women create babies out of wrapping paper, fabric and human hair and watch them come to life.
While surreal, the stories also seem completely plausible, grounded as they are in Arimah’s unwavering understanding of human nature.
“What they all have is this intense feelingful but unsentimental grasp on relationships between people,” said Rebecca Saletan, editorial director of Riverhead Books and Arimah’s editor. “Especially between family members — between fathers and daughters, between siblings, between mothers and daughters.”
She first encountered Arimah’s work when she read “Who Will Greet You at Home” in the New Yorker, the story about babies made of human hair.
“I was so taken by this extraordinary mixture of the intense psychological reality of this mother and daughter, and at the same time this fantastical element that was built into the story with complete confidence,” Saletan said. “I got in touch with her agent.”
She was struck by how all of the stories in Arimah’s collection seemed “fresh and alive.” Riverhead signed her to a two-book contract.
Deep thoughts, funky glasses
In person, Arimah is tall, funny and warm, with a whole collection of funky eyeglasses (more than 30 pairs) and colorful jumpsuits that she sews herself and sometimes posts photos of on Twitter, her second home. She laughs easily, a throaty chuckle. But she is deeply thoughtful and very serious about her work; her stories explore themes of exclusion, loneliness, displacement and climate change.
“Most of my private time is spent worrying about the state of the world,” she said.
Arimah, 34, was born in the United Kingdom to Nigerian parents, the middle of five children. (She is sandwiched between two sets of twins.) Her family moved around a lot — her father was an engineer in the oil industry — but Nigeria was always home base until the family settled in Louisiana, when Arimah was 13.
“Loneliness was something I dealt with a lot as a child, especially after we moved to the United States, feeling unmoored in what was then to me a very strange culture and trying to find my place within that,” Arimah told actor LeVar Burton on his weekly podcast, “LeVar Burton Reads.”
The “Reading Rainbow” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” star features one short story per episode, but he was so taken by Arimah’s work that in August he broke form and spent an entire show interviewing her.
When you’re an outsider, Arimah told him, “You learn to be an observer. And as somebody who eventually moved into documenting the human experience, being an observer is a useful tool.”
Arimah came north in 2007 to study in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato; she was attracted to that program partly because of its emphasis on teaching.
She had been warned that Minnesota was cold, so she stepped off the plane on a sweltering July day swathed in a heavy sweater. (A sweater that did not do the job once winter arrived.)
After graduating in 2010, she stayed in Minnesota, partly because things started happening. In 2012 she was accepted into the Loft mentorship program, working with St. Paul writer Mona Susan Power. The writers group that grew out of that sustained her for several years. “We all liked and trusted each other, which was important,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience, and it felt very essential to helping me put the collection together.”
New wave of vibrant voices
Arimah’s first published story appeared in January 2014 in PANK Magazine, a literary journal founded by Roxane Gay that cultivates innovative voices. Over the next two years, she published more stories, won the Commonwealth Prize, got an agent and landed a whole slew of grants — from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Intermedia Arts, the Jerome Foundation and elsewhere.
Minnesota, a state that once was best known for white male writers such as Robert Bly, Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald, was developing a strong community of female writers as well as writers of color. Some — Arimah, Marlon James, Danez Smith, Sun Yung Shin and Bao Phi, for instance — were getting national and international attention, and others — Su Hwang, Donte Collins, Anika Fajardo — were well on their way.
“I don’t think necessarily that more writers of color are writing,” Arimah said. “Or that more writers of color are writing at a certain level. I think that it’s just a situation where society at large is in a position to where maybe we’re finally ready to hear them, finally ready to listen. I think it’s just a moment in time where there’s been an acknowledgment that there are more stories out there — acknowledgment by the mainstream, I mean.
“We’ve always known that we were there.”
This year she was chosen as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 — all five honorees are women, and three of them are women of color. Each was selected by a different author chosen by the foundation. Arimah was picked by Chris Bachelder, a white male writer who was born in Minneapolis but grew up in the South.
“We didn’t guide him to her, or give him a book. We gave them nothing,” executive director Lucas said. “Chris is a funny, wild writer himself. He saw something in her work that really spoke to him.” The fact that he loved Arimah’s work “says a lot about who we are as readers and what kind of work can speak to another person.
“I think part of the reason it’s so interesting to read writers of color is that we haven’t heard them as much,” Lucas said. “People of color have always had the same desire to write our life experiences to the page as anyone else. But I think we’re seeing so much more nurturing of those voices.”
Editor Saletan agreed, noting that Riverhead has long been particularly diverse.
“What feels really fresh and new and unexpected are these other voices coming from other parts of the culture,” she said. “They’re exciting to read. I read as an editor, but reading as an editor is first and foremost reading as a reader. And it’s what gets me jazzed.”
Novel in the works
In November when the Kirkus Prize was to be announced, Arimah was in the Netherlands, speaking at the Crossing Border music and literary festival. The shortlist was mighty: Her collection was up against books by former National Book Award winners Alice McDermott and Jesmyn Ward, as well as books by Mohsin Hamid, Hari Kunzru and Carmen Maria Machado.
“I knew the award was being announced that day, but I had no concept of myself winning it,” Arimah said. “So I woke up to get a glass of water, and checked Twitter, of course, because I have to check Twitter at least once an hour, and there it was.” She chuckled and shook her head. “I was actually rooting for someone else.”
Novelist Meg Wolitzer, who served on the selection committee, praised Arimah’s work in an e-mail to the Star Tribune.
“I was really struck by the way these exceptionally strong, well-made stories do so many things, sometimes in succession, and sometimes all at once,” Wolitzer wrote. “Arimah uses her significant authority to take the reader all over the place: into and out of girlhood, families, violence, magic. She can be fantastical, devastating, dystopian, wild, but she’s always precise, and she’s always exciting to read.”
Arimah is winding up a semester teaching in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota, and next semester she will teach in Warren Wilson College’s low-residency MFA program in North Carolina. She is also serving as a mentor at the Loft for a group of fiction writers. She continues to write short stories, including one commissioned recently by the British magazine Stylist.
The editors requested a Christmas story from her, which Arimah found briefly baffling. “I thought, ‘Have they read my stuff?’ ” she said. The story, called “The Gift,” “is not entirely full of Christmas cheer.”
But while all this goes on, all the noise and awards, the speaking, the traveling, the teaching, the tweeting, there in the background — or, actually, in the foreground — is The Novel, which Arimah has been working on for several years. She will not reveal the title, nor the plot. Talking about it “lets the air out of the balloon,” she said.
But it is there, and it is inching toward completion, one rewrite at a time. “The most recent change was something I realized I had been fighting for a while, which was that the person who I thought was the main character was not the main character,” she said. “So I rewrote the book from a different character’s perspective, and it was a better book for it.”
She is determined to get it done, and done right. But short stories will always be there.
“When I was in grad school I wrote both,” she said. “I am equally vested in both genres.”
She thought a moment, and added, “I would say short stories might just edge out novels. I just love the form.” With her book, “I wanted to cover a lot of ground, and a short-story collection allowed me to do that. I could sink into a world for 20 pages and pay homage to all the genres that shaped me, and then sink into another world for 20 pages. I love the freedom to jump from genre to genre.”
Novel or stories, her editor at Riverhead is happy with either. “I can only tell you that I’m 35 years on in my career,” Saletan said, “and though I absolutely delight in taking on new writers, I don’t take them on that often.
“It’s rare that one of them pops the way she does.”