Lesley Nneka Arimah is determined not to let the enormous swell of praise that is engulfing her first book go to her head. She is counting, in part, on Twitter and Facebook to keep her humble.
“What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” a collection of 12 short stories set mostly in Nigeria, was published this month by Riverhead Books. But the accolades began months ago, when her book was named one of the most anticipated of 2017 by Time, Elle and the Chicago Tribune, among others; garnered starred reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and earned Arimah a Q&A in the New Yorker online. Reviewers have called the book “remarkable” (NPR), “essential” (St. Louis Post Dispatch) and “dizzying and beautifully written” (Nylon).
In a headline, the Village Voice was succinct: “Lesley Nneka Arimah validates the buzz.”
This would be heady stuff for any writer, let alone a first-time author of a modest story collection, but Arimah is working hard at keeping it real.
“Whenever the great press threatens to go to my head,” she tweeted recently, “I remind myself I’ve had coffee in a martini glass more than once to avoid doing dishes.”
Arimah’s stories are populated primarily by mothers and daughters and are pierced with loneliness and dark humor.
“I think about loneliness a lot,” said Arimah, who lives in St. Louis Park. “We are conditioned to not be alone. At some point, though, even if you’re married and have children, you’re still alone inside your head.”
Most of her stories venture into the world of speculative fiction — also known as sci-fi. In “Who Will Greet You at Home,” first published in the New Yorker, the protagonist fashions a baby out of human hair and waits for it to come to life. In the title story, which was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing, mathematicians have the power to subtract grief from other people.
Arimah has been drawn to “the surreal and the magical ever since I was a child,” she said. To be successful, “speculative fiction has to feel real. When I teach, I always talk about how this is a magical landscape but the character doesn’t know it’s magical. For the character, it’s all they’ve ever known.”
She worked for a while in a call center, selling time shares (“Having a panic attack every day, being hung up on 24/7”), a job that forms the basis for her story “Glory,” which is set in Minneapolis.
She has also worked in an accounting firm and has taught at the Loft Literary Center and at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She now writes full-time.
“I can write anywhere,” she said, even on her phone. “Because I’m on Twitter a lot, seeing my phone makes me happy. When something occurs to me, I can open a document in an app and start typing a scene.”
Arimah, 33, almost didn’t become a writer at all. She graduated from Florida State University with a bachelor’s degree in English and had figured she’d go to law school, but during her last semester she took a writing class, and that was it. Her fate was sealed.
“I didn’t even know an MFA was a thing,” she said.
She was a little nervous about telling her parents that instead of becoming a lawyer she was headed to someplace called Mankato to study writing. But her father, as it turned out, was surprisingly agreeable: He had thought of becoming a writer, too, but instead became an engineer, working all over the world in the oil industry.
An African childhood
Arimah was born in the United Kingdom and spent her early years in Nigeria. Her family immigrated to Louisiana when she was 13 — she and her sister were thrilled because they thought LA meant Los Angeles. They were a bit dismayed when the family settled down in the relative backwater of Lafayette, La.
“That was a bit of a culture shock,” she said. So for a few years she buried herself in books.
She earned her MFA in 2010, and although she had completed a number of short stories and what she now calls “a terrible novel,” she did not yet feel confident in her skills.
“ ‘The Book of Night Women’ [by Marlon James] was one of the first books I read after I graduated, and it made me realize that I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. So she decided to stop writing for a while, and just read.
“I did a lot of reading for almost two years. That’s what people did before MFA programs, isn’t it? Reading voraciously is its own education. I’m a big advocate of reading across all genres, to better internalize good writing.”
At the time, she was living in a rented farmhouse outside Mankato, and in that isolation Twitter became her link to the world. On Twitter she is mouthy, smart, thoughtful, political and very, very funny.
Eventually, she installed an app that kicks her off Twitter after a certain amount of time. The problem wasn’t that Twitter was a time-suck; the problem was that tweeting about something she is in the middle of writing “lets the air out of the balloon.”
A swift success
After her two years of reading, things happened fast. Arimah was accepted into the Loft Mentorship program in 2012, working with St. Paul writer Mona Susan Power. Her first published story appeared in the online magazine PANK in January 2014, selected by writer and PANK founder Roxane Gay, and then a literary agent got in touch with her. And after that — well, the Commonwealth Prize, and a whole slew of grants, and publication in literary journals Catapult and Granta, as well as the New Yorker. And now this book.
Arimah’s Loft mentor, Power, said: “Lesley’s work from the very beginning just blew off the stack. From the confidence, the depth, the challenge of her writing, you can tell that there’s incredible intellect at work here. Everything is at stake — not only for her characters, but also for the reader. She reaches out beyond the page and pulls you in.
“There’s this energy that’s white-hot.”
After this story collection, who knows what Arimah will do with that white-hot energy? She signed a two-book contract with Riverhead, so there will certainly be another book. But what? A novel? Another story collection? She is not saying.
She’d love to do a graphic novel. (“I am waiting for someone to say, ‘Lesley, do you want to write a graphic novel?’ Yes, yes, yes!”) She still has that “terrible novel” in a drawer. And she’s also working on something new. Whatever it is, she doesn’t want to talk about it, doesn’t want to let the air out of that balloon.
Meanwhile, the accolades and reviews continue to pour in. She reads them, she enjoys them, she tweets about them, and then she moves on.
“I’m still cheesing off yesterday’s NPR review,” she tweeted the other day. “I grinned like a loon all through my morning bike ride.”
And later that day, on Facebook: “I’m not going to read any more reviews because this can’t be good for me.”
Turn off Twitter. Back to work.