It took a while for Lesley Nneka Arimah to get the big news — her phone was broken, and no one could get through — and then she had to keep the news under her hat for more than a week.
But now it can be told: Arimah, who lives in St. Louis Park, has been named one of the “Five Under 35” fiction writers to be honored by the National Book Foundation.
The award, which carries a prize of $1,000 for each writer, shines a national spotlight on debut authors of fiction whose work promises to endure.
This year, all five winners are women. The other four are Chicago writer Halle Butler, author of “Jillian”; Zinzi Clemmons of Los Angeles, author of “What We Lose”; Leopoldine Core of New York, author of “When Watched: Stories,” and New York writer Weike Wang, author of “Chemistry.
Lisa Lucas, executive director of the Book Foundation, had been calling Arimah for days, trying to tell her about the honor. “But my phone was broken, and I was waiting for the new one to come in,” Arimah said. “So I think I was the last to be notified. She finally got hold of me — on Twitter, of course. It was quite a shock. I don’t really expect things like this.”
Arimah is the author of the debut story collection “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” published in April by Riverhead and reviewed widely and with great praise across the country. Stories in the book had been published in the New Yorker, Harper’s and elsewhere.
Since her book was published, awards and accolades have come thick and fast: In June, her story “Glory” won an O. Henry Award. In September, her book was shortlisted for the Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize (winner to be announced Nov. 3). Last week, the book was shortlisted for the Kirkus Prize (winner to be announced Nov. 2).
Arimah has also been named a Club Book author and will speak Oct. 2 at the Brookdale Library in Brooklyn Center. She is teaching a class at the University of Minnesota, and is serving as a mentor for the Loft Literary Center’s mentor series.
In between teaching and speaking, she is working on a novel. She said all the hoopla isn’t a distraction.
“I’m still able to work,” she said, and laughed. “Any disruptions of my writing schedule are of my own making and not from all of this making too much noise in my head. I guess I’m having enough challenges with the novel that this is not anything extra.”
Arimah, 33, was born in the United Kingdom, grew up mostly in Nigeria, and moved with her family to the United States when she was 13. After college she moved to Mankato, earning an MFA in 2010.
“One of the reasons I stayed in Minnesota was the opportunities for artists of any genre, but writing especially,” she said. “And it’s nice to have that planting bearing fruit.”
As for the Five Under 35 honor, she’s not yet sure what it will mean for her career.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” she said. “Maybe later I’ll start thinking about what it means, but right now it’s just a surprise.”
Past winners of the award, which has been given annually since 2006, include Edward P. Jones, Adam Haslett, Paul Yoon, Yaa Gyasi and Phil Klay, winner of a 2014 National Book Award.
Judges this year included Lydia Millet, Chris Bachelder and Sherman Alexie.