The first time I laid eyes on Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of short stories, What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, I was at the Strand, and I was trying very hard not to buy any new books. Reading over the back cover –– a child fashioned out of hair, a world seemingly saved by a mathematical equation, an American teenager’s night out with her Nigerian cousin –– I almost failed in my mission. With my phone, I snapped a picture of the front cover, and I moved on.
Two weeks later, I learned What it Means had been chosen as the common read for FIT’s incoming first-year students. The moment copies appeared in our office, I grabbed mine and set to work reading it. Eight pages in, I was devastated. (Spoiler alert: The devastation did not stop there.)
The stories in What it Means vary fearlessly from one another. In Glory, a young woman who believes she is cursed to make only bad decisions falls in love with a bright-eyed optimist; in What is a Volcano?, long-boiling conflict between the Goddess of Rivers and the God of Ants leads to rippling loss and grief and ruin; in What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, the discovery of an equation has rescued humanity from a grim fate, but a man’s recent failure to fly casts doubt on the equation after all. I scribbled notes on each story, hoping to find a through-line, and common themes lifted: love and pain as the human condition, grief and hope as generational heirlooms, our tendency to empathize when it is too late.
‘Ezinma fumbles the keys against the lock and doesn’t see what came behind her: Her father as a boy when he was still tender, vying for his mother’s affection. Her grandmother, overworked to the bone by the women whose houses she dusted, whose laundry she washed, whose children’s asses she scrubbed clean; overworked by the bones of a husband who wanted many sons and the men she entertained to give them to him, sees her son to his thirteenth year with the perfunction of a nurse and dies in her bed with a long, weary sigh.’
Short stories, by nature of their brevity, have a lot to do in a matter of pages: acquaint the reader with a world and the characters who inhabit it, get the reader invested in the characters’ predicament, and say something worthwhile. Arimah does this, again and again, throughout What it Means. Several times, when I reached the end of a story, I found myself wanting more time with the characters. I was forced to pause, reflect on the story’s beginning and end, and consider what might come next.
‘In the quiet that followed, another hand raised. Not her, Nneoma thought, not her. She’d successfully ignored the girl since walking into the classroom. She didn’t need to look at her wrist to know that the girl was Senegalese and had been affected by the Elimination. It was etched all over her, this sorrow.
”So you can make it go away?’ They could have been the only two people in the room.
”Yes, I can.’ And to kill her dawning hope, ‘But it is a highly regulated and very expensive process…you have to be a citizen.”
In preparing to discuss this book with first-year students, I’ve already decided to make a ground rule for our discussion: Before saying why something didn’t work for you, I want you to imagine why it might work. Instead of sharing where you think the story got weird, share what you think the story might be saying. In one story, a woman fashions her child out of hair, and we quickly learn this is a world where women must all fashion their children out of materials. What results, of course, might feel weird –– but Arimah is telling a story of motherhood in a world of differing privilege, of the struggle to raise children who both resilient and joyful, strong and kind.
‘The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged its tight on a nail and it unraveled as she continued walking, mistaking the little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone. By the time she noticed, it was too late, the leg a tangle of fiber, and she pulled the string the rest of the way to end it, rather than have the infant grow up maimed. If she was to mother a child, to mute and subdue and fold away parts of herself, the child had to be perfect.’
Immediately after we read a story, we are experts at that story’s twists and turns, remembering character names and the details of their journeys with tremendous closeness. As the days pass, though, and as we embark on new story after new story, the edges of those stories grow softer. Eventually, we are left with a feeling, with perhaps the ideas the story made us consider and the certainty it broke our hearts. What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky made me think and feel; it introduced me to flawed character after flawed character and still made my heart hope for their success, for their redemption, for their next chance. It tells stories set in broken worlds, with characters who ache and want and fight and fail, and still it gave me hope.