The Caine Prize For African Writing Shortlist: A Dialogue With Lesley Nneka Arimah
Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria) for ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’ published in The New Yorker (USA. 2015). Lesley Nneka Arimah is the author of What It Means When A Man Falls from the Sky, a collection of stories published by Riverhead Books (US) and Tinder Press (UK), 2017. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Per Contra and other publications. Lesley was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2016 and was a participant in the Caine Prize 2017 workshop in Tanzania.
This conversation took place in a green bedroom in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and London, UK by Email.
Gaamangwe: So first, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Caine Prize award! This is the second time that you have been shortlisted for the award. How are you feeling about being shortlisted this time around?
Lesley: I feel honored to be shortlisted among another crop of wonderful stories. I don’t envy the judges their decision.
Gaamangwe: I know! Such incredible writings. It’s exciting to witness all these diverse and innovative stories. Your story is fascinating and haunting. How did this story come to you? What did it want to say?
Lesley: I didn’t want to “say” anything in particular as I avoid such didacticism in my fiction. The story came to me as many of my stories often do, with an image I couldn’t shake, this one of a baby made out of yarn but alive. The rest of the story revealed itself eventually, focusing on Ogechi’s quest to mother a perfect child. I wanted to explore what the process of motherhood might look like outside of the framework of a society we are familiar with.
Gaamangwe: I find it fascinating the ways an origin of a story can be as simple as an image, that later unravel a universe that even outside our framework still feels familiar. Ogeshi’s yearning for a perfect child is a very familiar thing. Don’t we always yearn for perfect creations? But what fascinates you about frameworks that we are not familiar with?
Lesley: That act of taking the familiar and locating it in a strange place creates an interesting juxtaposition where the familiar, the normal, can become grotesque out of context. That’s one of the reasons fabulist stories appeal to me, that we can take something from our world and see how it behaves in a different one.
Gaamangwe: Fabulist stories also allow us to look into our human ways in a way that it feels removed from ourselves but in reality it really reflects our real ways. Say, in reality when you do mix a lot of different personalities in a room, it is never smooth sailing. What are your thoughts on human ways in particular towards motherhood?
Lesley: That’s a broad topic that covers a lot of ground, but in the case of this story I wanted to go beyond the expectation that every woman should have a child and examine what comes next. What type of child does a woman want and how far will she go to get it? Ogechi is selfish about everything, even about her insistence on having a child only if it’s enviable. She views motherhood as something that takes from her, be it resources or love, and she has decided she can only give resources and love to a perfect child. There is a class element at work too, as she wants a child that is beyond her means to sustain. She is in a difficult position which leads to her fateful decision.
Gaamangwe: It is disturbing how far she is willing to do everything to get the perfect child. Beyond class, is her relationship with her mother also influencing her obsession with having the perfect child? A sort of displacement. But also how much is her obsession a creation of society? The question that came to my head is how much of a woman’s yearning of a child is a creation of societal forces or indirect inner urges for something else (to be loved and to love unconditionally, to belong or own someone) ?
Lesley: Ogechi’s mother is living the life Ogechi doesn’t want, ordinary mother to an ordinary child of their class. If anything it’s a form of self-hate. Ogechi thinks highly of herself, but not highly enough to want a child like herself. She has painted herself into a strange little corner. As for whether “a woman’s yearning of a child is a creation of societal forces or indirect inner urges for something else (to be loved and to love unconditionally, to belong or own someone)”—for Ogechi the motivation is probably a mixture of all three. But, again, the story concerns itself with what happens after Ogechi has succumbed to those forces/urges.
Gaamangwe: An important thing to explore really. Beyond this story, what are your own urges as a writer? What is important for you to create as a writer?
Lesley: I write to satisfy the many stories brewing inside me. It is important to me to create work that is honest and that demands honesty.
Gaamangwe: Thank you Lesley for joining me. All the best of luck with your writing and the Caine Prize Award.
NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for The Caine Prize For African Writing 2017 Shortlists.
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