The Albion College Reading Series kicked off the spring semester with Lesley Nneka Arimah, author of “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” in the Wendell Will Room this Monday.
Arimah was born in the United Kingdom and raised in Nigeria. She did, however, move to different countries throughout her adolescence where her father was stationed to work. Arimah has achieved many awards throughout her writing career thus far. In addition to being recognized as a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, Arimah was a finalist for a National Magazine Award and the Caine Prize, winner of the Kirkus Prize and the African Commonwealth Short Story Prize, received the GLCA New Writers Award for Fiction and won an O. Henry Award.
On what motivated her to write “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky”:
Lesley Nneka Arimah: I have always been interested in books, so even from a very young age books helped me to understand the world. My family moved around quite a bit and books were the constant. Wherever you went, there were books, so it became my comfort very early. But, I actually hadn’t planned on writing as a career or even as a hobby. I was focused on going to law school. But then, my last semester as an undergrad student, I took a writing workshop. That changed everything for me, especially because, I think up until that point, until the professor mentioned MFA programs, I didn’t realize that writing was in a line of study to pursue. I thought people just wrote. I didn’t realize that you could actually study writing and get better at it. Once I realized that was a legitimate course of study, you know books and storytelling had meant so much to me, and at that point, there was nothing else I wanted to do.
As for this book, I read a lot. I read across genres; I read realism, fantasy, science fiction, romance, Western, I just read everything. So when I started writing, in this case short stories, the short stories reflected that. So there are stories that are realism, science fiction and magical realism. I think it was important for me, especially with a first book where people tend to define you, [to write] this first book like an introduction. I wanted to capture all of my literary ancestry, so it reflects the genres that are present in the book.
On pursuing an MFA:
LNA: I officially went to grad school for writing, you could major in anything and go for an MFA in writing. It’s a Masters in Creative Writing, and to be a creative writer you have some skill, but you don’t have to pursue a course of study. With creative writing, there isn’t one way to do it. There’s not a universal process. It’s a masters degree open to anyone.
On the process of writing a book:
LNA: I published the first story that appears in this book in 2014, and the book itself was completed with my publisher in 2016 and came out in early 2017. That’s the short answer. The long answer is that it took me a while to get good at something, and if you count all of the years of studying and reading and practicing my craft to get to this point, it took a lifetime or like 12 years.
I was always writing. I can look back at the things that I was writing in 2009 and understand the ways in which I have improved from how I had been writing back then. That’s what I mean when I say it takes a long time, because writing is a skill that you practice. You’re always going to be improving and getting better to become the person you need to be to write. The actual writing of it took two years, but leading up to that was the growth of the writer, the practice, and the reading, lots of reading.
On her intention when writing “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky”:
LNA: I don’t have specific intentions. I’m not writing a moral text story. I’m not really writing with the idea that I want the reader to learn. I think that I will be satisfied if the reader just allowed themselves to experience the stories and the stories of the people. I think that’s the best thing that a writer can expect.
You may have your intentions for what you want a book to do, but you can’t really control whether that happens. So once [“When a Man Falls From the Sky”] is out in the world, I can’t control it.
On what she likes to do when she’s not writing:
LNA: I live a normal life. I hang with friends. I do like making things with my hands. I like doing woodwork or sewing or things like that. I think for me, having a creative outlet that has nothing to do with writing is helpful. It’s the idea that I can express my creativity in these other ways and it doesn’t always have to be writing, especially now that my book is out in the world. My writing is being observed in a way that was not the case when I was writing the book, so having a creative outlet that isn’t being observed is necessary and helpful for me.
On how it feels listening to others talk about her book:
LNA: Before the book was published, I had a writing group. All of us were working on different projects, so we kept each other accountable and met once every six weeks for three years. We kept each other accountable and have been giving each other feedback on our work, and I was used to that. What was different after the book was published was that I knew everyone in my writing group, and I don’t know anybody who has read my book. So that was interesting, essentially going from somebody who was an observer to somebody who was being observed. So that was an interesting change, and one that I did not always feel comfortable with, but what can you do? It is a little bit mind blowing to realize that people are paying attention to this thing you always did in private.
On what is most meaningful to her as a writer and what she keeps in the back of her mind while writing:
LNA: I don’t keep anything. For me, I can’t write the work that I want to write if I imagine an end goal or imagine someone looking over my shoulder, or anything like that. What I keep in mind when I’m writing is that the story is paramount, my [attention] is entirely to the story that’s in front of me and not to any larger aims.
Of course there might be things that the story might accomplish that’s positive, but not necessarily intended and that’s always great when that happens. But, for me, if I write with a blueprint, specifically in writing, or a person I’m writing towards or even an idea, especially an idea to prove something I find, that to be too confining. I don’t want to write towards any one particular thing.
On her writing quirk:
LNA: Nothing really. I keep a notebook with me at all times, not a physical notebook, because I will absolutely lose a physical notebook that I have. I have a notebook on my phone. I have a separate app than the one that comes on default. It’s more organized than the basic ones. I write down every single short story that I have or idea or novel, or if I imagine a scene, I’ll write that scene out.
On what she wants to leave with her Albion audience:
LNA: We need artists. We need people who are creating work that exists in the world that is not directly tied to commerce and how much money you can make. I think it’s important that we value that, the creation of an artistic output because it’s the part of maintaining the community. It’s essentially being able to produce and appreciate things that aren’t just about money.