From the Eyes of a Rulebreaker: An Interview with Lesley Nneka Arimah on Craft, Courage, and Creativity
Jul 11 ● BY Chisom Ogoke
Lesley Nneka Arimah is the kind of writer that doesn’t mind holding your hand. When you open her work, she will gladly offer her palm, you will gladly take it, and the both of you will (gladly) walk down a familiar street, in a familiar town, on a familiar day. Only when you’re a quarter-mile into this walk and have reached a busy intersection will you look around and notice that something’s . . . off. It’s not the cars, not the landscape, but there! The traffic lights. Lights that not only emit a fourth color, but also seem to enact traffic rules based on class, marriage status, baby status, and social relations. It’s only then, still holding Lesley’s hand, will you realize that you’re not where you thought you were.
I introduced Lesley as such for a reading one fine afternoon at Texas State University. As we exchanged places (me to my seat, her to the podium), she complimented my introduction and said the only thing it was missing was the part when she kicks the reader into the intersection, forcing them to face the world head-on. I laughed but knew she was right—her work, in many ways, does not stop with the reader passively watching from the sidewalk. Before the reading, I had the honor of talking with Lesley on the themes of craft, courage, and creativity, and what unfolded was a conversation as worthwhile as the author herself.
Chisom Ogoke: How has growing up in the United Kingdom, Nigeria, and the United States informed your writing voice?
Lesley Nneka Arimah: That’s a good question. I think that, for me, it made me very flexible about place. And it’s funny because people have sometimes mentioned to me how I use place in my work. I use locations, I think, but place is something that I feel like I have to invent—only because we did move around so much. And so, the way that it has informed my writing is that I feel very comfortable writing about anywhere. When you move around a lot, especially when you are young, you have to reposition yourself every new place that you go. You have to learn the rules of the place and the culture, etc. With moving around so much, I essentially had to learn how to be a person in all of these different places. I ended up with an awareness of what it takes for a person to belong to a place; what it means to understand the shorthand of a place; and how that shorthand signifies a level of belonging that a visitor does not have.
When I’m creating either a physical place or a world, I’m very aware of the language the character or narrator uses when they are observing a place. Is this visitor language or is this insider language? Particularly when writing speculative fiction, I like to write from the insider’s perspective as opposed to that of the visitor. From a visitor or outsider perspective, you can take up space by describing the way the visitor engages with this brand-new place. But when you are writing from an insider perspective, you have to now put yourself in this character/narrator’s point-of-view and [ask] are they going to be noticing the things that I find interesting as a visitor? They have lived in this invented world their entire lives, so they are not going to be nearly as interested in the mundanity. In fact, there are things that might be invented on my part that they have to treat as a mundanity. So it becomes a matter of adopting a language that recognizes that.
Ogoke: In some of your stories you establish the rules and worldbuilding of a place through a rulebreaker or outcast character. How did you come up with this method?
Arimah: Um…I didn’t.
Ogoke: As writing goes…
Arimah: Yeah. For me it was actually a matter of when it came to teaching. When I teach I like to think about things that good writers do instinctually and now I am going to break it down and quantify it in a way that can be spoken about and taught. In the process of doing that, I just broke down this particular system which already exists and recognized it. What I like about the outcast/rulebreaker character is again going back to that idea of this is somebody who belongs in this world but for whatever reason has chosen to disobey the rules of the world. A reader comes to the page and essentially learns the rules of this world, not because the rules are being told to them but because the rules are being broken. Via the consequences of the rules being broken, the reader comes to understand what the rules are. This is, again, narrative shorthand and it means you are teaching the reader how to understand this world without resorting to exposition or pedantry or things that bog the narrative down. The story can unfold naturally, like hiding the pill in the peanut butter.
Ogoke: Speaking of metaphors, you explain your work as “our world but different”—familiar but not. In an interview with Brittle Paper, you said it was like taking a blue pillow from a blue couch and placing it on a couch of a different color.
Arimah: Right. the idea that you take a room where everything is blue—blue carpet, blue walls, blue furniture, blue décor—and you take the blue vase and you put it in a room that is entirely yellow. And it’s the same vase, it’s the same bit of décor, but put into that different room, it now changes because the setting has changed. It looks different. There’s attention that would be paid to it in the yellow room that wouldn’t if it was in the room with everything else that was blue. It leads to what I like about speculative fiction, which is that you can take conventions that we consider normal—rules about our world that as a society we are just like “that’s just how it is”—and put it in this completely different setting. It now mutates in a way because it does not have the scaffolding of all of our societal expectations to hold it up.
Ogoke: You push various societal pressure points in your work by tweaking something. How do you choose what that something is?
Arimah: Honestly, there’s no particular methodology to that. Ideas just come to me. I mean this is like “how does inspiration happen” [laughter]. It’s more that all the ideas, all the things that I twist and change, they just come from things that interest me in the world. Take my short story “Who Will Greet You at Home?” that dealt with motherhood and childbirth. That is something that is interesting to me because it is expected of me. So now this is something that I want to play with because I find it interesting. Having something that I find interesting in the real world and putting it in this made-up world is important because you need to have some skin in the game. There needs to be something that matters to you, even if you’re inventing this impossible world filled with raffia babies. There needs to be something that compels me internally. All the things that I choose to twist come from things that I find interesting or troubling or whatever in the real world.
Ogoke: In your 2019 Caine Prize speech, you state how “African writers must centre the African gaze,” the Cameroonian gaze, the Nigerian gaze, and so on and so forth. For writers of the diaspora who have an incomplete or mixed understanding about “home” or their culture, what would you suggest in terms of providing or excluding contextual information?
Arimah: I would state to write to their own level of understanding of the culture. It could be a comfort level—a writer in this situation might feel more comfortable learning more than writing from that perspective. There is nothing inherently wrong with not knowing as much as people think you should or not knowing everything. There is no need to feel any sort of shame. And I say that because I’ve encountered writers who do feel a level of shame or a lack of cultural ownership that makes them feel as though they don’t have permission to write certain stories. I’m less interested in the answer of permission, than I am in how you as a writer are being authentic to the story that you’re telling and the person that is telling it. And so if your connection is tenuous, and you don’t want to write an exhaustive anthropologically accurate work, then don’t present it as such. Honestly, write whatever you want to write, but the only restriction—or caveat, if I can even call it that—is to write authentically, write sincerely, and write passionately. I think that that can overcome a lot of these questions and nerves about how should I? Can I? Just write. There are so many writers in the world and there are so many voices out there that you can write with your own and that is enough.
Ogoke: That is perfect. Now, as a final question, in your dedication, you state, “For my father. Thank you for telling me your stories.” How has your father’s storytelling impacted your work?
Arimah: I don’t write autobiographical fiction. Very rarely, with the exception of one story that is slightly more true to life than others and that is “War Stories” in the collection. Those stories were his stories. Those were true. The last story, I put a little bit of invention towards the end of that, but the other stories in there, those were his stories. He was in the army, and he told me about his experience. The Biafra War was a ghost in [our] house and him talking about his experience provided a little illumination. He was quite young, too; he was just a teenager. So his experiences were also a child’s experience of the war—in this case a child’s experience of being conscripted to the army against his will. It was really interesting to come to understand a part of who my father was as a child and how those experiences shaped the man that he is.
Lesley Nneka Arimah is a Nigerian writer of many honors. She is a recipient of an O. Henry Award, a National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honoree, and a winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing. Her debut collection, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, won the Kirkus Prize in 2017 and was a finalist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Leonard Prize. Her short stories have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, GRANTA, and The New Yorker. She can be found on Twitter @larimah and at her website.