In Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s historical fiction novel on the Biafran war in Nigeria, Ollana, the protagonist, navigates her relationship with her flamboyant mother and her plain and no-nonsense sister Kainene.
Unlike Ollana, the soft-spoken, loveable, beautiful obedient daughter Kainene is plain, straight-talking and unconventional. In a “proper” African society, Kainene is likely to be considered the disgraceful daughter Lesley Nneka Arimah’s powerful collection titled What it Means when a Man Falls from the Sky recaptures girlhood memories and the yoke of expectation womanhood carries.
They are mostly difficult memories, the kind we want to sweep under the family carpet and forget. The ones that awaken sadness and a dull throbbing as they bring to mind the passions and fires forcefully quenched within us and the light we lost in becoming proper socially acceptable women.
In the story Glory, Glory has “unforgivable” faults ranging from being clumsy and outspoken to remaining chronically single even as she nears the age of 30.
Stuck in a routine customer service job she doesn’t care for, Glory struggles to fit into societal expectations, calling her mother for recipes so she can cook a good meal because it is a “test.”
She also posts pictures on her social media account to give a false impression to family and friends in Nigeria about her “happy and successful” life in America.
In Light, we see that the pressure and expectations for girls to be proper starts before puberty.
“When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters,” begins the first paragraph of the funny fourth story in the book.
Nneka goes on to tell us, with biting sarcasm, what exactly the world did to daughters before returning them to their fathers hollowed out and relieved of their better parts.
We empathise with a loving father who, while his wife is away studying in America, remains determined to keep the brightness in his girl’s eyes.
Yet we, having lived and experienced the world ourselves, having had to survive uncomfortable sex talks and like Okwara, navigate the “crime scenes of our girls’ first menstrual periods,” know only too well that the heartbreaks will come. In the end, the light in our girls’ eyes will be no more.
The last story in the collection, Redemption, seems to suggest that there is hope. It is the sort of redemption that comes from a realisation that heroine Mayowa is powerless, a disgrace to her mother, and weak in the face of societal pressures.
Mayowa, the poor girl of 13, is sent to live with relatives where she is castigated for protecting herself in spite of evidence showing she wasn’t guilty. She is even sent to church for “deliverance” for being too headstrong.
The 12 contemporary stories in the collection are diverse in setting and style. Arimah focuses on what some may consider mundane domestic tales.
Flipping the pages is akin to walking into a room full of one’s sisters and girlfriends and trading tales of teenage drama and trauma. Of nosy relatives, rumour-mongering schoolmates, and neighbours who are bent on bringing up girls right.
Nneka traces her pen through the geography of scars and history of hurt that accompany becoming a woman in an African society where it takes a village to raise a child — especially a girl.
She also explores the realms of speculative fiction and magical realism by summoning mothers from the dead in Second Chances.
What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is the most delightful feminist short stories collection I have recently read. It lacks the schoolmaster hectoring and lecturing, as Nneka gets us to laugh at our patronising attitudes towards the females in our midst.
In the last story, What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Arimah writes that “girls with fire in their bellies will be forced to drink from a well of correctness till the flames die out.”
Arimah seems to applaud the Kainene brand of forthrightness and not the graceful, polite properness of Ollana.
Light, won the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa and What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky and Who Will Greet You at Home were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2016 and 2017 respectively.