‘More weirdness, more work that’s unconcerned with explaining “Africa” to the West, more work that doesn’t care what people think. More of that, please.’—An interview with Caine Prize winner Lesley Nneka Arimah

The JRB Editor Jennifer Malec interviews Lesley Nneka Arimah, winner of the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing.

Jennifer Malec for The JRB: Your short stories have won prizes in the past, and your debut collection When A Man Falls from The Sky was critically acclaimed, around the world. You have even been shortlisted for the Caine Prize twice before. What does it mean to you to win this prize?

Lesley Nneka Arimah: It is an honour to win a prize that recognises African writing. My work can be a little strange, so to have that strangeness decorated in any way is always a pleasure.

The JRB: Your winning story, ‘Skinned’, can clearly be read metaphorically, but it doesn’t fall victim to the dryness that a lot of allegory is susceptible to. This observation could perhaps be made about a lot of your stories. Is this balance something you have had to work on?

Lesley Nneka Arimah: I intentionally avoid direct allegory because it’s too neat and I want my stories to be complicated. In order not to fall victim to that allegorical dryness, I restrict the allegory to the premise only, to the spark that gets the story going. After that, I write it as I would any short story, exploring character, advancing plot, and so on. I extrapolate from my understanding of human nature.

The JRB: One of my favourite lines in ‘Skinned’ is ‘it was a freedom born of irrelevance’. The words jumped out at me while I was reading the story, which was prescient, as it’s this compromised freedom that your character Ejem seems to crave in the end. The story could be read as a study of different kinds of freedom, all of which come with a caveat. Would you agree?

Lesley Nneka Arimah: Yes, and I would also add that it studies power, too, insomuch as freedom is linked to how much power you have.

The JRB: A lot of people view the patriarchy as the oppression of women by men. Your story shows, brilliantly but simply, how reality is much more complicated than that. How do you keep these complex unravellings of big ideas from muddying your writing?

Lesley Nneka Arimah: I find that the best way for me to avoid the didactic messaging (‘a very special episode’) that comes with exploring big ideas is to—as with the question about allegory—use the ideas as a spark without being too obvious on the page. The Big Idea is daylight, it illuminates the story, but no one is actively thinking about it. They are thinking about their lives, their wants, their relationships. That’s the other thing, to focus not on exploring the idea, but exploring the lives of the people that populate the story’s world. And because said idea was part of the inception of the story, your characters orbit around it, unaware that they are spinning.

The JRB: ‘Skinned’ is set in an alternative reality, where women cannot wear clothes until they are married. At the same time a lot of the story is startlingly familiar. Do you think this could be part of the appeal of speculative fiction, that it reveals the truth of things we take for granted by putting them in a new context?

Lesley Nneka Arimah: There are different types of speculative fictions, those that hew closely to our world and those where there be dragons and whatnot. The speculative fiction that’s closer to reality—’our world, but different’—does exactly that, exploring our norms in a new contexts. It’s like taking a beige object from a mostly white room and putting it in a dark green chamber. The object hasn’t changed, but in that context you see it differently.

The JRB: In your wonderful Caine Prize acceptance speech, you said that ‘we African writers must centre the African gaze […] We need to be writing to and for each other.’ Could you expand on why you think this is important, and how you feel you achieve this through your writing?

Lesley Nneka Arimah: A perfect example of what I mean is present in the osu, reimagined in ‘Skinned’ as a servant caste. Nigerians, particularly Igbos, know who the osu are in our culture and how they were and are treated. In writing the story, I cannot worry about if non-Nigerians know who the osu are, I cannot stop to give a history lesson. The story would change. The aims of the story would be stifled if I stopped to explain everything that might be unfamiliar to a non-Nigerian audience. What I’m saying isn’t particularly radical, it may just sound so because it’s not always articulated, but it is what happens when you treat your world, your culture, as the norm.

Take, for example, a story written by an American in which a ten-year-old boy—obsessed with baseball his entire short life—loses his first baseball game. It was his fault because he was daydreaming in left field and an easy catch rolled past him. He’s devastated. His teammates are pissed. Their parents are pissed. Nobody liked him much and this was just the excuse they needed to ostracise him. His father is trying to cheer him up on the way home while he’s pretending not to cry in the back seat. Then a text comes through that his mother’s water broke and everyone forgets about comforting him in the excitement of the new baby, who he now resents. Now, imagine if the author stopped the momentum of the narrative to explain what baseball is. Ludicrous, no? That’s all I’m telling African writers. You don’t have to explain baseball.

The JRB: In your speech you also emphasised that African writers ‘need to be writing to and for each other’. Do you think this kind of writing freedom is inhibited by the ambitions of the global publishing industry, which wants to produce African literature, but not always on Africans’ terms, and sometimes (or even usually) not for African readers?

Lesley Nneka Arimah: Yes, the global publishing industry does play a hand in this. I think that because a certain type of African story became popular in the Western market, the Western market sought to replicate those stories, which created a limited impression of the breadth of African literature. This offered—and still offers—an opportunity for African publishers to be on the cutting edge. However, as more and more variety of African literature ‘makes it’ on the Western stage without compromises that assume a western reader, one does see the landscape changing. In an ideal world, African publishers become the tastemakers that the non-African market follows.

The JRB: Another thing you emphasised in the speech was that writers need to ‘play’, saying: ‘I think of experimentation as a sign of expertise.’ Do you think this type of writing is becoming more prevalent from African authors?

Lesley Nneka Arimah: I think experimentation has always been present in our literature, I just want to encourage more of it. More weirdness, more work that’s unconcerned with explaining ‘Africa’ to the West, more work that doesn’t care what people—even people who share your culture—think. More of that, please.

The JRB: The ‘about’ section of your website says: ‘She lives in Las Vegas and is working on a novel about you.’ I gather that you are now living in Minneapolis, but I’m more interested in that intriguing elevator pitch. Could you tell us a little about the novel?

Lesley Nneka Arimah: [Laughs] That’s actually how I get around talking about the novel. ‘What’s your novel about?’ someone asks. ‘You,’ I reply. The end. Until I’m done writing it, it feels like letting the air out of a balloon to talk about it.

The JRB: Lastly, when we get the chance we like to ask authors, who tend to be well-read people, for their book recommendations. Do you have any recent reads you’ve enjoyed that you could share with The JRB?

Lesley Nneka Arimah: Manchester Happened (published in the United States as Let’s Tell This Story Properly) by Jennifer Makumbi. That woman is a genius.

Author image: John Cobb/The Caine Prize for African Writing/Composite: The JRB

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