For those eager to find new African writing, Lesley Nneka Arimah is a gift.
There is nothing rookie about Arimah’s work. Her story “Light” won the Africa category of the Common Wealth Prize and was subsequently published by Granta.
Still her New Yorker story, published last week, took many of us by surprise for being ridiculously good and undoubtedly original.
“Who Will Greet You at Home” is the strangest little story.
A science fiction story that reads like a fable, it follows the travails of a girl named Ogechi who fabricates a baby from a pile of hair trimmings leftover in a beauty salon. The story is set in some Nigerian city where babies are not born but made out of just about anything—porcelain, paper, and even hair.
The story is about women—quite literally. There are no men! Thanks to some magico-technological advancement, women can now make babies without men, so I guess they just became obsolete. The traditional household has also disappeared, along with men and their seed-bearing penises. What does not disappear, however, is the pressure for women to bear children and to feel responsible for the success or failure, beauty or monstrosity of the child. This is what Arimah explores in the story. Ogechi leaves her mother and dooms herself to life as an indentured servant at a beauty salon so that she could have the freedom to fabricate the kind of child she wanted. The child ends up becoming a monster, but you’ll have to read the story to know why.
I left the story being utterly impressed by the crazy mix of genres it integrates.
When we say a story is not realism, we can’t stop ourselves from saying what sort of non-realism it is. Is it sci-fi, fable, magical realism, and so on? Arimah’s story is difficult to pidgin hole.
It has a Grimm’s Brother’s fairytale feel. The call-and-response songs interwoven in the story gives it a folkloric quality. It has a touch of fantasy, but it doesn’t scream magical in a way that an Okri story does. Yet, the sentences are so light and delicate that they feel like something straight out of an Achebe story. The idea of a baby-crafting technology leans more to science fiction, but the matter-of-fact presentation of the fictional world makes you feel like you’re in a realist universe. Women are inventing babies out of mud and raffia, but they are also taking danfo to the salon to put in hair extensions.
This generic hybridity makes for a disorienting but pleasurable read. Arimah’s story is a little beautiful monster woven—just like the baby in the story—from so many different elements.
It is stories like these that convinces me that Africa is set to lead contemporary innovation in fiction.
Here is a taste:
The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unravelled as she continued walking, mistaking its little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone. By the time she noticed, it was too late, the leg a tangle of fibre, and she pulled the string the rest of the way to end it, rather than have the infant grow up maimed. If she was to mother a child, to mute and subdue and fold away parts of herself, the child had to be perfect.
Yarn had been a foolish choice, she knew, the stuff for women of leisure, who could cradle wool in the comfort of their own cars and in secure houses devoid of loose nails. Not for an assistant hairdresser who took danfo to work if she had money, walked if she didn’t, and lived in an “apartment” that amounted to a room she could clear in three large steps. Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves, like moin moin: pedestrian items that had produced a pedestrian girl. Ogechi was determined that her child would be a thing of whimsy, soft and pretty and tender and worthy of love. But first she had to go to work.
She brushed her short choppy hair and pulled on one of her two dresses. Her next child would have thirty dresses, she decided, and hair so long it would take hours to braid, and she would complain about it to anyone who would listen, all the while exuding smug pride.
Ogechi treated herself to a bus ride only to regret it. Two basket weavers sat in the back row with woven raffia babies in their laps. One had plain raffia streaked with blues and greens, while the other’s baby was entirely red, and every passenger admired them. They would grow up to be tough and bright and skillful.
The children were not yet alive, so the passengers sang the call-and-response that custom dictated:
Where are you going?
I am going home.
Who will greet you at home?
My mother will greet me.
What will your mother do?
My mother will bless me and my child.
It was a joyous occasion in a young woman’s life when her mother blessed life into her child. The two girls flushed and smiled with pleasure when another woman commended their handiwork (such tight, lovely stitches) and wished them well. Ogechi wished them death by drowning, though not out loud. The congratulating woman turned to her, eager to spread her admiration, but once she had looked Ogechi over, seen the threadbare dress, the empty lap, and the entirety of her unremarkable package, she just gave an embarrassed smile and studied her fingers. Ogechi stared at her for the rest of the ride, hoping to make her uncomfortable.