My superlative-laden review for Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky will be posted on Tuesday, January 5. In the meantime, one story from that collection is available on The New Yorker website: Read “Who Will Greet You at Home” in the October 26, 2015 issue
The opening lines of “Who Will Greet You at Home” establish a layer of magical realism:
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.
Children aren’t born in this story. They’re crafted by their mothers, blessed by their grandmothers, then fed and kept safe for a year until they finally become flesh. Children can be crafted from a variety of materials and the type of material shapes the child’s nature. The child must also be sturdy enough to last the year after being blessed.
Ogechi’s unravelled yarn baby isn’t her first attempt. Two others were ripped apart by her own mother when Ogechi asked for a blessing:
“This thing will grow fat and useless,” she’d said. “You need something with strong limbs that can plow and haul and scrub. Soft children with hard lives go mad or die young. Bring me a child with edges and I will bless it and you can raise it however you like.”
Below the creativity on the surface, there’s a fabulously layered subtext. In an interview with The New Yorker, Arimah says an influence on this story is “the zealous insistence that young Nigerian women must marry and reproduce as soon as possible in order to give their lives true purpose.” While Ogechi feels the pressure to have a child, pressure that mounts each time her child is destroyed, the marriage aspect is absent. No men are present here.
Ogechi is surrounded by woman and filled with envy at the sight of new mothers. She’s especially struck by a porcelain child, but knows she couldn’t afford to keep it fed and unbroken for a year. She’s aware of her limits while wanting a child that will have more than she does. This idea of motherhood—shaping a child and crafting its success, even at the discomfort of the child or parent—is visited by a few stories in What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky. “Who Will Greet You at Home” might be most explicit on this theme, but the beautiful and clever imagery keeps it from being too heavy-handed. When Ogechi muses that “a child that cost much brought much,” it’s in the context of offering expensive shampoo to a baby made of hair.
After her mother destroys another child, Ogechi decides to have a child without her. Her boss, whom everyone calls “Mama,” blesses children for a price:
“Mama, what do you want?”
“I want just a bit more of your joy, Ogechi.”
As Ogechi loses more and more of herself for the possibility of a child, she becomes more desperate in her search for materials to make a baby. The final turns in this story feel natural in context, but go to a strange and violent place. On one level, the ending might be a bit dramatic, but in a world where Ogechi feels increased responsibility for her child’s nature as the one to choose and shape it, the dramatic scene is fitting.
I don’t have a plan to rate the stories featured as Sunday Shorts, but I highly recommend reading this one by clicking here. I’m not affiliated with The New Yorker, of course, but they’re a great source of short fiction and a legitimate website.