How much does pain weigh? A review of “What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky” – Aisi Atiti
This collection of short stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah depicts vividly the
need for an understanding of what emotional blows can do to the mental health
of a person as well as a nation. It is especially timely now that mental health
challenges have become a serious issue confronting Nigeria.
The award winning collection also
harps on the importance of clarity of perception and the need to heal from
pain, as both are not always available to the hurting in our society.
‘What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky’ which stands out in my opinion
for its uncanny facility for interweaving possible ideologies with realism won
the Kirkus Prize for fiction in 2017, the Minnesota Book Award for Fiction and
the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. The author has also
received further accolades that include the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize
for Africa – for her story “Light”, and the very recent Caine Prize
whose 2019 edition she won with her story “Skinned”.
The first story of the collection, ‘The
Future Looks Good’, begins with: “Ezinma fumbles the keys against the lock
and doesn’t see what came behind her:…” which excites the reader’s
curiosity leading one to wonder what it is that came behind Ezinma and there is
rising tension as we keep reading to discover what put the thing that came
behind Ezinma there.
This is a remarkable way to start a book.
The writer nibbled a little on the controversy that perception causes; it is
arguable -although not excusable – in the first story that Godwin didn’t know
Ezinma wasn’t Bibi because she looked very much like her sister.
This game of perception also plays
out in ‘What Is A Volcano?’ in her laying bare the reasons behind the actions
of the god of ants and the goddess of rivers in a way that their rage is
justified. This gives the reader a slight sense of playing judge from a level
playing ground where both options are offered, although the reader’s verdict
does not have any real consequence on the book; which in turn adds a subtle yet
glaring hint at our perception of reality
The book riffs on the effect of underlying guilt or hurt that a lot of people
-if not all- live with every day, as seen in ‘Second Chances’ where Uche lives
with the guilt and pain of probably having caused her mother’s death and an
even greater pain when she misses an opportunity to correct her last
conversation with her mother by not seeming able to find the right words.
It explains to the reader, first, how
powerless people can become in the presence of confrontation, especially when
they are blinded by guilt or any of the other negative emotions; and then the
seemingly too-heavy-to-bear weight of pain that comes with losing someone. The
latter is also expressed in ‘Buchi’s Girls’.
‘What It Means When A Man Falls From
The Sky’, the story from which the book gets its title tugs at mental health
awareness. The piece, which is written around a formula for calculating grief
leaves the reader with questions like: can grief be measured? If yes, how much
is too much? How much grief will it take to break an average Nigerian? These
questions assume greater significance when one considers how the Nigerian
economy is almost designed to increase an individual’s inconvenience.
The entire book dances around the importance of mental strength and the forces
that break it: emotional or physical strain, and what happens when that mental
strength is fractured.