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Author Lesley Nneka Arimah reads from her debut story collection, What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, at Lit Youngstown’s 2018 fall literary festival. The reading was held in the stone sanctuary of St. John’s Episcopal Church. (Photo credit: Courtney Kensinger)

in literature, of course.

Ahem.

So, I don’t know…maybe fantastical literature fell under the heading of “books and games to be avoided”–along with Dungeons & Dragons–in the C.C.D. program directed at us Catholic middle school kids. Or maybe it was my mom, for whom a talking spider and talking mouse, in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, respectively, were fantastical enough.

Whatever…it took me a long while to appreciate fantasy, or magical realism, as the genre is called among the literary fiction set.

It wasn’t until I had my kids that I began to really like fantasy–because those stories were the ones that kept my restless elementary-age boys rapt at bedtime, that kept them from becoming distracted enough by their bodies to turn to wrestling each other, thereby gaining a second wind that would keep them–and me–up past my bedtime.

The Chronicles of Narnia served as our gateway children’s fantasy. Lately, Susan Cooper stories featuring ghosts are our typical m.o. And on their nightstand at the moment: Endling #1: The Last by Katherine Applegate. Myth and mystery… The maybe-end of a rare species of dog-like creatures… A wobbyk named Tobble. (Hello, alliteration!) Really, I enjoy the characters and language as much as my kids do; but what I really love about the middle-grade fantasy I’m now exposed to…

The world-building.

Of course, as a fiction writer, I’ve been building worlds for a long time–even if they look and act like our world. But I’d never called it that. I constructed settings for scenes, putting a character in a concrete time and place. However, because those places were  recognizable, I didn’t give this process enough attention. It was scene-dressing.

That’s changed.

At Lit Youngstown’s fall literary festival, author Lesley Nneka Arimah read a few stories from her debut short story collection, titled What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky: Stories. Arimah’s gift with language–she crafts  sentences that are graceful and slyly, darkly witty at the same time–and her knack at exposing the tender underbellies of familial relationships are enough to make for truly memorable tales.

For me, what sets her fiction apart is the use of fantasy. She builds worlds we know–the stories are set in the U.S. and Nigeria. (Arimah was raised in the U.K. and Nigeria and moved to the U.S. when she was a teenager.) But these worlds are slightly tilted, set off kilter through the introduction of myth or fable or superstition.

Being born under the wrong star, as the main character was in the story, “Glory,” is much more than a young woman having a run of bad luck. Still, the main character operates in a place we can recognize, a Minneapolis call center where she listens to an endless litany of foreclosure complaints from distraught homeowners. Here we have familiar, realistic world-building. Likewise, in many of the stories in this collection, the “magical” in the realism isn’t in the setting.

Not so in the stunning titular story. In “What it Means…,” Arimah creates a world of the future, a time riven by natural disasters and wars between the classes. The solution this society has devised to create order: a mathematical formula to fix people, even those who have suffered tremendous losses, by allowing some specialists to devour others’ grief.*

“When things began to fall apart [Chinua Achebe nod?], the world cracked open…into the vacuum stepped…[a mathematician] who discovered a formula that explained the universe. It, like the universe was infinite, and the idea that the formula had no end and, perhaps, by extension humanity had no end was exactly what the world needed.”

Then, the formula faltered…and I’ll let you read the rest for yourself.

At her literary festival reading, Arimah spoke about her literary influences. She talked about the trips she took to the library as a kid and the reading she did: across all book types and genres–and absolutely voraciously.

So, here’s to fantasy, even in the uber-realistic Rust Belt. (I am currently reading Stephen Markley’s novel, Ohio; do story elements count as fantastical if they’re drug-induced? That’s a question for another day.) Here’s to inventive play in all the elements of story.

Thank you to Lesley Nneka Arimah for allowing me to post her picture and feature a snippet of her story. Please visit her author site for more information, and go buy What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky at your local bookstore.

Do you write fantasy or magical realism? Do you blog about it? Do you read it to your kids?

 

*As I schedule this post, my heart is heavy. Condolences to the people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where on Saturday 11 people were killed when a gunman opened fire in a synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Prayers for the dead and for the grieving, today and everyday…

 

 

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18 thoughts on “Finding Fantasy…

  1. We heard the news in Australia too. I am so sorry to hear about another massacre. It has been heartening to see the community rally around them. But it is still awful. My son has started to enjoy fantasy. It’s been great to see. I grew up loving anne mccaffrey. I can’t wait to introduce him to her work soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Feels strange to talk about fantasy in literature when so much horrific violence is happening right here in U.S. communities. But then I guess there’s a reason I’m an avid writer and reader. Sometimes all one can do is escape the real for a moment to frame and understand it better. Anyway, all those Mccaffrey dragon books look fun!

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  2. I remember the place and time when I discovered J. R. R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” ( a humble apartment as a newlywed ), but I also remember discovering Ray Bradbary’s “The Illustrated Man” in my high school library (more years ago than I want to admit). Is not all fiction, fantasy when it comes right down to it? Embrace it as a creative and sometimes inspired endeavor by a bunch of fatality flawed humans.

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    1. Wonderful point to ponder. It’s all fantasy. It’s all world-building. I try not to get too caught up in terms and genre classification, because it doesn’t really matter. Of course, another part of me likes to feel like I’m getting a two-for-one deal with fiction: learning something (historical, geographical, etc.) while getting a good story. But, as I see from Ruby’s suggestion above, I can have my historical cake and eat the fantasy too–or something like that!

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  3. Lovely post, there so many writers around today that I have not heard of. When I was a child Enid Blyton was very popular. There are so many other quality authors today to help build a child’s love of reading,. yes I have to agree there are Fiction books that I read where it is obvious that the author has done alot of research, so from it I learn something as well as enjoy the book.

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  4. Although I don’t count myself among the super-fans of LOTR or Harry Potter, I have always had a soft spot for the pulpy “sword & sorcery” fantasy of the 1920’s and 1960’s. Exquisite world-building, since they were mostly collections of short stories and very character driven (Conan the Barbarian, Elric of Melnibone, Jirel of Joiry), and the protagonists were always traveling to different places and having crazy adventures. To bring it full circle, this stuff all heavily influenced that dreaded Dungeons & Dragons game. 🙂

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    1. “Pulpy”–I’m deeming word of the day! Love your bygone examples, and thanks for checking out my post. Before reading fantasy to my kids, I would have incorrectly assumed that character would suffer for all the plot twists and turns in fantasy, but I’m not finding that to be the case. Sword & Sorcery sure seems tame these days, doesn’t it? Esp. in contrast to some of the all-too-realistic games kids play now. Wow, I sound old. But really, I think writing good fantasy must be incredibly difficult–but so very rewarding, to not have to rely on the physics or institutions or infrastructure of any real place. Hope your writing is going well!

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      1. It’s a great word and I use it every chance I get. Writing is going well, and since I’m currently engaged in world-building I can tell you it is extremely daunting (for someone who doesn’t normally do it). That said, it’s very satisfying when it works. And the kids these days?…I blame MTV and Diet Pepsi.

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  5. I, like you, have never been interested in fantasy. But, my kids have just started to enjoy reading fantasy, so I’ve been getting a healthy dose of it as of late. My son started reading the Magic Treehouse books last summer and he proclaimed “Mom, these books have me wanting to read all the time!” Score! Fantasy is a lot of fun – so much creativity and imagination go into the books.

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    1. That’s a definite score! I’m always trying to get my guys hooked on series for that reason. Really, anything that gets them to become avid readers. (I said we wouldn’t do all the potty humor books, but we did, once I realized they were hooked!) It wasn’t until I discovered Susan Cooper’s GHOST HAWK, which the boys and I read together, that I thought, wow, I’ve been missing out! Sure, it’s a middle-grade book, but it made my best-books-I-read-all-year list (if I were actually going to make such a list–maybe I should!) I can’t imagine writing fantasy, myself, but who knows, maybe someday!

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      1. Alright, Ghost Hawk sounds PERFECT for us. My family has enjoyed studying Native American history so very much in our homeschool. I believe both of my kids would eat this book up. Another score!

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      2. I loved all the Native American/Puritan/Pre American Revolution history in GHOST HAWK. My guys are almost 9 and we read it when they were 8. I read it aloud so I’d be able to talk about the violence. Right on the front of the book, it says “murder,” so that’s not a spoiler, and I was ready for it. I found it to be a beautiful book, and the boys and I did talk about the violence. But, it just depends on whether you feel your kids are ready for it. For me, the language and all the description of the Massachusetts areas was so lovely, I’d read it again just for me!

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