Finding Fantasy…

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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…