Short Story Month, Day 24: Lesley Nneka Arimah
"What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky" by Lesley Nneka Arimah
I read this at the suggestion of fellow writer Jesse Wehrenberg, who is basically my twin when it comes to music tastes and MFA programs. The PDF, in case you're as leery about the weird Microsoft-Word-ness of it as I was, comes from the Caine Prize for African Writing, for which the story was shortlisted. Now that I know it exists, you best believe I'm going to scour the site for more excellent short stories.
I found the link from a blog that reviewed each of the shortlisted stories from 2016. In it, the writer mentioned that the title made him think of four potential reasons why a man would fall from the sky. The three conventional reasons would be that an accident occurred, he committed suicide, or he was pushed. The unconventional reason: witchcraft. Maybe it's because I'm an American of a certain age, but I thought none of those things. I thought of the people who fell from the World Trade Center on 9/11 who may have jumped out of fear and despair or may have simply fallen out as the building collapsed. I wouldn't call that suicide or being pushed but some in-between place. Turns out that "in-between" is exactly where all these assumptions fit with context of the story: None of these ideas are right, but they're not necessarily far off the mark.
The story does begin in a state of catastrophe, not just due to the man falling from the sky but due to global warming (or, at least, that's how it sounds). In the future that Arimah describes, white societies are underwater, but the effects of colonialism on white entitlement live on in Europeans' refusal to see themselves as refugees and insistence on independence. It's no surprise that to African countries, the most offensive are the British and the French, but it's not just white people who seem entitled; it's anyone rich, anyone lucky enough to have never experienced great suffering. Sounds pretty relevant to today, right? This is contrasted by Nneoma's refusal to treat those suffering most, in favor of treating only the rich who can pay for her own elevated lifestyle, though she belittles them by saying they don't know what real pain is. Her actions coms off first as entitled brattiness, too, but I think what we really see in both her and the people who employ her is a fear of emotions and a fear of the pain that empathy requires.
I think a lot about empathy these days because when I see people arguing about politics, I often find a lack of it. Recognizing someone else's pain can be a great burden, and most people refuse to notice it, never mind help ease that person's suffering. It is so much easier to turn away or assume other people's failings than empathize. But do people do so because they are selfish, or is the problem that they cannot themselves bear the burden of someone else's suffering? Superficially, this sounds like a matter of guilt, and maybe it is in part. But I think what Arimah shows us is that balance is difficult to achieve: distancing ourselves from human emotions could kill us, but so can too much empathy. This is why we must all share the burden, though. Relying on a select few to ease the suffering of many is a great injustice to humanity.