Confab with a Contributor: Lesley Nneka Arimah

by Soniah Kamal  ·  November 13, 2015

image1 1) Buchi’s Girls, featured in Vol. 16, No. 3 is about the recently widowed Buchi who has moved into her sister’s home. Here Buchi is formed to negotiate the desires of her young daughters and her sister’s egomaniac husband and his need to control everyone. The story is brilliant in its exploration of what it takes to make sacrifices. What was the genesis of this story?

I think about class a lot, especially in the Nigerian context and the amenities that one class can access that another can’t. That access and everything it means is even more complicated when the divide exists between blood relatives and it can often be an awkward and painful area to navigate, especially if you’re on the lacking end and have a great need. What can you reasonably request? Should you even ask? If you all live in the same house, should you expect that your children be as indulged as the children of the house? Buchi is in this awkward position brought on by the tragedy of losing her husband.

2) I was so taken by the sibling relations between Buchi’s daughters, Louisa and Damaris, as well as Buchi and her sister Glory. Do you think Louisa and Damaris could grow up to be like Buchi and Glory.

I hope not, but who can say? Without giving away the ending, they will have very different lives and it might be interesting to see how they treat each other as adults.

3) What was your process for writing Buchi’s Girls, and short stories, in general? Are you someone who outlines or do you just go with the flow?

For short stories, I’m a go-with-the-flow writer. Sometimes, that means starting with a beginning and writing until I have an end. In the case of Buchi’s Girls, the story existed in bits and pieces—paragraphs here, scenes there—until I figured out how it all went together. Most of my stories start out with an image, an idea that I jot down. Then I let it brew for as long as it needs while I do a lot of conscious and subconscious thinking about it. When it comes to a boil, I write.

4) Where do you get your story ideas from in general?

I made a deal with a water spirit. She delivers a slip of paper with my next story idea every full moon.

5) How do you revise a story? Buchi’s Girls?

Buchi’s Girls was written very slowly, very carefully, that I revised as I wrote. When I put the pieces together, another revision smoothed out the seams. It really varies from story to story. Every one requires something different.

6) Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

No, but I was always a reader and very interested in books. Reading was how I came to understand, or at least reason with, the new (American) culture I found myself thrust into in my youth. I learned so much, so quickly about American identity by reading the stories Americans told about themselves. It’s one of the reasons I find it important for members of any culture to tell their own stories. But the concept of being a “writer” came to me much later as an adult.

7) Can you tell us about your typical writing day? Do you have a routine?

I do not have a set routine (but I should). I do a lot of writing while I’m at work, surreptitiously, shrinking the screen when anyone walks past.

8) What has winning the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Regional Prize for Africa meant for you?

It was a lovely shock. I think the Commonwealth Short Story Prize is unique in that it’s a global competition with no barriers to entry except that your story be in English, and even now that’s changing. You don’t have to have published a book or be established. For me, it meant that I felt that pleasant glow of validation that you can only bask in for so long before it’s time to get back to work.

9) Has this accolade made braving a blank page any simpler?

I have the memory of a gnat when it comes to remembering anything but slights against me. This is terrible for, say, remembering my siblings’ names, but it means that I find it every easy to put all thoughts out of my mind when it’s time to write. So whether accolades make it simpler or harder to write isn’t a factor while I’m writing.

10) A novel, short story, and poem you believe should be mandatory reading?

The Books of Night Women by Marlon James should be read by everyone. Stop whatever you’re going right now and get thee a copy.

11) Is there any classic novel you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

Moby Dick (I am writhing in shame as I type this). I read a lot as a teenager, and from many genres (serious historical fiction to bodice-rippers) and I enjoyed working through difficult books. But Moby Dick was one I waited too long to read and then read just enough (a quarter perhaps, pages here and there) for a book report. I don’t think I have the patience for it now, and my to-be-read pile is filled with so many other books.

12) How was wanting to write received by your family considering that in Nigeria more emphasis is giving on practical careers like medicine?

I remember being extremely nervous when I had to tell my father that I was going to try my hand at writing instead of going to law school. I was prepared to be forbidden at which point I would rage and storm out of the house to return in triumph the next year with my Pulitzer. My father heard me out and then told me about how much he had wanted to be a writer growing up, but went into a practical field (engineering) to support a family. He didn’t want me to have the same regrets and said I should go for it.

Soniah Kamal’s An Isolated Incident is a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction, the KLF Fiction Prize, and an Amazon Rising Star pick. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, The Normal School, and more. She is an Assistant Editor of fiction for Five Points.