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Author Lesley Nneka Arimah answers your questions

We've read a family saga, a comedic novel and an acclaimed memoir of growing up in rural Idaho. This month for "Now Read This," our book club in partnership with the New York Times: a debut collection of short stories ranging from realism to folktale to sci-fi. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Lesley Nneka Arimah, author of “What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky,” and announces next month's pick.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So far, we have brought you an epic family saga, a comedic novel about a failed writer, an acclaimed memoir about growing up in rural Idaho, and this month.

    For Now Read This, our book club in partnership with The New York Times, a debut book that ranges from realism to folktale, to sci-fi.

    Here's Jeffrey Brown.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Twelve stories that move between the U.S. and Nigeria and between different styles, but always with vivid characters and writing that packs a punch.

    Our Now Read This book club pick for August was the story collection "What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky."

    Author Lesley Nneka Arimah is here now to answer some of the questions our readers sent in.

    Welcome, and thank you for being part of the book club.

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This is our first short story collection in the book club. And that's what our first question is about. So let's go right to that. OK?

  • Suzanne Koziatek:

    I'm intrigued by the difference between creating a novel and creating a book of short stories. When you were writing the stories, did you have a commonality in mind for them, and did that change as the stories took shape?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That's a good way of introducing a little bit about what you are up to here.

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah:

    When I was writing the short series, I thought of them as their own individual entities.

    I wasn't consciously pairing or trying to have them connect to each other, but they all deal with the things that I'm curious about in the world and the questions that I have about the world. And so that created that link between all of the stories.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And different parts of your world, I mean, different places in your world?

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah:

    Yes, so mostly Nigeria and the United States, and both Nigeria of the past, present and the speculative future.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK, so let's go to the next question.

  • Noel Angel:

    While writing this book, did you use personal experiences and/or stories from people you know? If so, was writing this book cathartic for you?

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah:

    They think, because I write about young Nigerian women, the readers often assume that I'm writing about myself and writing an autobiographical work.

    But all the stories, they were all imagined, with the exception of one though, the war stories, where the father tells about — the stories about when he was in the army. I borrowed my father's stories that he told me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That was — I mean, that was one of my favorites.

    So, I mean, fill that in a little bit, because that's a young woman and her father sort of slowly unreeling his story.

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah:

    Yes.

    A girl who might have a few behavioral issues and sort of causing fights at school and, at home, her father is this older Nigerian man who's been shell-shocked by the Biafra War. And he copes with this by telling her stories about his experiences.

    And those stories were my father's stories. I exaggerated the last one a bit just for story effect. But those were his stories. It was sort of very gratifying that he understood what I was doing and liked what I had sort of turned his stories into.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's a family story, but embedded in history.

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah:

    Yes.

    The ways in which like our past traumas inform our present selves, like, I'm really interested in how that manifests. And you are everything that has happened to you leading up to this very moment. And how have those experiences, how have they shaped you? How have they sort of contoured the way that you think and the way that you view the world and other people?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK, let's go to our next question from one of the readers.

  • Alisha Jensen:

    Many of your stories focus on the weight of societal expectations, especially on young women. Why did you choose to highlight this theme?

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah:

    There's all the sort of social rules that women are supposed to follow, women and girls are supposed to follow, at least in sort of my own experience of growing up in Nigeria.

    And I wanted to — I wanted to talk about it, and I wanted to interrogate the many different ways that we are putting pressure — putting pressure, and that is sort of creating these false shapes of a womanhood and girlhood, and what that does to the people who live through that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But without being particularly autobiographical, you say?

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah:

    No, but still things I think about, right? Like, the events aren't autobiographical, but like the emotion is.

    You mine — as a writer, you mine your insecurity, or at least you should, because we all — we are all humans in the world. We know how that works.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK, let's go to the next question.

  • Kamatchi Vijayakumar:

    What would you like your readers to take away from the stories? And the feedbacks you have received so far, are they in line that your intended message? Thank you.

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah:

    I don't write fiction with like a message, in that I don't want the story to feel like a very special episode of, you know, a day in this girl's life, and what lessons can be learned.

    That sort of didactic, instructional writing is not something that appeals to me. I'm more interested in sort of conjuring up a person. You're spinning a person out of out of nothing, and how — like, who are they? What are the particular idiosyncrasies that they have? What makes them, them?

    Because I still have my own concerns about the way the world is shaped and the condition of the world now, of course there are lessons that could be learned.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah:

    But I don't write with that intention. I let the stories sort of live on their own.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, so we're going to continue our conversation with questions from our readers. And we will put all of that online and on our Facebook page.

    For now, Lesley Nneka Arimah, thank you for being part of this.

  • Lesley Nneka Arimah:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And before we go, I want to announce our selection for September, "Earning the Rockies – How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World."

    It's a short, but powerful and provocative book by Robert Kaplan. It's a mix of road trip, memoir, history, and political analysis of where we have been and where we are today.

    I have been reading it this summer with great pleasure. And I hope you will too in our Now Read This book club, a partnership with The New York Times.

    And you can join us, some 60,000 members and growing, on our Facebook page.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And run to the bookstore to get that book.

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