Lesley Nneka Arimah Wins 2019 Caine Prize For African Writing
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Caine Prize, awarded each year to a short story by an African writer, aims to highlight the richness and diversity of African writing in English. This year's winner is the acclaimed Nigerian writer Lesley Nneka Arimah. She won for her breathtaking story, "Skinned." It's about a society where girls are forced to remove their clothes at a certain age and go about the world naked until they are claimed in marriage. It focuses on a young woman named Ejem. Here to tell us more about it is Lesley Nneka Arimah.
Welcome. Congratulations. Thank you so much for joining us.
LESLEY NNEKA ARIMAH: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: I want to get to your story in a minute, but I do want to point out that this is not your first prize. I mean, you were - you've already been widely published. Many people will have seen your work in the New Yorker and a number of other places. I mean, you've won the African Commonwealth Prize. Your book "What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky" was one of the most highly anticipated in 2017. So this is not your first rodeo. But I still want to ask how it felt when you learned that you had won and if this prize has any special meaning to you.
ARIMAH: You know, it was - I never walk into any sort of prize situation expecting it, and so it always comes as a surprise to me, especially as somebody who, you know, currently only writes short stories or has stories - short stories out. This is not a medium that tends to garner as much attention. And so this particular award was also a surprise and also appreciated because I feel as though it is rewarding a certain progression or a certain different type of literature that is expected when we understand what African writing is.
MARTIN: So let's talk about the story. As we mentioned, it's called "Skinned," and it's about a world - a place where girls when they reach a certain age have to take off all their clothes. And I have to tell you, it is deeply disturbing in the best possible way. I mean, I just cannot get it out of my head. And I - you know, every time I go back to it, it just leaves me with this queasy feeling. But as I said, in the best possible way because it's also banal and it's also normal until it isn't. Does that make sense?
I mean, it - you know, obviously a lot of women in the culture that I'm in, a lot of us get married later than in other parts of the world or in other parts of the country. We have - if, you know, if we get married, we get married later. We perhaps have children later. So the idea, you know, of having to go to university, come into an office - do you know what I mean? - go to the store naked is just so horrifying to me (laughter) you know, that I think - it's just - you know? But I just have to ask, where did you get the idea for this?
ARIMAH: I can't say exactly when this particular idea came to me. But I know the germ of it was a conversation that I'd had with a recently married friend. And, you know, and she lives in Nigeria, and she is by her own admission very strange. And her strangeness was always a point its concern for her family, especially her parents growing up and a reason for why people would tell her constantly, oh, you know, you won't get married if you don't stop doing this - whatever this was. And she had just gotten married, and she had done so without having changed anything about her that the parents had a problem with. And so, all of a sudden, these things that had been the point of contention her entire life were suddenly OK.
And we talked about how, you know, she said something about how it felt as though being married had given her cover to be herself. And so that was when the seed was planted. And I'm not sure what happens sort of as it was growing in my subconscious. But at one point, it manifested as this particular premise - a world where women who are unmarried have to be naked until they're not.
MARTIN: There's some of the - just the scenes where you talk about just the terror of having to remove your father cloth until you get your wife cloth and then the sneering of, like, other women. I'm just curious about it. In fact, most of that story takes place within - in the company of other women. I was interested in that.
ARIMAH: Yes. I think I'm more interested in the conversation that women are having amongst themselves and just the lives of women among themselves than I am in sort of, you know, men versus women - not because that - you know, that's not a thing that exists. Obviously, you know, the patriarchy plays quite a bit of a role in this story. But because I just find them to be more textured, more interesting, less binary. And I'm not interested in stories that have just, like, an either/or outcome or sort of an either/or way of looking at the world. I want to write something that's more complicated than that.
MARTIN: I want to note that your work has - is sort of characterized by this idea of imagining other worlds that on the one hand seem very familiar and then all of a sudden take on a very different character. And you talked to my colleague Scott Simon a couple of years ago, and you talked about that.
Could you just - for people who didn't hear that conversation just talk about, like, how - what is it that led you to this particular style? I don't know how you would describe it - like magical realism, or how - I don't know how you would describe it because it's not quite science fiction, but it's rooted very much in the familiar, and then it takes this sort of turn. I'm just wondering, why do you think this is where you landed?
ARIMAH: Right. You know, I'm less concerned with the labelling. I just - I'll just write. I'll just continue to write them. But I think of them as falling under a category of speculative fiction that I would call our world but different, which is, you know, why, you know, everything is very familiar except for this something that has been mutated or twisted in a way that - you know, that forces commentary on, you know, our familiar world with this particular unfamiliar element that's been twisted.
And, you know, there are a couple of writers who do this work tremendously, one of them being Diane Cook, who has a short story collection called "Man V. Nature." And it was when I encountered one of her stories that had been published in a journal that I realized I didn't know that you could do this. Like, I didn't realize this was something that we could do. And so, you know, it sort of started me off - it set me off on this path.
MARTIN: So do you mind if I ask - what are you going to do to celebrate this latest prize? I hope there's...
MARTIN: ...Like, a nice bottle of wine in somewhere. Or perhaps you'll buy a really amazing outfit, you know, just to sort of...
MARTIN: ...Just to say...
ARIMAH: You know...
MARTIN: I can buy my own outfit, thank you very much.
ARIMAH: Right. You know, I'm not entirely sure. Right now, I'm visiting friends, and so I have not actually, you know, gotten - gone home and sort of thought about what I'm going to do. But I will let you know.
MARTIN: That is writer Lesley Nneka Arimah, winner of the 2019 Caine Prize and author of "What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky."
Thank you so much for talking with us, and congratulations once again.
ARIMAH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.