Reading Like a Writer: "What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky" and Puncturing a Closed World
In Lesley Nneka Arimah's, "Who Will Greet You at Home" (What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky), Ogechi makes a baby from hair, which is forbidden and has consequences. The story is magical, but also strange and complex. There is a particular world created inside the story, one in which all babies are made from the materials that surround us—yarn, clay, porcelain—and debts can be repaid in happiness and empathy.
But how big is this world? The story is in third person, closely aligned with Ogechi and so we learn of it through her limited perspective. The narrator does not step away to grant a wider view.
Instead, Arimah uses a different technique that I very much admire.
At the Emporium, Ogechi kept the child with her, worried that it would cry if she removed it. Besides, the brash assistant who had tried to uncover the child was no longer at the shop, and Ogechi knew that she would never return. The other assistant was red-eyed and sniffling, unable to stop even after Mama gave her dirty looks. By lockup, Ogechi’s head was throbbing, and she trembled with exhaustion. She wanted to get home and pry the baby off her. She was anticipating the relief of that when the remaining assistant said, “Why have you not asked after her?”
“Who?” Stupid answer, she thought as soon as she uttered it.
“What do you mean who? My cousin that disappeared. Why haven’t you wondered where she is? Even Mama has been asking people about her.”
“I didn’t know you were cousins.”
The girl recognized Ogechi’s evasion.
“You know what happened to her, don’t you? What did you do?”
The answer came out before Ogechi could stop it.
“The same thing I will do to you,” she said, and the assistant took a step back, then another, before turning to run.
First, let me tell you what is happening. The hair baby has eaten one of Ogechi's coworkers and in this exchange, the coworker's cousin (another coworker) is getting suspicious. It's the mention of cousins that interests me here.
First, the line does some functional things. It's a likely way for one person to identify another and so it's realistic that this coworker would say it, even though Ogechi hasn't previously known the two, who had seemed to be just friends, were related. It also makes sense for Ogechi to use the new knowledge as an evasion—as the girl picks up on.
Let's talk about evasions in dialogue. In the real world, they are everywhere and so should occur in fiction. And this is a definite way people do it. "I don't want to talk about the real question here, so I'll latch onto a less important one." It's also fairly transparent and so it's not surprising when the coworker recognizes it. In real-life conversations, we don't always get away with our evasions either.
The fact of them being cousins, however, is not truly relevant to the story. I suppose it humanizes the girls, but I think their actions and agency do more to make them fully human than this mention of a relationship. The line seems to me like one that the average workshop or critique partner would tear into and insist on cutting.
Thank goodness the line was not cut!
Because what I really love about the line is that Ogechi does not know the two are cousins. The word "cousin" does not appear elsewhere in the story. Ogechi never even thinks about the relationship between these two who are not her friends or allies.
This tiny bit of information punctures Ogechi's otherwise insular world, breaking in from the outside. When it does so, the reader can intuit that there is a bigger world than the one Ogechi is presenting. Her consciousness exists among other consciousnesses. We can only know this because someone tells her something she does not already know. This makes the world feel real to the reader and not something made up or misinterpreted by the one character who is telling the story.
Unexpected words or actions can do this for a story. If the POV character does not expect a particular thing to be said or done, the reader understands it differently than if it is expected. When nothing happens outside the POV character's reason, the story might still be incredibly compelling, but it is a closed system, reliant entirely on one person's understanding of it. Counter-intuitively, unexpected happenings make the whole thing feel more real.
And so sometimes it is right to include an unexpected detail, one that doesn't directly affect the plot of the story. As Arimah shows here, dialogue can be a great way to do that.
Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Moon City Review, Yemassee, Booth, Lunch Ticket, Jellyfish Review, and (less recently) elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft's blog. She tweets, often about writing, as @allisonwyss and here's her website: www.allisonwyss.com