Lesley Nneka Arimah’s emergence as 2019 winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing is proof that perseverance pays off. Shortlisted twice, she eventually wins in her third attempt. Was it just luck, or had she built a foundation that was bound to earn her the coveted prize?
On Monday 8 July, Nigerian writer Lesley Nneka Arimah became winner of the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing, worth £10,000, for her short story ‘Skinned’. The Chair of judges, Dr. Peter Kimani, made the announcement at an award dinner in Senate House, London, United Kingdom.
Kimani described Arimah’s work as one that “defamiliarizes the familiar to topple social hierarchies, challenge traditions and envision new possibilities for women of the world. Using a sprightly diction, she invents a dystopian universe inhabited by unforgettable characters where friendship is tested, innocence is lost, and readers gain a new understanding of life.”
The Chair of judges wasn’t wrong. In ‘Skinned’, Arimah creates a society where girls remain clothed up till a certain age, and then they are officially stripped of that covering, leaving them naked until they get married. This happens to every girl and many dread their coming to matuwwrity, unless they come from a wealthy background and their parents’ influence protects them, or a man swiftly takes them as wife.
Through the eyes of the story’s central character, Ejem, readers are allowed to see how a woman’s life revolves around that of a man. Unlike her friend, Chidinma, Ejem stays unclothed long after she’s due for marriage and endures the ridicule of her society. This affects her at work where she is treated like a leper, on the streets, where men stare and women talk behind her back. Unfortunately, the world she lives in entrenches and upholds this law, and there is a penalty for defaulters. But all this change when Ejem meets a woman in her shoes, who defies everyone and remains clothed.
‘Skinned’ is a finger pointed at patriarchy, where men hold the power and women live under laws that don’t favour them. This is the story that finally earned Arimah the Caine Prize, an award she has been shortlisted for twice and clinched on her third feature on the list.
Before now, Arimah was shortlisted alongside four other writers in 2017 for her story ‘Who Will Greet You at Home’, and in 2016 for ‘What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky’.
In an interview with Daily Trust on Saturday in 2017, just after being nominated, Arimah said that, like most of her stories, ‘Who Will Greet You at Home’ started with an image of a child made from yarn.
“I pondered the significance of this, why a person who isn’t a child with a toy might carry around a baby made of wool, and the story eventually revealed itself,” she explained.
Like the latter, ‘What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky’ (the titular story of her short story collection) is highly imaginative and Arimah pointed out that she enjoys writing in all genres, including realism and science fiction or fantasy.
“One of the appeals of fabulist stories is that a writer can examine what societal norms look like outside the framework of our familiar world. It’s an interesting way to approach social commentary and writing fantasy is also just plain fun,” she said.
President Muhammadu Buhari, in a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina, in Abuja on Tuesday, congratulated Arimah and commended her for the depth of insight in exploring the issue of women inclusiveness, which is a topical issue across the world.
Arimah was the Africa regional winner of the 2015 Common Wealth Short Story Prize. She is a 2019 United States Artists Fellow in Writing. She lives in Las Vegas and is working on her debut novel.