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New Yorker Fiction Review #120: "Who Will Greet You At Home" by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Issue: Oct. 26, 2015

Story: "Who Will Greet You At Home" by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Rating: $$$

Review: From the very first sentence, this story was disorienting, confusing, unsettling, and irresistibly fascinating. I usually do not go for myths and magical realism, but Arimah's world is so vivid and so eerily alike but also un-like our own that once I pushed through my pre-existing notions I couldn't turn away from this often grotesque story.

The actual story involves Ogechi, a young African woman who lives in a world in which mothers must create babies out of everyday materials (mud, yarn, clay, sand, sugar, etc.) and nurture them for a year before the babies can come to life as flesh and blood babies. Ogechi surreptitiously makes a baby out of hair from the floor of the salon where she works, keeping it a secret from "Mama" the keeper of all the feminine power in Ogechi's village.

Even if the thought of a bawling, squalling "hair-baby" who feeds off the hair on her mother's head doesn't exactly light your fire (hey. it didn't mine either), read this story. Ultimately I think it's a profound statement on motherhood and what it means to be a mother, as Ogechi's hair-baby starts sucking the very life out of her, despite all she has done for the "child":

"A mother should give all of herself to her child, even if it requires the marrow in her bones. Especially a child like this, strong and sleek and shimmering."

Ogechi is what some might call an idealized vision of The Mother; so in love with her child that she does not mind that she is losing herself in order to care for it. And the results, while not pleasant, are consistent with the myth: Ogechi inevitably has to destroy her child, literally burn the hair baby, in order to escape it's increasing demands and save her own life, much as, we might posit, a mother must force her child to grow up and learn to take care of itself, in essence "killing" the child and creating an adult.

The thing that makes this story really interesting, in my opinion, is the custom or requirement that women in this world must care for their animate yet not-yet-human babies until they can turn into actual human babies. I have not fully unpacked this yet, but it is tied in with the role of "Mama," who acts as the gate-keeper of motherhood in this village. In order to be a mother, a woman must get Mama's blessing and -- indeed -- pay with part of her soul. In Arimah's world, there is a neat "call and response" folk song that women sing in the village that, in a way, ties all this together:

Where are you going?
I am going home.
Who will greet you at home?
My mother will greet me.
What will your mother do?
My mother will bless me and my child.

Also very instructive and indicative of how we're supposed to "read" this story (at least I think) is the
scene on the bus in which Ogechi sees a mother with an actual human baby; a woman who has successfully passed through the year of "apprenticeship" and now has a real baby to show for it:

"The baby was as plain as pap, but the mother's face was full of wonder. One would think the baby had been spun from silk. One would thing the baby was speckled with diamonds. One would think the baby was loved."

Boom. To me this short, seemingly insignificant passage is the key to understanding this story, even though Ogechi disdains the mother and her "actual" child and their happiness. That is because Ogechi doesn't quite understand what it means to be a mother, and perhaps hence why she fails yet, even with her hair baby.

Highest rating because this story did what real "fiction" ought to do: create a believable alternate universe, people it with interesting characters, and put them into a story with tension and high stakes. It should entertain, frighten, push boundaries, make you a little uneasy, and ultimately give you a new perspective for thinking about your own life and the real world.

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