Every time someone asks me to name my “favorite” anything—book, movie, meal, you name it—my mind instantly goes blank. All of a sudden, it’s as if I’ve never seen a film in my life, eaten food, or read a single word. That last one is the category that always stumps me most, since I take the idea of a favorite book deadly seriously. Did I really love Station Eleven or Strange Bodies as much as I think I did, or is that only because I haven’t reread Lynda Barry’s Cruddy or Orhan Pamuk’s Snow in a while? Does my favorite book from ten years ago count, or do I need to revisit it to be sure? How am I supposed to pick between genres, anyway? (Usually by the time I’ve gone through all of this in my head, of course, the person who asked for the favorite in the first place has moved on to more engaging subjects.)
And if it’s hard to tell you what my favorite book is, my favorite short story is impossible to name. Working in publishing, I get recommendations for incredible new stories every week, and my precariously balanced bookshelves at home hold collections from Jorge Luis Borges, Kelly Link, Margaret Atwood, and Karen Russell, to name only a few. With the amount of short stories I’ve loved in my lifetime, I’d be hard pressed to even narrow it down to a top ten, let alone a top five or—don’t even say it—a number one.
So instead I’ve decided to name my favorite recent story: in fact, one I read just this week. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “Who Will Greet You At Home”, which appeared in The New Yorker in late October, is one of the most arresting and unsettling tales I’ve read in a long time.
It opens with this line: “The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry, cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged its thigh on a nail and it unraveled as she continued walking, mistaking its little huffs for the beginning of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone.”
You’re creeped out, right? But also intrigued, and hooked by the bizarre nature of the world? I was, and I discovered that Arimah had crafted a reality marvelous and strange in the space of a few pages. In her magical realist vision of Nigeria, women—and only women—create babies from whatever they can get their hands on. Mud, yarn, paper, porcelain: children, it seems, can be formed from any material, but only a mother can give them life. No men appear in the story—not by intention, Arimah says in her interview with The New Yorker about the tale, but simply because they never emerged as part of the new myth she was building. “Who Will Greet You at Home” focuses in on the ritual of motherhood in this alternate reality, the competition and camaraderie of the women obsessed with building worthy offspring, and the fearful aspects of hungry children made from matter their mothers cannot control, which ultimately brings the narrative to its climax.
It’s the perfect example of what short stories can do: create an immersive universe that remains unbound by superfluous logistics while possessing real gravity. As Arimah puts it: “Sometimes you’ve got to give the reader just enough to accept what’s happening in the world of the story, and no more.” We accept, without question, that the women of this world can make living babies from sticks, or clay, or human hair, and we shudder, without remove or reservation, when we see what those children can do.
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Katharine Duckett is Marketing and Publicity Manager for Tor.com Publishing. Her fiction has appeared in Apex, Interzone, and Wilde Stories 2015: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction.