This post is part two of a series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download a pdf of Arimah’s story here.
When a man falls from the sky, it can mean many things. It could mean an accident has occurred, or that the man was pushed. It could mean he committed suicide. In Lesley Nneka Arimah’s interesting and ambitious story, it means that someone who had tried to use a mathematical equation called the Furcal Formula – an equation that explained the core of humanity and the universe – to defy gravity, had failed. Before I got very far into this story, however, it made me think of a different reason a man might fall from the sky. Witchcraft. Or, rather, failed witchcraft.
Let’s back up a step. Just last month I read Human Rights and African Airwaves: Mediating Equality on the Chichewa Radio by Harri Englund. Not a lot to do with fiction and the Caine Prize, but bear with me. In this unrelated but otherwise very good ethnography, Englund highlights how a particular Chichewa news program in Malawi created a new space and new ways for listeners to think about the society they lived in – thinking especially about equality and about rights. One example he gives is a news story in which a man had been flying and flew over a house with powers that knocked him right out of the sky. Another example is a man who took his coworker across the country in a blink of an eye, but on the return flight the coworker let go and dropped in the middle of nowhere. I won’t go into Englund’s arguments, because that’s for another post someday, but it’s why I thought of witchcraft.
Witchcraft, especially witchcraft as it features in (Western) academic scholarship, is often a site of conflicting epistemologies. As far as I’m concerned, so is math and algorithms as applied to social (and emotional) life. And yet, in Arimah’s sci-fi short story we find ourselves in a world where math explains everything, and I mean everything. My own quant-wary sensibilities clutched their pearls as I read about how the formula could explain people’s emotions, and even change them.
Nneoma, the story’s main character, is a “grief worker” – a mathematician who specializes in “calculating and subtracting emotions, drawing them from living bodies like poison from a wound.” This ability is derived from the formula, which explains the universe and everything in it. But when the man fell out of the sky, it fed rumors that the formula was imperfect. Unfortunately, we also quickly learn that being a grief worker is perhaps a precarious profession – one recently drove himself mad and killed himself, another simply disappeared. Nneoma uses her skills to make money removing the grief from wealthy parents who have lost their children. Meanwhile, her ex, Kioni, has dedicated her energy to refugees and other “distressed populations.”
When Nneoma goes to give a talk to some school children – an educational talk that also acted as a recruiting drive for those who could make sense of the formula – she described her job as “fix[ing] the equation of a person” by removing bad emotions. After her presentation, Nneoma faced two different responses – a protest and a plea. One student echoed his father, saying that “you shouldn’t be stopping a person from feeling natural hardships. That’s what it means to be human.” Nneoma dismisses this without a beat, arguing that the child and his father live easy lives free from the type of pain she alleviates (sidestepping the fact that she only works with wealthy parents, whose grief might be relatively less than victims of war, displacement, and torture. Immediately afterwards, however, a poor Senegalese immigrant and survivor of untold tragedy asked, “So you can make it all go away?” to which Nneoma said yes – but hedged that she could not help this girl due to regulations, costs, and citizenship. Despite this, Nneoma takes her grief away, soaking it up herself.
Grief workers don’t just make sadness and pain disappear. They take it. And it builds. When Nneoma tried to help your father get through the loss of her mother, she faltered because of the interconnected emotions. Just speaking with the girl unsettled her – which is why “she rarely worked with refugees, true refugees… the complexity of their suffering always took something from her.” When you subtract, it has to go somewhere.
Also embedded in this ambitious story is a whole setting on which the reader dwells. The story includes short snippets and nods to the Biafra-Britannia Alliance, an agreement the British used to gain asylum but one in which “one hand reached out for help [while] the other wielded a knife,” or to the French “Elimination” of the Senegalese. Or whatever America did to Mexico. These snippets include a paragraph that is packed with new information that we only get a glimpse of:
At checkout, the boy who scanned and bagged her groceries had a name tag that read “Martin,” which may or may not have been his name. The Britons preferred their service workers with names they could pronounce, and most companies obliged them. The tattoo on his wrist indicated his citizenship – an original Biafran – and his class, third. No doubt he lived outside of the city and was tracked the minute he crossed the electronic threshold till he finished his shift and left. He was luckier than most.
These sentences sketch out a truly dystopic world – one where North America, Europe, and Russia are submerged, and refugee populations have radically changed the social fabric of what used to be Africa – now the United Countries. But the sketch is only ever that – nothing comes into clear view, Arimah doesn’t linger on any of the context for more than a few sentences. But she lingers on the aftermath of all this grief work.
Nneoma’s experience trying to help her father, and her reaction to helping the Senegalese girl, give a prelude to the story’s tragic end. So to does the man falling from the sky, a signal that there is something wrong with the formula on which all of this work is built. If eating people’s emotions and suppressing them into distant memories is only possible through Furcal’s Formula, then a mistake in the formula could – and does – have dire consequences for Nneoma and her ex, Kioni. When Kioni finally appears in person, it’s only as what’s left after the grief within has consumed her. And in a last ditch effort to help her lover, Nneoma dives headlong into the “ten thousand traumas in [Kioni’s] psyche,” never to emerge.
In the end, perhaps the Furcal Formula was incommensurable with emotions, with human flight, with the universe and everyday life. Just as trying to explain witchcraft with functionalist analysis and explain political decisions with big data and even ranking burritos via data mining eventually run into problems, explaining emotions with x- and y-axes is a mission that is perhaps doomed to fail. And when you rely on math and turn out to be wrong, you face dire consequences. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for those who rely too firmly on unstable epistemologies.