Tola Rotimi Abraham’s novel follows twin girls and their brothers through poverty, abandonment, and loss in Lagos, Nigeria.
Tola Rotimi Abraham’s debut novel, “Black Sunday”, follows a Nigerian family after they lose almost everything. Once the mother loses her job and the father makes a “bet” that leaves them penniless, four siblings—twin girls and two boys—are sent to live with their Yoruba grandmother, and must learn to navigate life without their parents. This novel explores kinship, exploitation and making ends meet, love and loss, and what it means to be all alone even with siblings by your side.
Tola Rotimi Abraham is from Lagos, Nigeria and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she has also taught. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Catapult, The Des Moines Register, The Nigerian Literary Magazine, and others.
I talked with Abraham about the curse of beauty, childhood poverty, and making choices based on religion.
Arriel Vinson: In the beginning of Black Sunday, the siblings sing songs or tell stories to ignore their parents’ arguing. This is such a poignant moment. Tell me about the siblings’ use of avoidance throughout the novel.
Tola Rotimi Abraham: One of the first things I was thinking when writing this book is interrogating how children process trauma. I have found that even though child narrators are very common in African literature, it’s been easy to write these character-narrators without nuance. I was pushing back against using these characters as mouthpieces for my political ideologies, instead I wanted to examine the possibility that even within a family experiencing the same conditions, there’s no uniform response to trauma.
In that moment you describe, they are acknowledging their parents fighting by hiding, sitting in their “fort” and listening to them argue. They don’t talk to one another about the fighting; instead, the older sister narrates a folk tale. As the parents’ fight worsens, the stories they tell one another change. They begin to talk about these truly terrible, violent things happening in their city, things that frankly no children should experience that closely. They talk about those things freely because they need to express the deep sadness they are feeling. It’s not avoidance as much as it is masquerading.
At the end of that chapter when the child narrator says she is sad and afraid, she admits it only because she has told us this terrible story about a child dying. However, we can tell that Bibike is also sad about her family. Sometimes what is left unsaid is even more important than what is being discussed. Another thing I should say is that I used dialogue mostly for characterization in that first chapter. Every time the kids or the parents speak, we learn a lot more about who they are as individuals. That foundation carries most of the novel’s plot.
AV: I’m interested in the mother as the breadwinner in the novel. Once the mother lost her job, the father wasn’t able to keep things afloat. What made you decide that the mother would be the one who worked while the father dreamed/pursued entrepreneurship?
TRA: This was something I did not have to think too hard about. I borrowed from life. Growing up in Lagos, most middle-class families I knew had mothers who stayed in the boring regular government jobs, whilst their fathers explored entrepreneurship. You have to understand that Nigeria was under military rule during this period. The military had no respect for the civil service, they were dead end jobs. In those days it was common for people to go months, even years without salaries or allowances. Men typically can’t endure in such situations. Purple Hibiscus by Chimanmanda Adichie captures some of this, especially about the situation in Nigerian universities. Those were really difficult times.
AV: Religion plays such a large role in Black Sunday. The twins, Bibike and Ariyike, differ in belief and the parents go to church for fortune rather than a relationship with God—and all characters find the ways it can be corrupt. Why was religion important in this novel?
TRA: Religion is extremely important in any discussion about the postcolonial experience. Religion is also significant to discussions about feminism. Although Christianity is at the heart of the novel, the questions are not about Christianity in general, I specifically examine the current Christian experience of the African female. Are the spiritual needs of the African female person truly met in Christianity as it is practiced in this American-style evangelical form? Personally, I am a huge Bible nerd, so writing a character who is critically examining interpretation of scripture and its application to her life was such fun to write. It was a way of interrogating my own belief system. Although I do not have the same beliefs, or should I say similar religious conclusions that Ariyike develops throughout the novel, I can understand why she makes those choices.
Another factor is that Nigerians are very religious people. Nigeria is a very populous country. What we have, then, is a great marketplace for religions. For Christians, there is a glut of choice when choosing a denomination, but is there any real or practical difference between them? It is a situation of abundance without variety.
AV: Both of the twins grapple with the function of beauty. Bibike asks, “But what is a girl’s beauty, but a man’s promise of reward?” That question reverberates throughout the novel. Tell me more about the themes of beauty and greed going hand-in-hand in Black Sunday.
TRA: A lot has been said about the curse of beauty in literature. Most cultures have stories and myths about tragic cursed beauties. Even in popular culture, we have these famous beauties who are completely ruined by their own attractiveness.
As a feminist, beauty is something I am always thinking about because it is important to the female experience. Personally, I think that in Nigeria, there is something rather consumerist about the way we talk about female beauty. It’s almost akin to deliciousness or flavor when describing food. Immediately when someone is described as beautiful there’s someone out there thinking about possessing her, enjoying her. In Black Sunday beauty is a tool and so is the desire for beauty.
AV: All of the siblings deal with abuse, whether sexual, emotional, physical or a combination of those—and each character tries to adapt through it all. Why is trauma so prominent in this novel, even after their parents left?
TRA: Black Sunday is a story about childhood poverty. That is the central idea, its pivot. These siblings are completely abandoned by their parents. Abandonment is traumatic. Childhood poverty is incredibly traumatic, there are studies that show this. As a matter of fact, there are not enough studies because we still have no idea the lasting impact of childhood trauma. I find that often people seem to believe that children are resilient and forget these things. So, it was important to investigate these questions as I wrote this book.
Speaking specifically, there is something liberating about writing sad African children. Once, whilst shopping in a thrift store in Iowa City, I overheard a woman talking about the work her church was doing in Africa. She was telling this other woman how happy these Africans are in spite of how little they have and how it made her rethink all she takes for granted in her own life. Some people have an appetite for African pain because it makes them feel better about their lives. People, even the well-intentioned, can have this expectation of stoicism from people of color that they’d never demand from their own societies.
I’m not denying that some people show tremendous grace under pressure but there is something colonialist about this constant expectation of it. This thinking is so pervasive in Western culture, it even shows up in medicine. Many people truly believe that Africans don’t feel pain or have a great tolerance for it. I wrote sad African children because sadness can be a colorful, multifaceted thing, because there are many sad African children, because it is important to write unflinchingly about why they are so sad.
AV: The grandmother’s house becomes a symbol of redemption and loss for the entire family. It’s the thing that brings them together but also tears them apart. Tell me more about why it was important for the grandmother to be present in the siblings’ lives.
TRA: I have thought about the symbolism of it and even though it was not deliberate, it’s important to have a physical representation of their experiences after they have been abandoned. The house is therefore a vehicle of plot. It grounds the novel very specifically in time and place.
I wrote about a house because Africans live in houses too. We live in urban areas and we have the urban poor as well. The grandmother’s house was a way to write against the strange timelessness I often encounter in African novels. Houses, especially family homes are a great vehicle in literature to describe the changes in community as the years go by. The grandmother is unlucky in the sense that she lives long enough for her house to become valuable, leading to her possible displacement. This is urbanization and gentrification, something I expect that many people around the world can relate to. Within the last couple of decades housing prices in Lagos have increased astronomically and there have been many socio-economic consequences. In Black Sunday, I dealt with that in a very small way, of course being restricted by the plot.
AV: Aside from the dilemmas with their grandmother’s house, there’s other loss in Black Sunday—loss of lovers, loss of family members (both dead and alive), loss of dignity. Why was it necessary to explore loss/grief throughout the novel, and how did it allow growth for each sibling?
TRA: It is important to note that the process of writing a novel, at least this book, for me, is not an opportunity to explore themes or ideas. I began with characters, and in some way, plot. Themes, if any, emerged after the first draft. I looked over the book and questioned if I was comfortable with all the apparent themes. Actually, that was not the important consideration during revision, it was incidental to the question of “are these characters behaving realistically and convincingly?”
Loss is a plot point in this novel—grief is the aftermath of loss, isn’t it? Because I leaned heavily on the characters’ growth to drive this story, their emotions and interiority rise to the surface.