Review: Tola Rotimi Abraham traces interior universes in her debut novel
“What you most fear is where you must go,” an ancient sage or a Jordan B. Peterson or an Instagram caption may tell you. For writers, the phrase is a little different: What you most fear is what you must write. I will not pretend to trace knowledge of another being’s inner universe, but with Black Sunday, Tola Rotimi Abraham has done this—whether the fear is hers, yours or mine.
Black Sunday wrenches open a plantain-yellow fortune cookie, and the fortune inside is one you maybe wish you hadn’t paid for, one some part of you might even wish you could unread, even though deep down somewhere you know it to be true and are glad for the reckoning. The fortune: Sometimes things don’t turn out okay for some people. Sometimes they just don’t.
Is this a fist threatening God’s goodness? Is this a rejection of the reality of grace and redemption? We would like to escape our shadow side by becoming Christ, but it is as much a part of us as the skin that holds us together.
“What you most fear is where you must go." For writers, the phrase is a little different: What you most fear is what you must write.
Tola Rotimi Abraham is from Lagos, Nigeria. She writes this, her debut novel, with one foot placed in the intimate and communal confines of Lagos and the other inside her characters’ heads. Her writing is wed to the real dust on working kids’ shoes, the real sexual awakening and sexual trauma and abuse that happens behind closed doors and in the dirt, the limping faith in an incomplete God.
Abraham, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, makes the reader forget there is a creator behind it all. Black Sunday is a story made of stories, a thousand thought patterns and sensory memories laid between the separate but entwined psychic universes of four siblings: Bibike, Ariyike, Andrew and Peter. The four alternate through first-person chapters alive with their unique and vivid points of view, telling the story of a Nigerian family in Lagos that splinters when the mother leaves, then the father. Four children are left to be raised by their grandmother, Yoruba proverbs and an unrelenting shadow-world that is often housed under the roof of church and monstrous authority.
You are in 9-year-old Peter’s body when an old nail’s tetanus raises the prospect that he will lose his arm. You are taught that some people let their chickens loose in the woods, and that some people want back what they have abandoned. Others don’t. You become entranced by a lizard in the backyard. You call the police and a family member ends up dead. Family is the thing that first breaks you. A Yoruba proverb intertwines with the moment, usually a moment that is cracking a hairline fracture in the spirit. There are loved ones who do not choose to love. There are people who die sad and afraid.
Near the end of the book, Arikyike narrates, “It is a common mistake, to hear a story about tragedy and disbelieve it because the telling is off. We think to ourselves, how does the storyteller know this? We are asking the wrong question. The right question is, why is the storyteller telling me this story?”
Why is Tola Rotimi Abraham telling us this soul-crushing, breath-stealing story?
Reading Black Sunday, one can trace scars of trauma across every moment in the characters’ inner worlds and encounters with the reality of broken and devastating human relationships.
I was reminded in reading it of the moment in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when Ivan tells Alyosha of life: “It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed ‘dear God’ in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tears! Not worth it, because her tears remain unredeemed. They must be redeemed, otherwise there can be no harmony. But how, how will you redeem them? Is it possible?”
Is it possible?
I am 23 years old. What we all know this means without having to say as much is that I am yet a child, but I cannot, for survival and morality’s sake, go on as a child—and yet I have not been a child for quite some time. All of this is true. I have been alive long enough to know that most of us grow up in different ways “far too fast,” and that none of us will “grow up” entirely because of one six-letter word: trauma. Without giving you the complete diary-of-a-still-tiny-girl, I am coming what feels like nose-to-nose with my own shadow.
Reading Black Sunday at this time has been, for me, like an exercise in the truth—as good stories are—of my own potential to veer toward my darkness; and I am curious what the book will do to a person who has been alive for a little longer, or to a person who has been alive a long while. Because for me, it digs into bits of myself that terrify. Having read it now as I come of age, I think about revisiting it in another 10 years, and then in another 10, another 10, another 10, depending on how things go, because good God—what can we and life become?
That being said, Black Sunday is also an exercise in compassion. One can trace scars of trauma across every moment in the characters’ inner worlds and encounters with the reality of broken and devastating human relationships. I read and I hold the sorrow in my body and let it nestle next to my own traumas to keep them company, to lend some love to the terrors that my fellow neighbors and I, each of us, know so well. I can let the grandmother of the story hold me and see me through.
This book feels like a challenge—how, how will you redeem all of this? People become something vicious. People are the survivors of jagged cruelty. In certainty of their own good faith, precious people do each other in.
Will you find the redemption?