Narrated by a quartet of siblings (though centered on a pair of twin sisters), Tola Rotimi Abraham’s debut novel, “Black Sunday,” takes readers to Lagos, Nigeria, and opens in the mid-1990s. The children’s family is undone by misfortune — a lost job for the mother, a bad gamble for the father — and the children find themselves under the care of their grandmother. The novel follows the twins and their younger brothers as they seek to find their way in the world in circumstances far less than ideal.
Abraham, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop living in Iowa City, answered questions about her novel, the Writers’ Workshop, and her next project via email.
Q: What was the first spark of this book? What made the siblings’ story interesting to you?
A: There were many entry points into this book. First, I had the idea to write a short story about a Nigerian family devastated when they lose everything to a financial scam. The twin girls were the character-narrators in that early version and their voices stuck with me.
The book grew out of that instinct, looking back at a very painful childhood and examining how lives can change with a devastating quickness.
Once I had the voices and the characters, the novel became an inquiry into a turbulent adolescence. How do parentless kids growing up in one of the most dangerous cities in Africa fare? What do they eat? How do they survive? Do they get an education? Who teaches them to navigate love and intimacy? Do they learn empathy or do they become terrible, injurious adults?
Q: I’m interested in the challenges of voice in the book. Was it difficult to create four distinct first person narrative voices? I’m struck that only the girls speak to us in the final section. Can you tell me a little bit about that storytelling decision?
A: In my initial plot outline, the boys continue their narrative through to the end of the book. Midway through writing the book, I had to rethink this. First of all, I was very resolute about setting the novel entirely in the city of Lagos. Lagos is so present in this book, it’s a character in some way. Both boys travel away from Lagos and I wasn’t sure there was a way to follow that growth without diminishing the ambience of the book. Secondly, the story’s main tension is the relationship between the twin sisters. The last two chapters focuses on each of them to give you a clear wide-eyed entry into their adult lives.
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Q: What can you tell me about your Writers’ Workshop experience? You call out Samantha Chang and Kevin Brockmeier (I’m a fan of both authors) for particular thanks in your acknowledgments and I wonder how they supported your writing.
A: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is a tremendous opportunity. I don’t think it’s possible to quantify how significant the experience has been in shaping my identity as a writer. Sometimes I wish I could go back and take better advantage of all the resources. I call out Sam Chang and Kevin Brockmeier because I took semester long workshops with them and I learned so much from those workshops.
It wasn’t all rosy. I was adjusting to being in America for the first time. Also I’m naturally and culturally introverted, speaking up in class was incredibly uncomfortable in the beginning.
Q: You are currently enrolled as a grad student in journalism at the University of Iowa. Having completed your MFA at the Workshop and with your first novel out in the world, what made you want to continue your graduate studies?
A: When I started at the journalism school, my goal was to work toward a PhD. (I was admitted to the masters program instead). The Iowa MFA, whilst prestigious, is largely unknown in Africa. I wanted a degree that would be recognized outside the United States.
Also, even though I had written my book and signed with my agent, I didn’t have a book contract, so I wasn’t even making plans around that.
Looking back I wish I had thought about the possibility of publication more seriously. Combining the program with a creative lifestyle has not worked out as well as I expected it. Thankfully, I have recently accepted a tenure track position in the English department at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, so I’ll be moving on. I’ll be teaching creative writing in the MFA program.
Q: Do you have another fiction project underway, and if so, what can you tell me about it? If not (understandable given your grad program), when do you think you might return to fiction? Do you have a story in mind?
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A: There is so much going on the world right now that writing fiction seems like frivolity. It is not; it is necessary work. But I’m in a battle with fatigue and hopelessness. It’s not the best time for creativity. I have been reading a lot and it helps. I am currently reading an average of three books a week. Been leaning toward historical fiction especially those dealing with World Wars and their aftermath.
My next book will probably be historical fiction as well, but it will center joy. I’m researching griots and other cultural performers right now and really enjoying it.
Q: What important thing(s) am I forgetting to ask you?
A: I always try to recommend other books I enjoy. Also books that are in conversation with mine in some way. I’d like to recommend a few books for your readers interested in African literature:
NoViolet Bulawayo’s “We Need New Names,” Ayobami Adebayo’s “Stay with Me,” Elnathan John’s “Born on a Tuesday,” and Ahmadou Karouma’s “Allah is Not Obliged.”