Tola Rotimi Abraham’s first novel is a story of tragedy. It is not supposed to be hopeful. But there is hope in the telling.
Black Sunday is told through a scattering of episodes that center around the lives of four siblings in Lagos–twin sisters Bibike and Ariyike, and their brothers, Andrew and Peter. Their stories are so blunt and intimate that the pain and confusion that inhabit the siblings’ experiences are never really absent, even before they are abandoned by their mother and father.
In many ways, the narrative is fractured. Maybe it is because the household becomes scattered or maybe because there are four different voices sharing personal moments across distant years. With each chapter designated to a specific family member, it’s easy to get the feeling that the narrative is not a novel but a collection of essays or short stories that happen to have some of the same characters. Unlike its jacket suggests, the book hardly feels like it is “about two young women,” as Andrew and Peter get the same attention as their sisters.
The sister’s twin connection, which had the potential to illuminate a distinctive social existence, trickles away from the reader like rainwater down a sewer drain. Instead, the segmented narrative links the first chapter, “How To Be a Stupid Girl In Lagos,” to the last with the relentless yoke of patriarchy.
Abraham’s novel opens in Lagos, where gender is presented as not only binary but fixed. During an argument between her parents, Bibike distracts her brothers from the chaos by telling them a story of how a mob killed a thieving boy. The tale, which makes clear that Judith Butler’s notions of gender performativity are inconsequential to the lives of Bibike and her siblings, ends when it is revealed that the thief is a girl dressed as a boy. The girl’s mother announces her sorrow over her daughter’s death: “My daughter. My daughter. I warned you not to dress like a boy. Now see what you have done to yourself.”
It didn’t matter how her daughter died–even while she passed as a boy, her death at the hands of a mob was her fault. In other words, a woman is always a woman and at all times is implicated in the violence and injustices enacted against her. This is only the beginning of what it means to be a woman of Lagos in the novel.
Abraham’s gift as a writer is her ability to simultaneously see peoples’ lives as both stories and as something more than narrative. At one point she writes, “I think everything is a story unless you live in it.” Abraham perceives that there is a significant gap between people’s lives and the others around them–other people’s experiences are regarded as merely accounts or anecdotes.
Her awareness of how difficult it is to separate from self allows her to better attempt to connect the reader to a critique of materiality, to a reminder that masculinity needs redeeming, to the knowledge that young boys are also victims in a patriarchy, and to the idea that toxic manhood is sublimated through institutions like marriage, church, and school. Overall, the work is committed to making stories personal, and paradoxically, the tales within her novel provide the reader with something that seems like more than merely a story.
The chapter titled “How To Be The Teacher’s Pet” exemplifies the writer’s desire to construct something personal. She switches from first-person narration to second-person, embroiling the reader with Peter’s experience of being motherless while surrounded by a male dominance that prevents him from expressing himself.
In the final pages, Ariyike is reminded of the transatlantic slave trade and the countless stories lost by her grandmother’s ancestors in the process. A Lagos that begins in 1996 and ends in 2015 parallels the fractured life of that maybe not so distant past. The loss of kinship and the exploitation of lives still blots the West Coast of Africa in the seaside city. Indeed, many Nigerians’ histories are lost, but the story of Black Sunday won’t be.
As Bibike and Ariyike struggle to find their paths to resistance and continue to grow farther apart, it is difficult to agree with the book jacket’s statement that the novel “joyfully tells a tale of grace and connection in the midst of daily oppression.” The stories are tragic. Each chapter in the work is its own little black Sunday. But, although Abraham’s novel can be described as an exercise in confronting pain, her narrative is also an exercise in emboldening the “female spirit.”
By Tola Rotimi Abraham
Published February 4, 2020
Keith Contorno is a Chicago-based writer and educator.