Culture as a Tool for Characterization: A Dialogue with Tola Rotimi Abraham
Tola Abraham is a fiction and nonfiction writer. Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, she lives in Missouri, where she teaches Creative Writing at the University of Missouri in Saint Louis.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in LitHub, Electric Literature, Catapult, The Des Moines Register, The Nigerian Literary Magazine, and other places. Black Sunday is her first novel.
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This conversation took place via email, between Missouri, United States and the South of Algeria.
Saliha: Thank you for joining me, Tola. Your debut novel, Black Sunday, is a truly engaging and absorbing read. It explores themes of poverty, family and religion through intimate, complex lenses while offering readers a window through which they can look into modern Nigeria. Why did you choose to tell the story from the point of view of the siblings? Did you find it challenging to write from the children’s perspectives, especially considering the complex circumstances they found themselves in?
Tola: Thank you so much for reaching out. This is a great question. Child narrators have always been very interesting to me. As a reader, I’m constantly searching for well-rounded characters, as they are the perfect balance of innocence and perceptiveness. With Black Sunday, it just happened. I knew the story I wanted to write—about a family’s disintegration. The voices of the siblings seemed to be the most interesting way to talk about it. The biggest challenge of writing from this perspective was striking a balance between the natural storytelling ability of children and the interference of adult recollection.
Saliha: In the story, the characters come not only well-rounded, but also possess distinctive voices that made me personally eager to find out how their choices, as well as their situation, was going to shape them as they grew, and how their different views would clash with each other. We can see that right from the beginning with Bibike being reserved, quiet and observant, while Ariyike is friendly and outgoing.
Cultural references also form an important part of the story, as they drive it forward by giving readers insights into the characters. The references that stood out to me in particular were the songs and music. I always wonder how some writers succeed in integrating cultural references like you did, with each one ultimately becoming necessary to the story. Can you explain your process of writing them in? Lastly, do songs and music influence the artistic choices you make while writing?
Tola: You’re absolutely right. Cultural references are an important part of the story. First of all, they help situate the narrative in a specific time and place. In this novel, it’s Lagos in the 90’s and 00’s. Also, each sibling, through their narration, shows you something specific about who they are by sharing what types of music they enjoy. So, culture is another tool of characterization.
Writing all of them in—the folk songs, stories, popular music—came rather naturally to me. As a millennial, my generation witnessed Nigerian popular music grow from something that was largely on the sidelines to a bona fide internationally recognized industry. I have very fond memories of that era; groups like Plantashun Boiz, The Remedies, Black Reverendz, Danfo Drivers, P-Square, and others.
The siblings in this book are part of that generation; the more familiar I became with their personalities, the easier writing in music and other cultural references became. Finally, spirituality and religious practice is one of the themes of Black Sunday. These practices are culturally embedded, therefore it was important to add other aspects of culture—aspects outside the church—to present a ‘full view’ of Lagos.
“As a millennial, my generation witnessed Nigerian popular music grow from something that was largely on the sidelines to a bona fide internationally recognized industry.”
Saliha: I love this commitment to the presentation of a full view of Lagos.
In the novel, there are two passages that were particularly heartbreaking to me. When Andrew thinks: “A son of a foolish man who loses all his money to fraudsters is what? A son of a poor man whose wife leaves him is what? A son of a man who runs away, leaving his children with his mother, is what?”
And when Peter thinks: “When we walked around the streets, I liked to walk behind Andrew. He had no idea I was being slow on purpose. I hid it well. I stopped to pick up stones or write on dirty cars or hurl stuff at stray cats. But what I was really doing was waiting for Andrew to go ahead of me, so I could walk behind him, keeping him in my sights.”
Andrew is furious about his father who left. Now he, still a child, has to take care of another child. Was the anger Andrew felt at this particular moment about his father, in relation to the burden he was left with? Or was it because of the abandonment in itself that made him that angry? On the other hand, Peter expresses in his inner thoughts his fear of abandonment more honestly to himself. How much of a role does the sense of responsibility play in making these two expressions of the same complex emotions different?
Tola: Thank you so much for this great question.
These excerpts are an example, to me at least, of the differences between these two sibling-characters, Andrew and Peter. Andrew, the older brother, is the first son in an African family. He is a big deal; his nickname as a younger kid was ‘the King himself’. He has a position that comes imbued with tremendous responsibility and privilege. He is extroverted and intuitive. His reaction to his father leaving therefore is anger as well as shame. He is not only mourning his parents, but the loss of his own identity.
Peter, the younger brother, is the youngest child, the baby of the family. He’s the sibling who spends the least amount of time in a regular family structure. He is hurt by the disintegration of his family. He is also very afraid. So I think they are both very honest about how they feel. They are experiencing the exact same circumstances, but reacting in very different ways. These ways are consistent with their different personalities. And that’s the big idea behind the novel, working with Tolstoy’s assertion that unhappy families are uniquely unhappy and even in unhappy families, each member can be unhappy in their own way.
Saliha: The men in the book are predatory, no matter their social standing. The girls come into contact with such men; Bibike with her friend Aminat’s father, and Ariyike with the radio host. Even the boys, when they are in their friend Solomon’s room, are examples of this predatory behaviour.
It was painful to read. As I was reading, my anger escalated, particularly against their father for letting them be alone and vulnerable in that way. I am not sure if I am biased toward the mother because of all the things her husband did—I felt like she deserved her escape. It wasn’t her bad choices that accelerated their path into poverty, it was her husband’s bad choices. And for the most part she tried hard, it was out of her control that she was dismissed from her two jobs.
Was it your intention for readers to feel more empathy towards the mother? Or did you naturally leave it up to the reader to see her with their own judgments, whatever they might be? I might have seen the mother through a different lens if I had read the novel maybe two or three years ago: looking at her abandonment, that would have been an irredeemable act for me.
Tola: This is another excellent observation. The plot of Black Sunday provides detailed examples of toxic masculinity. And it’s not a class or age issue, it’s a ‘men’ problem. However, the book’s main idea is that women can be villains too; when they are acting as agents of the patriarchy, but also when they try to escape male dominance. It’s easy to be sympathetic towards the Mother because we can see the trauma she’s trying to escape, but it’s clear that she also makes big mistakes.
This was a deliberate choice; I didn’t want to create passive female characters. It is just not interesting to me to write about simple women. I also explored a redemption arc. I leave that to each reader though, to think about whether or not the Mother redeems herself in this book. There was a significant amount of self-restraint when writing this character, because I’m a single mother and immigrant in America, so I identify with her. Also, if the mother is the villain in the story, you have to leave that on the page, but I couldn’t do that as fully as I’d have liked. I couldn’t exonerate her either; to exonerate her would be to exonerate myself in some way, and I don’t have the bandwidth to do that right now. Maybe she gets her own book, she and her mother-in-law. That would be a fun project to write.
Saliha: I see your point now; it’s true that continuous escape doesn’t result in building the society we want, which is that of equality, justice and equity. It’s easier to escape, or be dominated. Confrontation is hard, but that doesn’t lead anywhere, other than to the situation staying the same. Social change upward and for the better can only occur when there is a fight for it.
What you think about the simple representation of women is something we both agree on. Women are humans, and I am glad that many new writers are done with the idea of one-dimensional or two dimensional women characters. I really hope you will write a book about the mother and her mother-in-law; as someone who has had mother issues and is trying to solve them, I would really love to read it.
In a radio interview with Iowa Public Radio, you talked about your desire to bring out the harsh realities of Nigeria that occurred during extreme political and social unrest. I am wondering about how much writing plays a healing role for you?
I believe that the way we view events, people and places can differ over time, depending on where we are. Did the long distance from Nigeria make you view the events that occurred in a different light, and is it easier for you to write about what happened there when you are away?
Tola: When writing about Nigeria, I think often about this Chinua Achebe quote: “Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting”. This means that no matter what you write about Nigeria, there’s such tremendous emotional energy expended. Therefore, I don’t think that writing about Nigeria, at least in the way that I do, can be healing or therapeutic. The best I can hope for is some type of moral clarity.
With stories, you can detangle rights from wrongs, expose privileges and interrogate misnomers. This is a gift inherent in all art. It’s not healing, but it’s a benefit. Your other question about how distance affects our perception is also really interesting. I like to think that thanks to the internet, and because all other members of my family still live in Nigeria, I’m still as connected to Nigeria (and by extension, to Africa) as I was when I lived there. Also, with social media, I’m plugged in 24/7. I follow conversations in real time and I’m actively engaged.
However, there’s a myth of safety that living in America creates. Maybe it makes my writing bolder? I don’t know if this is the case. I’d like to believe that any distance I have acquired and reflect in my writing is mostly due to the passing of time and an investment in education. Yes, I have different opinions, personal philosophies and ideas now than I did five years ago. I’m just growing up.
I may be wrong about this, but I’m not convinced that living outside Nigeria has that much to do with it. I hope that I can continue learning and improving my art. I’d hate to have to switch continents every time I need to find something new to say.
Saliha: That is a great Chinua Achebe quote, thanks for sharing it. Yes, maybe there is a myth about being far from home and how it can make the writing bolder. Perhaps I view it this way because quite a lot of Algerian writers have to live abroad to write about subjects they might not feel comfortable writing about in Algeria. You are a writer who is also pursuing journalism, which is my dream combination. How does your writing for each differ? Lastly, on the writing process, this is your debut novel, so how was the experience of getting your first novel published?
Tola: With both fiction and non-fiction, we are trying to change the world. It’s earnest and naive, but it’s why I am drawn to words. Now, the business of publishing and the business news production seems to me to be an entirely different industry from the creative industry. With this debut novel, I have learned so much. There’s so much I don’t know and I really don’t care to learn, that’s why I have a fantastic agent.
Saliha: That’s a fantastic answer. More power to your agent! It has been a great pleasure speaking with you, Tola. I loved Black Sunday so much and I hope to see more works from you soon.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian part-time teacher of English at the university and a volunteer interviewer for online local magazines. She is one of the top graduates of her department in the Anglophone literature and civilization field. She is passionate about art and literature, and she recently became vegetarian. She is currently working on a series of personal essays under the theme of “family”, and on a short story about an aspiring painter. Her philosophy in life is to always try be the best version of yourself and to always keep on learning.