“...men are as the time is:
to be tender-minded does not become a sword.”
- Shakespeare, King Lear
For an episodic novel, selectively apportioned to present momentary and momentous insight into a sister twin and two younger brothers’ lives from 1996 - 2015 in Lagos, Nigeria it flooded my circuits. Perhaps no review could have told me I would need to close my eyes, rest a hand on the pages, and look out the window or stare at a wall to remember to breathe. As a Caribbean reader I know that others from the region lament how dark our literature is. Why is there so much traumatic violence? The question crops up in discussions on Black USian art, typically the films, and a few readers broached it in response to my thoughts on Black Sunday shared elsewhere. “It felt a bit like trauma porn.”
This is a serious charge. Various definitions online share the idea that it is an exploitative, perverse interest in the darkest aspects of humanity solely to shock. I read a novel last year that arguably met the definition to some degree. The author plastered rape on the walls his fiction built as if it were decorative wallpaper. He was liberal yet haphazard in its use and no further examination of his novel’s structure could explain...why. Characters moved through fantastical lands whose streets and buildings he more vividly envisioned than the lives that moved on and lived in them. The novel’s fans were forced to rely on the “real world” outside to explain the book because, indeed, there was nothing inside it they could cite for an explanation. Nothing there but a quest through a macabre Disneyland in which he presented imagined cultures through themed adventure rides. Sexual violence can seem excessive and pointless when a narrative’s societal context is underdeveloped, leaving its themes to hang unevenly, disjointed.
Enter the house that Abraham built through the epigraph—”Mother is gold, Father is a mirror.”—into the first chapter where a girl’s stupidity is defined as ignorance about scammers, molesters, murderers. Bibike and Ariyike know what’s up, or they know enough to make it home safe that day, but already what they had to know emphasizes their peril. What they know does not suffice. The middle-class security their mother’s civil service post afforded them disappears when the new petroleum minister sweeps out all the old staff for new. With this the sisters and their younger brothers, Andrew and Peter, tumble into a world where gold may be, in its own way, as fragile as glass.
In retrospect, I should have known. In some places the citizens may view public transportation as a public good, a foundational part of a sustainable present and future. But in Jamaica and, I suspect in Lagos, reliance on public transportation is a sign of misfortune. Yuh living hard life. Public institutions are seen as weak and corrupt. Too many crimes go unreported because persons lack all confidence in the police to solve them, taking on the role themselves or getting the military unofficially involved through a personal connection: a brother, a boyfriend, a friend. In formerly colonised countries, religious institutions refashion themselves from tainted origins to become fully incorporated into local society. Local actors take over and present it as a righteous counter to all that is worldly and therefore evil. The newer, popular megachurches are absolutely focused on obtaining their ultimate reward in heaven but, under American evangelicalism’s influence, cast an eye to acquiring riches both here and in the hereafter, as this kind of multitasking is what God loves best.
I suppose only a Christian, as Abraham identifies, could foreground that church’s leading role in a family’s disintegration with such ruthless irony. I prefer to leave the details for readers to discover. Know at least this: here the shepherd and sheep analogy that in Christianity conveys comfort, vigilant unceasing guidance, and assured rescue, is fully realised. We look for wolves lurking on the outskirts or disguised within and never wonder what fate the pastor in his role as shepherd intends for the flock he tends to so faithfully. This patriarchal model of care works to destroy the bonds it claims to value. They unravel: first the mother abruptly departs to the United States, then the father dumps the children on his mother without her consent.
"In the early evening quiet, our tiny house felt like a large expanse of forest with sounds from unseen sources I had to decipher to keep from being frightened and overwhelmed."
So the children are left to survive. In four sections, with all but the last split into four character chapters, Abraham perfectly balances how each sibling learns the cost of continued existence amongst pervasive patriarchal infrastructure and its enthusiastic actors. Whether as a teenage street seller, a hospital janitor, or students in boarding school, Black women writers generally excel at understanding how such systems exact its toll on girls and boys while retaining the insight on how gender power differentials play out in their lives. Sexual violence threatens all four yet it is the girls who cannot escape. Each sister learns in her own way, to disconnect from and objectify her own body in order to be resilient. Even if her own response remains oblique to her, certain things are clear.
"Why did [he] touch me like that? He wanted to. Why did I sit there quiet like nothing was happening?
I was a parentless teenage girl living with my grandmother in the slums of Lagos. Beauty was a gift but what was I to do with it...what is a girl’s beauty, but a man’s promise of reward? What was my beauty but a proclamation of potential, an illusion of choice?"
Abraham is deliberate in not presenting the ludicrous model victim so many require with these stories. If it does not match their content rating with the requisite level of physical struggle paired with an inhumane concept of innocence, encapsulated with a feminine prototype of a certain profile (complexion, class, education, profession, reputation)...already this ridiculousness is too heavy a burden for the sentence to continue. Instead, here are the ordinary girls who meet their friend’s father in hotel rooms, who sneak out at night to meet their boyfriend, the mean girl who adopts a persona to carry her through the bedroom interview for a job as host for a gospel radio show.
As the story made me pause and pause again, the style made me want to inhale it all. In pronounced and minute ways Abraham pressed and shaped the first person point of view’s literary possibilities in distinguishing character, sounding voice, magnetising immediacy, and enforcing distance. Bibike’s and Andrew’s memorable first person plural openers in past and present tense call attention to its diminished frequency as they grow older. The prose veers between epigrammatic poetry to the surreal, slightly elusive in Bibike’s third chapter on which I feasted even as I worried what new pain informed the robust metaphors.
“Don’t you get it?” the old tortoise asked. “That was the moral of the story, that there was not enough for all of us.”
“And you had it all. And you were punished for that,” I said.
“But I survived,” the old tortoise said. “I am still here. Where are all the others?”
Yoruba traditions and folklore, family history, poetry, and biblical parables were my favourite element in this debut novel’s design. Each acted as a narrative nugget that contained a whole subplot in a few lines, foreshadowing the future or holding “unquantifiable loss.” Some used them to help understand and process their traumatic experiences. As a person of African descent in the diaspora it was fascinating how Abraham avoided simple binaries to present the idea that folktales can be problematic too. In my context whatever folklore we have is reverentially honoured for whatever African retention and potential wisdom it may contain. A bit like an artifact, likely because I was an urban girl.
What I knew better, including the way it revealed hypocrisy, were the bible verses. As I noted where Abraham laid them, which character used them, I wrote in my journal, “This book is angry.” Abandoned children quote from a psalm of “trust and security in God” in a hospital selected for its distance from home in case they have to renege on the bill. A clerical father’s reminder that his daughter is “the light of the world” is not empowerment but a warning of how perfect she must be and the lengths he will go to ensure this perfection. Those who were once a church’s victims take the chance to ascend into its powerful hierarchy, grasping bible verses both to justify their selfishness and to inspire them to transform the space into something better.
What does life cost in a world where rapacious men operate with kleptocratic agility to destroy and hoard in a society that appears oiled for their success. Where girls are prey and, as they become women, the hand that wields the weapon and the shield. Even in the silences, the fragmented family histories, the periods in characters’ lives passed over, Abraham’s answers are a tangible construct in which I already live. When I closed this book the one word I had for her was “fearless.” May she write more.
By Tola Rotimi Abraham
288 pages. 2020.