|photo: Carole Cassier
Tola Rotimi Abraham, from Lagos, Nigeria, lives in Iowa City and is pursuing a graduate degree in journalism. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she has taught writing at the University of Iowa. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Catapult, the Des Moines Register, the Nigerian Literary Magazine and other places. Black Sunday (Catapult, February 2, 2020) is her first novel.
On your nightstand now:
This is not the easiest question to answer. I'm always reading two or three books at a time. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis. Right now, I'm savoring Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi. I think this is her least fungible work yet.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Definitely Animal Farm by George Orwell. When I was growing up, Nigeria was under a brutal military regime. I remember being so stunned when I read Animal Farm, I could see quite clearly many connections between my country and the farm. I also liked that when adults sometimes said, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others," I knew what they were referencing.
Your top five authors:
Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Tessa Hadley, Helen Oyeyemi, Teju Cole.
Book you've faked reading:
The Great Gatsby. We had to read many classic texts as secondary school students in Nigeria, but I hadn't heard of that book until I got to college, and I still haven't had the time to pick it up.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. There's such a gentle prodding wisdom on every page, the prose is irresistible. I don't know anyone who doesn't like Gilead. I went back to it several times whilst writing Black Sunday, it's the book that opened my eyes to the limitless possibilities of the novel as a form.
Book you've bought for the cover:
My favorite book cover is the U.K. cover of Kelly Link's Get in Trouble. I am very drawn to solid shapes and forms, so the upside-down house is a visual delight. I don't actually own a copy because it's the U.K. version, of course.
Book you hid from your parents:
Everything that wasn't the Bible. My parents did not tolerate idling. Or being worldly. So, I hid the Ebony magazines, John Grisham, James Hadley Chase.
Book that changed your life:
Without a doubt, Beloved by Toni Morrison. It's the Black writers' Bible in a way, the seminal book on Black interiority.
Favorite line from a book:
I'm such a lover of sentences so I have favorites lines in all my favorite books. The best novel opening lines I think are the first sentences in Ben Okri's The Famished Road:
"In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry."
You think it will be this origin story filled with allusions to the Bible but Okri pleasantly disappoints.
Five books you'll never part with:
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott--it's cliché to call it a classic but it is, and I read it regularly for its luminous simplicity. Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken and Little Boys Come from Stars by Emmanuel Dongala. Also, definitely include Beloved by Toni Morrison and Robinson's Gilead.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
I have a deep admiration for everything Edwidge Danticat writes. Claire of the Sea Light is that book for me. The sea, the town, the townspeople, the mysteries, the food all living breathing characters on the page. It is such a splendid book.