Family and the contradictions of Sunday in GraceLand

While reading GraceLand I was confused by Chris Abani’s characterizations of Elvis’s father Sunday and what Abani was trying to suggest about familial heritage through this character. In this post I would like to pose a couple of questions about this for your consideration.

Sunday is from the older generation who grew up under colonial rule. In the post-civil war era that the novel is set in, Sunday’s hopes are completely dashed after losing both his wife and the election in Afikpo. After coming to Lagos, his shame at his failures in life causes him to descend into alcoholism and lead a life devoid of any hope for a better future. Sunday claims that above all family means honor, and he feels as though honor and a strong sense of heritage has been lost amongst the younger generations. He doesn’t approve of Elvis trying to make a living through street performing, and dislikes Elvis hanging out with the locals in Maroko. While on the one hand, Abani portrays Sunday as a man who values tradition and family honor, on the other, this characterization folds in on itself through Sunday’s conversation with Elvis in which we learn that Sunday is implicated in the death of his own nephew Godfrey, who has been killed because it is believed that his behavior has tarnished the family name.

Before admitting his involvement in Godfrey’s killing to Elvis, he tells his son, “In dis place, it used to be dat all you had was your name- before dis new madness with money started […] My father was a houseboy to de white priests […] To de traditional world, we were white people’s slaves, a curse, so we were disinherited of land, clan, everything. I built up our name with honor until it became a force to be reckoned with” (187). In this passage, Sunday depicts family as extremely important by associating family honor with breaking free from white control. Later in the passage, he tells Elvis that Godfrey had to be killed in order to protect the family’s honor. I was extremely confused by this, as claiming allegiance to family above all else and then proceeding to hurt a family member doesn’t make sense. Additionally, Sunday hurts his family that is still living by refusing to do anything about Uncle Joseph’s rape of Efua and Elvis, and in fact gets angry at Elvis for even telling him about Joseph’s crimes against the family. My question about this is: what do you believe Abani is trying to suggest through Sunday’s contradictory views and actions regarding the Oke family?  Further, what might a comparative look of the kinship networks that Elvis develops in the novel – including Elvis’s familial-type relationships with those he meets on the streets of Maroko- add to this conversation?

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One Response to Family and the contradictions of Sunday in GraceLand

  1. Anne Gulick says:

    What happens if we think about Sunday’s puzzling claims about protecting family honor – and specifically this problem of what kind of violence gets sanctioned under the name of family – in comparison to Okonkwo from Achebe’s novel? I don’t know whether Abani intentionally modeled Sunday on that other protagonist, but for me the parallels between the two are striking.

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