SEPTEMBER 1, 2019
WHEN TOPE FOLARIN won the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story “Miracle” (Transition 109; 2012), critics were quick to call his “Africanness” into question. Born in Utah to Nigerian immigrant parents — and with a story set in an evangelical Nigerian church in Texas — the Rhodes Scholar was the first writer born and based outside the continent to win the British prize for African literature.
Now in its 20th year, the Caine Prize is awarded annually to the writer of an “African short story” published in English. “An African Writer,” the prize website clarifies, is “taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, or who is a national of an African country, or who has a parent who is African by birth or nationality.” On winning the “African Booker” — widely considered a literary “rite of passage” for emerging contemporary African writers — Folarin said in an interview to the Guardian:
I’m a writer situated in the Nigerian diaspora, and the Caine Prize means a lot — it feels like I’m connected to a long tradition of African writers. […] I consider myself Nigerian and American, both identities are integral to who I am. To win … feels like a seal of approval.
Following the prize-giving ceremony, critics claimed that Folarin’s ties to the African continent were far too tenuous. He had, until then, spent little to no time in Africa. How, then, could “Miracle” be considered a prizewinning “African short story”?
Folarin would go on to be shortlisted for a second time in 2016 for “Genesis” (Callaloo 37(5); 2014), which would raise another set of eyebrows. It is arguable that with each encounter with the Caine Prize, Folarin was put on trial for his heritage by the naysayers and outliers, and not judged on fair ground for his fiction. Six years later, he makes his case with his first full-length work of fiction, A Particular Kind of Black Man: A Novel (Simon & Schuster), where the image of identity takes precedence, and on more pronounced, poignant tones and textures. Simply put, it is an autobiographical coming-of-age, immigrant novel about young Tunde Akinola and his Nigerian family attempting to assimilate in the United States. But Tope Folarin doesn’t do things simply: any one-sentence description of his debut would do him a disservice. In Folarin’s fictional world, “autobiographical,” “coming-of-age,” “immigrant,” and “novel” are all up for unpacking and rethinking again.
That said, A Particular Kind of Black Man has all the ingredients of an immigrant story and race story: belonging and bullying (in the school playground, children rub Tunde’s skin and ask why the black won’t come clean), alienation, failing at fitting in, and attempting to find community in food and religion (the haunting opening passages feature a white woman who tells the school-going Tunde: “Remember, if you are a good boy here on earth, you can serve me in heaven”). There is the architecture of language and accents; the dedication toward and disappointment of the American Dream, one man’s (Tunde’s father’s) desire to embody “the perfect black man” and model African American, along with the ever-evasive quest for a home. During the two decades of the protagonist’s life portrayed through the course of 250-odd pages, home is sometimes summer on an ice-cream truck, or a desk in a dorm room, or a long-distance phone call heavy with dialogue and desperation to make his grandma in Nigeria real. “All I’m saying is how can I know you are real when I never see you?” Tunde wonders aloud to her.
In the novel, the four short story titles give way to year, date, and time-stamps not dissimilar to diary entries. These chapters, the years in between the covers — from 1987–’88 to 2004 — when the protagonist Tunde grows from age six and gravitates into his own, capture the passage of time and display an archive of a life lived. This is not just a coming-of-age story. It’s also a coming-into-being story. The snippets and sketches are simultaneously self-sustained and streamlike — part and whole — and it’s unsurprising to learn that Folarin first conceived it as “novel of stories.”
But while the narrative is largely linear, it’s not always neat: spatio-temporal shifts, disappearing mothers, and multiple migrations make room for a more complex, unpredictable portrait of childhood. With every turn of the page, the pattern changes. Don’t get too comfortable, the narrative cautions the reader. What begins as a strictly first-person (confessional-style) autobiography, an exercise in memoir writing and memory keeping, shifts briefly to third-person — Folarin being playful on the page. The “before,” if you will, closes with Tunde on the phone to his grandma again, and to him looking into the mirror: “I repeated my grandmother’s words. ‘You are a young man now,’ I said to the mirror. He seemed to be talking back.” It is a moment of recognition. Something shifts and turns inside Tunde — as the reader, too, steps into the second section, the “after.” Now is the moment of reflection.
It’s a decade later, and the protagonist has discovered he suffers from “double memories”: “I can still tell the difference between the event that actually occurred and its false reverberation in my mind, but it’s getting harder,” he says. Increasingly, he’s convinced that he’s inherited his mother’s schizophrenia — that he’s sick too. Double memories play tricks on Tunde, and through his craft and technique Folarin plays tricks on the reader. The reader recollects the time their strict father permitted Tunde’s brother, Tayo, to stay behind and not make the move from Merton with them, then retrospectively realizes that it was uncharacteristic of him to do so. A chapter ends with the words: “I need to stop writing. I don’t think this is helping anything. I’m getting lost in all of this.” The next begins: “No. I need to write. When I write I have control.” Tunde and Folarin cross paths and part ways. Both identities are integral. It is a comment on the unreliability of the fictional world, on how memory can deceive. More significantly, says A Particular Kind of Black Man, there is no single story — not even the ones that are true to life.
In the “after,” Folarin’s early years as a poet rise like pores on the page: two refrains — “I remember” and “She wants to hold my hand” — run through two particularly poignant sections on second-guessing memory and on first love, respectively. Both are acts of reassurance; both are stories we tell ourselves to still our heads and hearts. A summer of ice-cream selling and his father’s aspiration to sell at the Hartville City Fair ends with secret-keeping on Tunde’s part, an attempt at protecting his poor, already disintegrating dysfunctional family. The moment of self-admission that he can’t quite capture in words — the sudden arrival and departure of his stepmother, “New Mom,” or the abandonment by his mother — does not merely move the plot forward, it also to play with point of view. Sometimes, pages are light with single sentences or lone paragraphs. Others are heavy with the loss of two mothers, loneliness, longing, mental illness, and liminal homes. Folarin writes rage, remorse, and resignation delicately, with restraint. What begins as autobiography gives way to meta-fictional interventions.
In order to better illuminate how Folarin writes, as well as grapples with identity, it is worth moving outward to the field of African literature at large, and inserting the birth of his book into what can be called a bigger literary identity crisis. The always asked, but never neatly answered questions, “What is African literature?” and “Who is an African Writer?” are those that circulate in the wider field of thinkers, writers, and lovers of African literature. These two questions have been pondered upon and polemicized by readers and critics ad nauseam and to no avail. From Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal, satirical text “How to Write About Africa” (2006) to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stereotype-smashing, viral TED Talk, “Danger of a Single Story” (2009), and Taiye Selasi’s playful provocation “African Literature Doesn’t Exist” (2013), writers have relentlessly responded to the continental generalization, to literary gatekeepers, and to notions of genealogy, geography, and genre.
Folarin, too, has contributed to these conversations. Writing here in the Los Angeles Review of Books in an essay titled “Against Accessibility: On Robert Irwin, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Imbolo Mbue’s ‘Behold the Dreamers’” (2016), he comments on the African literary canon, literary celebrity, and literary lineage. At the core of all this is an attempt to complicate identities and itineraries that are often simplified, stereotyped, preconceived, and prescribed. Unsurprisingly, he has carried his critical concerns into his creative work.
A Particular Kind of Black Man was previously titled The Proximity of Distance. The novel closes with the devastating, determined sentence: “I will get us back home.” If the earlier title gestured toward the closure of a gap — the grasping of “both” identities — the actual title is the knowledge of an arrival. And this is Tope Folarin’s homecoming.
Sana Goyal is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, researching contemporary African literatures and prize cultures. She’s at home in London and Mumbai, and tweets @SansyG.