Tope Folarin Was 'A Particular Kind Of Black Man' — So He Wrote A Book About It | WYPR

Tope Folarin Was 'A Particular Kind Of Black Man' — So He Wrote A Book About It

Aug 24, 2019

When Tope Folarin sat down to write what would become his debut novel, he began by modeling its protagonist, Tunde, after his own life. Soon Tunde took on a life of his own.

"When writers used to talk about this, I thought it was mystical mumbo-jumbo — when they talk about characters doing their own thing," Folarin says an in interview. "That began to happen to me. And so I said: Well, this feels like a Tunde, and Tunde started doing all kinds of things that I didn't do and I wouldn't do. And so it kind of developed as a novel."

Like Folarin, Tunde grows up as the son of Nigerian immigrants in Utah, and attends the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta. There are key differences between Tope Folarin the man and Tunde Akinola the character — though some emotional experiences remain the same.

"But the thing that unites us is the fact that we both have fragmented identities — or at least we did, and we're trying to come up with a way of melding these disparate pieces into a whole," Folarin says.

Folarin rose in the literary world after winning the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013. He was shortlisted for the prize again in 2016.

The story that won the prize, "Miracle," takes place at an evangelical Nigerian church in Texas, where congregants have gathered to see a blind pastor's healing powers. The head of the prize committee called the story "a delightful and beautifully paced narrative, that is exquisitely observed and utterly compelling."

Now, Folarin has released that first novel, a coming-of-age story titled A Particular Kind of Black Man. Here's an early passage that sets up the narrative:

My father has told me many times that he's settled in Utah because he didn't want to be where anyone else was. His cousins and siblings had left Nigeria for Athens, London, Rome, New York City, and Houston. My father wanted to be an American, but he also craved isolation, so he decided he would travel to a city in America he knew nothing about.

He left Nigeria in 1979 after a school in Utah, Weber State University, offered him a place in its mechanical engineering program. His bride, my mother, accompanied him. They arrived in a country that bore a little resemblance to the country they expected. Dad, a devout fan of television shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza, was disappointed when he discovered that cowboy hats were no longer in style, and he sadly stole his first American purchase — a brown ten-gallon hat that he bought during a layover in Houston — in a suitcase, and under his bed. Mom arrived in America expecting peace and love — she had fallen for the music of the Beatles and the Beach Boys as a high school student in Lagos while listening to the records that her businessman father brought back from his trips abroad. Though she had imagined in a country where love conquered all, where black people and white people live together in peace and harmony, Mom and Dad arrived, instead, in a place where there were no other black people for miles around, a place dominated by a religion they never heard of before

But this was America. And they were in love. They moved into a small apartment in Ogden, Utah, and started a family. I came first, in 1981, and my brother followed in 1983. Dad attended his classes during the day while mom took care of us at home. Occasionally she explored the city while pushing my brother and me along in a double stroller. Soon enough we were all walking hand in hand.

"It speaks, too, to ... American soft power," Folarin says. "[Tunde's parents have] been inundated and exposed to images and sounds from America for a very long time and they have this image of America in their minds. And so to confront what America actually is, is in some ways difficult for them, because it doesn't align with what they've created in their heads."


Interview Highlights

On Tunde's mother, who becomes mentally ill and leaves

I think family is incredibly important to Tunde ... just because it's the one connection he has to finding a sense of who he is. And when that begins to fall apart, that's when his psyche begins to fall apart in a really profound way. ... And without that maternal foundation, he spends much of the rest of the novel trying to figure out who he is without [it], because mothers obviously serve an incredibly important function in our lives. They are the people who bring us into the world, and in many families — not all families, but in many families — they are the people who shepherd us into the world as human beings. And so without that, he feels bereft; he's lost. ...

His memories of his mother are infected with pain, because he loves his mother desperately, but whenever he thinks of his mother he thinks of someone who hurt him because she was getting ill. And so I think as a result of that, his memories become corrupted. And for him, this is incredibly difficult because memories form the foundation of who we are. We are all, each of us, walking stories, and these stories are composed of elements from the past that we've braided together to create this coherent narrative. If your memories are corrupted because somebody who loved you also hurt you, it becomes difficult to have a foundation in the past.

So he discovers, as the novel progresses, that he cannot trust his memory. And that's one reason why he decides to literally script his future — to imagine a future for himself or [so that] someone like him can exist, basically.

On if Tunde's memory serves as a larger metaphor

One thousand percent. You know, absolutely, people of color in this country have memories about living in this country that are infected by the pain of slavery or Jim Crow or immigrating into this country and experiencing difficult times. ... The funny thing is that we go to school and learn this kind of history that isn't interrupted — it proceeds from pilgrims arriving to this country, to the founding of this country, to World War I, World War II, etc. But for many people, there are significant gaps in that history. And even those times, remember, are again infected with pain — those aren't memories that are easy to access or interact with. And so our history itself is riddled with things — and our history doesn't fully account for who we are as people and our culture as well. So it becomes difficult to interact with history sometimes for that reason.

On the book's title

I think part of it is that Tunde's father tells him that in order to be successful, you have to be a particular kind of black man, and Tunde comes to believe this. And his father really admires people like Sidney Poitier and other black men who are widely accepted by American society. He also mentions Bryant Gumbel, for example, as somebody else who's a touchstone for him. And Tunde obediently becomes this person.

And when he gets to college, when he arrives at Morehouse College, he begins to ask himself if that is who he actually is. He's successful; he's done well academically for himself. But he's never done the hard work of developing himself, right? He's always developed himself to please people who he may meet who might have opportunities for him. He's never done the hard work of saying: What makes me laugh, what makes me cry, what makes me a human being? And so he starts that very difficult process when he gets to Morehouse.

On Folarin's own experience asking himself "who he actually is"

For me that happened in grad school. I went to [the University of] Oxford for grad school, and for the first time in my life I had an opportunity to really think about myself and work on myself. Up to that point, I just wanted to be a successful student, and that was my entire focus in life. I got to Oxford and had swaths of time by myself to read, to walk around and think about stuff. And that was really the first time when I said: "OK, what do I actually want to do with my life? Who do I actually want to be?" And I became aware of the fact that I had constructed a persona to satisfy other people. And I'd been successful in doing so.

And I think ... the sometimes-negative aspect of growing up in this country without a firm cultural basis is that your entire being becomes predicated on satisfying others. And I discovered that's what I was doing. And if you're rewarded for that — if you're successful, if you get the good grades and the opportunities and the scholarships — then you think: "OK, I'm on the right path." But then at some point you have to confront yourself and say, "Well, I still feel this profound unhappiness. Why is that?" And that's the journey I undertook at Oxford, to discover why I was still unhappy despite all these external trappings of success that I had attained over the years. ...

Art became for me the pathway to, I think, achieving a kind of wholeness. I read two or three novels a week when I was at Oxford. I went to so many plays, I went to so many concerts — I mean, things I'd never really done before. And after a year of doing this, I had a much better sense of what made me laugh and what made me cry. And that was the beginning of my journey, I think, to becoming a more coherent individual human being.

On if the book has a message to those feeling marginalized by the U.S. right now

Absolutely. I do think that the point of this book is that we can write our own narratives, and I firmly believe that, and that's what Tunde does in the book. He begins to write his own narrative, and finds solace and hope and warmth in that in that space. And I think we can as well.

I think that we're at an era where a lot of people are beginning to step in, in a really firm way, into their identities. Whether people are saying ... they're born with one sex, they say: I'm actually another gender — that's who I am; or people are claiming their cultural heritage in a more profound way than they have in the past. ... For any number of reasons, we have an opportunity to construct our identities that are more honest and open and true to who we are than what we've been handed at birth.

Janaya Williams and Tinbete Ermyas produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When we last heard from our next guest, Tope Folarin, he'd recently won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing for a short story the prize committee called exquisitely observed and utterly compelling. Now Folarin is out with his first novel. It's called "A Particular Kind Of Black Man." It's a unique coming-of-age story following the life of Tunde, a Nigerian American boy growing up in Utah who's trying to figure out who he is amid complicated family and racial dynamics. I started my conversation with Tope Folarin by asking him about the overlap between his story and the main characters.

TOPE FOLARIN: Part of it was initially, I started writing, and I thought, well, maybe I'll write a story about my life. And so that's actually how I started writing this. And as I continued to write, I discovered that - when writers used to talk about this, I thought it was mystical mumbo-jumbo when they talk about characters kind of doing their own thing. That began to happen to me. And so I said, well, this feels like a Tunde, and Tunde I started doing all kinds of things that I didn't do and I wouldn't do. And so it kind of developed as a novel.

MARTIN: So it has some elements that are autobiographical.

FOLARIN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I mean, the fact is, you were raised in Utah.

FOLARIN: Yes, exactly.

MARTIN: And...

FOLARIN: My folks are from Nigeria. I went to Morehouse College. I'm a proud graduate of Morehouse. So those elements are certainly true to life. But Tunde, for example, moves a great deal more than I did. His relationship with his father is pretty different from my relationship with my father. And he sees the world in a different way than I do. But the thing that unites us is the fact that we both have, you know, fragmented identities. At least, we did, and we're trying to kind of come up with a way of melding these disparate pieces into a whole.

MARTIN: Why don't you read a little bit, and then...

FOLARIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: We'll talk more about it, if you don't mind. This is from a very - some early pages in the book. Here it is.

FOLARIN: (Reading) My father has told me many times that he settled in Utah because he didn't want to be where anyone else was. His cousins and siblings had left Nigeria for Athens, London, Rome, New York City and Houston. My father wanted to be an American, but he also craved isolation, so he decided he would travel to a city in America he knew nothing about. He left Nigeria in 1979 after a school in Utah, Weber State University, offered him a place in its mechanical engineering program. His bride, my mother, accompanied him. They arrived in a country that bore little resemblance to the country they expected.

(Reading) Dad, a devout fan of television shows like "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza," was disappointed when he discovered that cowboy hats were no longer in style. And he sadly stowed his first American purchase, a brown 10-gallon hat that he bought during a layover in Houston, in a suitcase and under his bed. Mom arrived in America expecting peace and love. She had fallen for the music of the Beatles and The Beach Boys as a high school student in Lagos while listening to the records that her businessman father brought back from his trips abroad. Though she had imagined a country where love conquered all, where black people and white people live together in peace and harmony, mom and dad arrived instead in a place where there were no other black people for miles around, a place dominated by a religion they never heard of before. But this was America, and they were in love.

(Reading) They moved into a small apartment in Ogden, Utah and started a family. I came first in 1981, and my brother followed in 1983. Dad attended his classes during the day while mom took care of us at home. Occasionally, she explored the city while pushing my brother and me along in a double stroller. Soon enough, we were all walking hand in hand.

MARTIN: The book is in many ways, though - I mean, it's set against this backdrop of this larger place where they're there, they fit in in some ways...

FOLARIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Because they have very strong faith and...

FOLARIN: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Very family-oriented. But they also don't fit in...

FOLARIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Which is something that you make clear in the book. But it's also very much a family story.

FOLARIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, there are things within the family that are very tough. The character in the book - you know, the mom is clearly deteriorating mentally...

FOLARIN: Yes.

MARTIN: And that has a terrible effect on the kids. Those are some hard chapters to read, you know, frankly. What was the importance of that in the book?

FOLARIN: Yeah. I think family is incredibly important to Tunde, the protagonist of my novel, just because it's the one connection he has to finding a sense of who he is. And when that begins to fall apart, that's when his psyche begins to fall apart in a really profound way. His mom, as you say, becomes ill and eventually leaves in early chapters. And this shatters him completely.

And without that kind of maternal foundation, he spends much of the rest of the novel trying to kind of reconstruct a sense of self that can exist without the presence of a mother who's there for him or a father who's there - because his father is careening from job to job himself and doesn't have necessarily the time to be the kind of presence in his life that Tunde needs.

MARTIN: Well, you know, it's - as you put it, infected with pain, but it's also infused with love.

FOLARIN: Yes.

MARTIN: And I think this is what...

FOLARIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...For some people is going to be hard.

FOLARIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Because...

FOLARIN: Well, that's exactly it.

MARTIN: ...Because it's both.

FOLARIN: It's both sides of the coin.

MARTIN: It's both.

FOLARIN: Yeah. That's...

MARTIN: You will not just...

FOLARIN: ...I'm saying.

MARTIN: ...Allow it to be a completely painful story.

FOLARIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: There is still that love. There still that...

FOLARIN: There absolutely is.

MARTIN: ...Acceptance.

FOLARIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: So tell me about you. As we know that this book is - it combines elements of your actual biography...

FOLARIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...With complete fiction...

FOLARIN: Yes.

MARTIN: So is there something that - if you don't mind my asking. I'm sorry...

FOLARIN: Please. Yeah (laughter).

MARTIN: ...That you were working out here in describing this journey that sometimes is disengaged from the physical realities that we all sort of see around us. Is this an attempt to kind of construct something?

FOLARIN: Yes. You know, for me, that happened in grad school. I went to Oxford for grad school. And for the first time in my life, I had an opportunity to kind of really think about myself and work on myself. Up to that point, I just wanted to be a successful student, and that was my entire focus in life. And I became aware of the fact that I had constructed a persona to satisfy other people. And I'd been successful in doing so. And I think the negative aspect - the sometimes negative aspect of growing up in this country without a kind of firm cultural basis is that your entire kind of being becomes predicated on satisfying others, and I discovered that's what I was doing.

MARTIN: But to the bigger point of here you are, a Nigerian American raised in the United States, you had to sort of leave the country for a while, in a way...

FOLARIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...In order to find yourself.

FOLARIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: You found your way back. You are, like, the quintessential diaspora. I mean...

FOLARIN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: You're working in a think tank. You wrote the book. You're a family man. You're handsome.

FOLARIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: You've got the whole thing. You've got all of that.

FOLARIN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: What - do you feel like there's some message in your story, perhaps, for other people who feel unloved by this country right now?

FOLARIN: Absolutely. I do think that the point of this book is that we can write our own narratives. And I firmly believe that, and that's what Tunde does in the book. He begins to write his own narrative and finds kind of solace and hope and warmth in that space.

And I think we can as well. I think that we're at an era where a lot of people are beginning to kind of step in in a really firm way into their identities. You know, they're born with one sex, and they say, I'm actually another gender. That's who I am. Or people are claiming their cultural heritage in a more kind of profound way than they have in the past. And we have an opportunity because of the web - for any number of reasons, we have an opportunity to kind of construct our own identities - identities that are more honest and open and true to who we are than what we've been handed at birth.

MARTIN: That was writer Tope Folarin. His novel, "A Particular Kind Of Black Man," is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLAND ALPHONSO AND THE BEVERLEY'S ALL STARS' "STREAM OF LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.