A Nigerian American Strives to Be ‘A Particular Kind of Black Man’
Tope Folarin reconstructs how we see identity in the United States
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Tope Folarin’s debut novel is all at once a search for identity, an immigrant story, and a bildungsroman. A Particular Kind of Black Man follows Tunde Akintola, a Nigerian American in a small town in Utah. Torn between the culture of his Nigerian parents, and the white Mormon culture of Utah, Tunde strives to find his own way of being and belonging. Influenced by his father as well as the condition of being black in America, Tunde struggles to reconstruct his identity into a particular kind of black man—the “ideal” whose blackness would not matter.
The book borrows from Tope Folarin’s personal life, merging the autobiographical with wholly fictional parts to maximize the novelistic space, which, as he said in an interview, is “capacious enough to hold both the real and unreal.” And in this merging of the factual with the fictional, A Particular Kind of Black Man, not only breaks out of the confines of memory but also acknowledges the tenuity of memorial narration. We see this in later parts of the book when Tunde the narrator, doubting his memory, switches his narrative viewpoint from first to third person, and thereby shifts his recollections from certainty to conjectural possibilities. Perhaps the most appealing trait of the novel is its self-reference, its self awareness and how it aligns itself with the protagonist and changes with him.
Tope Folarin, a Rhodes Scholar who was born in Utah, won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013 and was shortlisted again in 2016. It was a delight to speak to him about his new novel, the concept of identity, memory and his artistic influences.
Kenechi Uzor: Is it ever possible for us not to question our identity especially now when identity goes beyond birthplace and ethnicity? I’m thinking of Tunde’s questioning of his Nigerian identity when all his Nigerian experiences are made in America.
Tope Folarin: I do think it’s possible for someone to walk through life without questioning their identity, and I think this happens all the time. I also think, however, that it’s becoming much harder to do so. You’ve alluded to one reason why this is the case: for various reasons—among them the spread of the world wide web, and the proliferation of DNA ancestry tests—we’ve become aware of the fact that identity encompasses much more than whatever culture we inherited from our family. We can create new identities for ourselves on the web, identities that are more aligned with who we are inside, or who we desire to be. And DNA tests have shown many of us that the story of who we come from and how we came to be is often much more complicated than we’ve been led to believe.
KU: This future your protagonist imagines seems to be the kind where he could exist in more than one identity. In your recent essay for Lit Hub, you wrote, among other things, about an alternative where marginalized persons could inhabit multiple realities. Is there something about human nature that craves particularity—to be either this or that, and well defined? Would it be much easier for Tunde and others like him to embrace the multiplicity of their identities?
TF: I believe many humans do prefer a definitive cultural identity because most of us were taught that identity comes in one flavor or another.
That said, Tunde discovers what I’ve discovered, and countless other people have as well: we are more than one kind of person, we have more than one identity, and this reality we inhabit—this reality that was not created to accommodate the likes of us—simply doesn’t suffice. Tunde’s solution is to create art, to fashion a story and a reality that has space for him. He literally creates his own story, using the stuff of his life and memories, and inhabits that story. I believe this is a viable solution.
KU: America wasn’t as Tunde’s parents expected. This is a recurring issue for many immigrants in America. Why are immigrants still blindsided by the reality of America? I am not sure if it’s simply that they were unaware America also has its problems.
TF: I think immigrants are aware that America has its problems, but they also believe that America is a place where, to invoke a cliché, their dreams can come true. Despite what the statistics say about social mobility in America vs., say, other Western countries, many immigrants are convinced that America is a place that always rewards hard work. But then they arrive and, alas, they find themselves in a society with its own entrenched prejudices and problems.
KU: When Tunde gets acquainted with African Americans, he sees them as being provincial and more interested in “lugging their pasts around rather than stepping into the future.” More than a few African immigrants share this view with some white Americans. Is this one of the reasons for the complicated relationship between African immigrants and African Americans?
TF: The section of my novel you’re referring to is the only section that is in third person. It’s in third person because my protagonist is beginning to consciously write fiction—he’s imagining a future in which his character, who shares his name, is living the life he could have lived. I’m emphasizing this here because Tunde, my protagonist, hasn’t actually had many experiences with African Americans. He’s writing this section of the book at Morehouse College [a historically black university], where he went precisely so he could learn more about African Americans. Yet instead of interacting with them, he’s isolated himself in his room because he’s experiencing a personal crisis.
All of which is to say that my protagonist is writing this from a place of ignorance. In my experience, much of the friction that exists between African immigrants and African Americans is because of ignorance. Some African immigrants believe that African Americans are lazy because, frankly, their only sense of African American culture comes from media. Too, many African Americans believe that African immigrants are unsophisticated and primitive because of the media images they’ve ingested. In my experience, Africans and African Americans usually discover that they share much in common once they have a chance to interact.
KU: The novel exposes the silent ways many Nigerian parents express love for their children, which is different in American homes. What are your thoughts on the effect, if any, on Tunde and kids like him, especially when they observe verbal and effusive way American parents express love for their kids?
TF: I think Tunde is probably of two minds about this. There is probably a part of him that would like for his father to be more effusive in stating his love, but he has no doubt whatsoever that his father loves him. My father is an immigrant as well, and though he constantly expressed his love for my siblings and me when we were growing up, we also knew he was expressing his love by waking up well before sunrise to work, and returning home long after the sun had set. This is how countless immigrants express their love to their families.
KU: Memory’s vital role in the novel is evident not just as narrative style but also as a theme. I am interested in why Tunde thinks it is easier to forgive his mother if he forgets her. Can you possibly talk about this idea of forgiveness and its relation to memory?
TF: One of the main functions of memory—perhaps the main function—is to keep something (an idea, a person, a feeling) alive. Time passes and kills simultaneously; for example, I might ask you to tell me what you ate three Tuesdays ago, and in all likelihood you won’t remember. In effect, the meal and that moment is dead. Now, you could resurrect that moment by combing through your credit card records, but it is no longer a part of you.
Tunde’s main issue is that the mother he remembers is a person who hurt him repeatedly. He wants to remember her, but doing so is an incredibly painful act for him. He can’t separate the pain from the love. Yet forgetting her isn’t an option either, because he loves her. So the very idea of memory—of attempting to inhabit some moment in the past—becomes corrupted for him. I suspect this is one of the reasons his memory begins to betray him. And this is why the idea of creating a fictional future appeals to him.
KU: Craft wise, the novel gets even more interesting and complicated near the middle when it shifts into an unconventional, experimental form. Can you speak a bit on what influenced your narrative choice for the novel?
TF: I mentioned this above, but the primary shift in the novel occurs when Tunde decides that instead of writing about his past he will write a story about a character who inhabits a future that Tunde would like to inhabit.
In the midst of his second journal entry in the book (September 9, 2001), Tunde says he had a chance to go to Bates College, but he declined because he thought Morehouse would be better for him. So in his fiction, Tunde writes about a “Tunde” who goes to Bates. He continues to write this fiction in the third person until he creates a woman who “Tunde” meets at a party.
One of my favorite kinds of stories is a story in which an artist creates a piece of art that somehow gains life. My parents told me various versions of this tale when I was younger, but the one I loved most came to me courtesy of Disney: Pinocchio. For a time I was obsessed with Pinocchio, especially the idea that Geppetto, his creator, had fashioned him from wood. As a child I loved how simple this seemed, the notion that an artist could create life with her hands. I think, in many ways, watching Pinocchio was a starting point in my journey to becoming an artist.
This story recurs throughout the lifespan of Western culture—novels like Frankenstein, films like Metropolis, Weird Science and Ex-Machina, and so on. Then there’s the Greek myth of Pygmalion, which may be the starting point for these stories, in which a sculptor creates a statue of surpassing beauty and falls in love with it. I was thinking of Pygmalion and these films and stories when I wrote this section of my novel.
KU: What I find most interesting about the novel is how Tunde’s fraught memory and his metawriting complicates his character as an unreliable narrator. Could you share some thoughts on this?
TF: As you know, the unreliable narrator is among the more popular—one could even say overused—tropes in contemporary literature. I don’t think Tunde is an unreliable narrator, at least in the traditional way. The entire notion of an unreliable narrator depends on the idea that there is some objective truth that the character in question is avoiding or doesn’t know about. Tunde starts the novel thinking this way, but as the book progresses he comes to recognize that there is more than one truth, more than one reality, and his objective is to reliably narrate all of them.
KU: In your acknowledgements, you mentioned Gore Vidal, whose writing I love so much. Which is why I’d like more details on your relationship and the pep talks he gave to you as you wrote this novel.
TF: I met Mr. Vidal once, in 2010, when I was a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. I was fundraising on behalf of the Institute in Santa Monica, at a time in my life when I was struggling mightily to determine what I would do next. I spoke briefly at a house party where he was present, and after the party his assistant flagged me down—Mr. Vidal was in a wheelchair then—and told me Mr. Vidal wanted to speak with me. He told me he was impressed with my speech (I’d mentioned a few incidents in my life) and he said I should write about my experiences. His words felt like a balm and like a prophecy. I began to write my novel a few days afterward.
KU: I often ask authors about their experience as readers of their own work. What interests you as a reader of A Particular Kind of Black Man
TF: The thing that interests me most about my novel is that its structure is aligned with the story. It starts in a fairly conventional, accessible manner, with first-person past-tense narration, and Tunde himself is a fairly conventional, accessible person. As Tunde begins the search to discover who he actually is, though, the book begins a parallel search to find a storytelling mode that fits the story. Tunde’s fits and starts are reflected in the structure, and at the end, when he finally creates a piece of art that can accommodate him and his desires for the future, the book, too, finally settles into itself, different than it was, but whole.