When D.C.-based writer Tope Folarin was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013 — becoming the first writer based outside of the continent to win — some questioned whether he was African enough to claim it. “There was this entire brouhaha about it,” Folarin tells me. “But I think in some ways I was prepared for it because I’ve been asking myself this question about my identity my entire life.”
Folarin, who serves as vice president of content and storytelling for the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation, recently released his debut novel, A Particular Kind of Black Man, which explores the idea that we can inhabit many different identities throughout our lives or even simultaneously — our cultural identity, our national identity, etc. “How can I possibly be Nigerian,” Tunde Akinola, the book’s protagonist, asks himself, “when every Nigerian experience I have had up to this point was made in America?”
Tunde grows up in Utah and is as familiar with eating moin moin as he is pancakes. Like Folarin, he’s a first-generation Nigerian-American and the novel chronicles how he comes to terms with that hybrid identity and himself, much of which happens within the framework of Tunde attempting to write his life story. But this project is daunted by his discovery that all the moving around he does in his early years has created false or double memories that make him an unreliable narrator of his own life. To that end, A Particular Kind of Black Man foregrounds the importance of both individual and cultural memory in shaping identity. “We are who we are because of the stories we carry around about ourselves,” Folarin explains. “If certain parts of your personal story have been degraded over time, that compromised story can affect the way you see yourself and that’s what happens to Tunde.”
I recently spoke to Folarin about whether identity is something you inherit or something you choose, how the definition of “home” can be a place, person or sound and the ways in which the specter of Nigeria has imbued all of it for him (and Tunde).
The core theme of A Particular Kind of Black Man is identity — how we construct it and why. What made you want to explore that in your debut novel?
Identity is such an incredibly important topic, especially in the 21st century. We’ve reached an era when we’re all consciously constructing our identities. Most of us are on the internet; we curate the parts of ourselves that we want to present to the world, and in so doing, emphasize certain aspects of ourselves and de-emphasize other aspects. So there’s a robust interrogation of identity that’s happening that didn’t happen for my parents’ generation or my grandparents’ generation. In the past, identity was something that was handed to children, like, “This is who you are; this is who your people are.”
Growing up, I experienced this viscerally because my parents are from Nigeria, I was born and raised in America and my parents tried to hand over that identity card and that didn’t fit me because I was growing up in a context in which their identity didn’t necessarily line up with how I saw myself. That’s been something I’ve thought about a great deal throughout my life, so I wanted to write a novel in which that was one of the main struggles the protagonist has to grapple with.
There are similarities between Tunde’s story and your own. You’re both first-generation Nigerian Americans, you both lived in Texas and attended historically black colleges. Is he meant to be an avatar for you?
Yeah, I think Tunde is an avatar. The distinct similarities are obviously intentional. There are any number of reasons that’s the case. One, I’m definitely a fan of autofiction, and I think there are wonderful possibilities in that kind of literature, possibilities that I’m drawn to.
Two, the frame of the book is that Tunde is writing his story, and you don’t necessarily know that until probably a third of the way in. He’s engaged in the process of trying to figure out who he is. He’s also wondering if the identity that he’s constructed for himself fits who he actually is. This is something I think a number of people experience, especially the sons and daughters of immigrants. My parents, my dad in particular, always told me that I had to be a certain kind of person to be successful in this country, and as I grew older, I began to push against that because this person that he wanted me to be didn’t necessarily fit the person I was internally. I think Tunde experiences that, too.
In conversation with the New York Times, you suggest that narrative shifts in the book represent how “the novel becomes aware of itself in the way I became aware of myself.” Can you talk about the novel’s unique structure?
I’m obsessed with narrative structure. Whenever I read a novel, that’s one of the first things I think about. With respect to my novel, I wanted the structure to reflect the narrative. Initially, the book proceeds in a conventional way, but at the moment when Tunde begins to interrogate his own identity, the book does as well. The book from a structural perspective begins to ask if it’s a memoir or if it’s a journal, and that’s in sync with what the protagonist is experiencing. Then the character falls in love, and after that journey, the narrative is in a more settled place because he’s arrived at a more settled place. I recognize that a lot of people just read for plot, and they just want a good yarn. I understand that impulse, but I hope that people who read the novel also engage with some of the structural aspects of it as well.
Tunde is primarily raised by his father because after a few episodes — including a suicide attempt — his mother, who suffers from schizophrenia, abandons them to return to Nigeria. Though her presence is officially confined to the first half of the book, it lingers over the remaining pages. Why was exploring mental illness through her character important to you?
I don’t want to generalize, but I suppose I have to. How some African immigrants and Africans as well deal with mental illness is that it’s understood in a completely different way than it is in the West. With the protagonist, for example — his dad and his grandmother say that she needs to go back to Nigeria to get better so there’s a sense that it’s about context. If she leaves America, she’ll be in a better place. I wanted to investigate the claims that I heard growing up about mental illness and also investigate how mental illness affects people who are connected to the person who is mentally ill, how that illness blooms and influences the lives of others.
Also, for me as a writer, it presented a number of interesting possibilities for Tunde’s development as a character. His mother is away from him, and the one link he has to Nigeria is his grandmother — and the only link that they have are these phone conversations that happen very occasionally because it’s really expensive in the 1980s and 1990s to call Nigeria. He doesn’t talk with his mother after she leaves, he only hears about her via his grandmother, so he’s even more marooned than he would be otherwise. I wanted to put a lot of pressure on Tunde to have to really reckon with who he is without being able to depend on his mother and father.
Tunde’s relationship with his grandmother is actually my favorite part of the book. It only exists because of phones, and they have these abridged but still touching conversations throughout the book where she asks him about things like the weather. Yet he — and we — understand that she’s really telling him that she loves him in code. Is it fair to think of her and her role in the story as a stand-in for Nigeria itself?
I like that reading of it. It’s a stand-in for Nigeria. It’s a stand-in for mother as well. In some ways, that’s kind of a tragedy — the fact that the one person who offers that motherly influence and love is someone he can’t see or touch. She becomes a kind of spectral figure. She becomes… I don’t want to say God, that’s a bit too much, but they have a conversation in which he broaches that topic. He says, “I can’t see or touch you — how can I believe in you?” and that’s very much the experience people have with religion.
He also struggles with the idea of how he can be so close to somebody when he doesn’t have the opportunity to sit down and talk with the person. That’s the experience a lot of the children of immigrants have as well. They don’t have a personal connection to the country their parents came from. So again, it does become a kind of spectral presence. When I was growing up, Nigeria functioned as this mythical place. I was always hearing stories from my parents and their friends about how wonderful it was when they were growing up and the parties they went to and the friends they had and everything else. I was forced to build this mental approximation of a place that they knew viscerally. That’s what Tunde experiences as well — he’s trying to construct this idea of Nigeria in his mind even though he’s never had the experience of going there.
Feelings of disconnection from their surroundings and from each other are a throughline throughout both Tunde’s life and his father’s. Several articles that came out in the last few years have highlighted the fact that male loneliness specifically is an under-discussed epidemic in the real world. Was it a deliberate choice on your part to make it such a big part of both of their lives?
Absolutely. Tunde’s father decides to travel to Utah of all places because he wants to build a life for himself and his new family. He wants to do it on his own, but then he quickly recognizes how difficult it is and he recognizes too that he misses people profoundly. It’s hard to forge ahead, to make something of yourself, without a community. Loneliness becomes a major issue for him.
And for Tunde, obviously he misses his mother. He doesn’t feel connected to anyone around him because he’s growing up in a culture that’s very different from the culture of his father, and he’s trying to figure out who he is and there aren’t any templates he can follow. At one point, he talks about how his father encouraged him to look up to certain black celebrities, and he tries to consciously parrot some of the things they do. But while he’s doing this, he again recognizes there are parts of himself that he doesn’t see reflected in these people he’s meant to admire. So he feels a profound sense of loneliness as a result.
Tunde spends seemingly his whole life trying to learn what it means to be a man, and more specifically, a black man. At home he’s given the example of his father and through school friends he’s introduced to black American culture — he learns about the Black National Anthem, a friend teaches him to dap and speak like someone who belongs. Did it strike you that in writing about his quest to embody/perform black masculinity in this way you were also deconstructing it?
Oh, a thousand percent. You say “black man” to a person who isn’t black, and I’m sure they instantly have an image that comes to mind. And if you say “black man” to a black person, they probably have an image that springs to mind as well. There might be, for some people anyway, a settled definition of what it is to be a black man, and Tunde is hitting hard against that. He’s hitting hard against what the American societal definition of what being a black man is and also a diasporic Nigerian conception of what being a black man is.
He’s finding, though, that he doesn’t fit either of those definitions. He doesn’t fit that African-American definition, and he doesn’t fit that Nigerian and African definition. So his question is, “I’m obviously a black man, but what kind of black man am I?” Is it acceptable to be a black man who doesn’t fit in either of those conceptions of black malehood?
For him, that becomes an existential question. That’s why the title is so important; he’s not attempting to sprint away from blackness. He’s not attempting to repudiate his blackness. He certainly wants to embrace it, but he needs to come up with a definition that works for him and that simultaneously honors who he is inside as a developing human being.