In a time of epic sagas, grand expositions, multi-generational chronicles, and polyphonic characters, Tope Folarin’s writing has remained intimate, intricate, and inviting. Folarin is always able to distill his plot and characters into a narrative that is quiet and affecting.
His debut novel, A Particular Kind of Black Man, begins as a coming-of-age story of Tunde Akinola, a Nigerian American raised in Utah struggling with his cultural identity amidst the backdrop of his family’s own challenges with assimilation. The novel is as devastating as it is joyful and through changing perspectives, tender prose dotted with pop culture nostalgia, the result becomes a moving portrait of memory, love, longing, and identity construction over time.
The architecture in Folarin’s prose is always evident whether it is switching perspectives or invoking elements of poetry through language and line breaks. A Particular Kind of Black Man is not the first time Folarin has played with form. He first came to prominence after winning the 2013 Caine Prize for African writing for his short story “Miracle,” set in an evangelical church in Texas featuring a prophet and a bespectacled boy protagonist.
I recently spoke with Tope Folarin about his new book, form, literary categorizations, and movement building as the future.
The Rumpus: The title of the book feels very layered; how did you make that title choice?
Tope Folarin: I had a working title, “the proximity of distance,” that came from a time when I was really engaged and obsessed with poetry. I came across that phrase and I thought it encapsulated what I was interested in. Then I get this publishing contract and my publisher says, “We don’t like that title.” My editor, a wonderful man named Iris Silverberg, pulls out this section of my book where Tunde (the protagonist) is talking about the kind of man he thought he was supposed to be and he says, “a particular kind of black man.”
I think the title works because it gets at the point of my book which is identity. This is a book about somebody who is trying to figure out who he is, and his father has insisted that he becomes a particular kind of black man and he for most of his life accepts that. As he grows older, he determines that isn’t who he wants to be.
Rumpus: Interesting you mention poetry because the book has a poetic affectation. I wanted to know more about balancing the more poetic language and the prose.
Folarin: I started with poetry and then decided about ten years ago I wanted to focus on prose. I started reading lots of short stories. That’s the reason why I started writing short stories, because I thought that would be a good entry point. I really studied first-person stories because I wanted to write from that perspective. I focused on construction and putting sentences together. When I wanted to write a novel, I started reading every novel I could get my hands on. I kept in mind structure.
Rumpus: Could you tell me more about the structure of your own novel?
Folarin: At the beginning of the book, it’s a memoir structure with somebody reflecting on their life. Then, as the character begins to question his identity, the structure that was familiar begins to fall apart. When the book reassembles, Tunde—as well as his reassembled self—become something new. It feels really important that this kind of structural journey of the novel resembles the identity journey of Tunde.
Rumpus: Do you think this structure helped to convey the character’s preoccupation with memory and his own journey with identity?
Folarin: I think so. The content didn’t take that long to write at all. The thing I grappled with was the structure, but when I had landed on one that worked for the novel, I knew I had finished.
It starts with memoir-like reflection, interspersed with conversations with his grandmother in Nigeria. When we realize the character is in college talking about his life, it goes into the first-person present. It is important and interesting to use perspectives, but there should be reasons why those things happen. In my book I wanted to ground those reasons in narrative. There is a reason why it goes into the second person, because the character is having a kind of crisis and he is actually staring at the mirror and addressing himself at a point where he might have been experiencing a mental break. He goes on to third person when he realizes he can no longer reliably narrate his life and he wants to narrate someone else’s life.
Rumpus: There are time stamps which show us the growth of the character. As the reader follows the story, Tunde’s language, thought process, and voice change. Did you have difficulties staying on track?
Folarin: Yes. It was important that there was evidence of growth. One thing that turns me off about books sometimes is when you have one narrator in a coming-of-age story and that narrator more or less is the same throughout the life of the book, especially if it’s in first person, that seems really weird to me because your perspective changes as you grow older. Even if you are looking back, there is no way that a six-year-old is having sophisticated thoughts about the things they encounter.
I worked really hard to ensure that even though I was narrating from the perspective of someone who is six, that I am actually capturing the way a six-year-old or a twenty-year-old thinks.
Rumpus: The novel has been described as a coming-of-age immigration story. Do you think this is an oversimplification and does it have something to do with black people being read differently?
Folarin: Absolutely, it is a function of how black people are read. The reality is that if you are a black writer, your book is acquired by a white person at a publishing house staffed predominantly by white people. The people who are marketing the novel are probably white and majority of the readers, at least in the West, are white. A lot of the times when they are acquiring books by people of color, especially novels, they are acquiring based on what they’ve read before.
To be frank, when a white person acquires a novel by a person of color, a lot of the time, the PoC they interact with might be the Uber driver who takes them from their home to work. I think the white liberal impulse is a really good one but, in all likelihood, they want to know the stories of people who are helping them in these capacities. This Uber driver might tell them an interesting story about the fact that they are an immigrant and so they become interested in a story from that perspective.
When they start to acquire novels and publicize them, it’s about, I care about immigration; I am really saddened by the stories of people who are being prevented from coming into this country or being housed in horrible conditions or Africans who are crossing the water to get into Europe. They care more about the story than anything else.
As writers we are all cognizant of that, especially in the West. They want the heartbreaking stories of immigrants who are trying to make it. It’s not often that you hear of PoC as literary innovators and white people don’t necessarily go to black people for that. I think they look at black people to provide compelling content that gives them an opening into the lives of PoC.
Rumpus: Do you think there is something voyeuristic about it?
Folarin: That is certainly the case and that is the logic of publishing right now. It’s like, I want to understand what’s going on with these black people that are struggling. It comes from a good place but because of that you’re not looking to black people to create the new novel or the structure for the twenty-first century. If you’re an artist like me, who is interested in that—the reason why I write is to make the novel new. I think there is a dissonance between my intentions as a novelist and the way the market might receive me.
Rumpus: Let’s go back to the novel. There are multiple love stories going on. A familial love story with the father, the brothers, a longing for maternal love, the distant grandmother, romantic love, and even the love for self.
Folarin: That’s an interesting and an important read of it because I was trying to talk about the importance of love. For Tunde, I am not sure that he is ever unconditionally loved. His father loves him and will do anything for him, but his father’s love is also based on the idea that his son will become the kind of black man that he couldn’t become. The one person who kind of loves him unconditionally is his grandmother. There is a certain point in the book where there is a break and he is talking to his grandmother. It’s the first time he doesn’t feel like he needs to put on a guise in order to placate someone. There is a moment where he begins to fall for Noelle. I was at pains to demonstrate at this point of the book that it’s possible that Noelle is a figment of his imagination. She’s the one who says to him, this isn’t working out because you aren’t being serious about who you are. That love is certainly a factor and that is what propels him towards the end of the book.
Rumpus: There is a part where Tunde says, “I remember lots of things, but I can no longer trust my memories.” What was the significance of that in relation to his identity?
Folarin: He’s lived a life he is not sure is valid and meaningful because his father has constructed him. When he comes to recognize that, there is a part of him that might reject everything that has come before. It’s the point in his life where he lacks a solid identity and it rocks him to his core.
From my perspective as a writer, I just thought it would be interesting to play with reality because I am not sure that reality will be so fixed for any of us as this century progresses. We all play in virtual spaces when we go online and construct entire lives on social media. The question then becomes how do we travel between both those worlds?
Here is a person who inhabits a couple of realities, especially when he lives in a society that says he has to inhabit one identity or the other. There is a part of him that rejects that because things are moving in a different direction for him. I wanted to place a character in that kind of predicament and see what he makes of it.
Rumpus: You have said before that your book falls into autofiction. How do these categorizations enhance the reader’s experience?
Folarin: If you categorize a novel a certain way then it influences the way that it is perceived both critically and in terms of its entertainment value. If people come to my novel as an immigrant novel, they expect a certain thing that has been celebrated in the West and people are accustomed to reading. Most of the immigration novels that I have read don’t play much with form. This isn’t a criticism, but that is how most of them are written. They convey a really important and moving story of one person who is moving from one place to another place and the struggles that are an inevitable part of that process.
But if you say autofiction, at the very least, what it says is that this book is trying to do something different and new. If you say here is a book by a black person that is interested in literary innovation, I think that changes the way that somebody approaches the book. One of the interesting things that has happened to me on tour is that people come up to me and say this is a great immigration novel or they will say something about Tunde coming from Nigeria. What that says to me is that they are reading from an immigration novel perspective.
Rumpus: So, there are presumptions attached to the novel because he didn’t come from Nigeria?
Folarin: Exactly, and they can’t extricate their expectation about what the novel is going to be to what the novel actually is about. I think it’s just difficult for people to move beyond those categories both on the publishing end and sometimes on the reader’s end as well.
Rumpus: In your writing you always find ways to make the language quiet through a singular rhythm. You are able to inhabit these different perspectives and tell the stories without the work being cacophonous. Does that come from poetry, prose, or you as a person?
Folarin: That probably comes from me as a person and what I like to interact with when it comes to art. I like watching cinema that is slow and paced really well. That’s something that has always worked well for me. I like art that has space in it and takes a while to figure itself out. It’s not unusual that my work is somewhat similar.
Rumpus: What is exciting you at the moment?
Folarin: I have been reading about the Dark Room Collective—a collective of poets at Harvard that formed after James Baldwin passed away. They got together to host a reading series and workshops. They had different aesthetic viewpoints and different ideas about exciting poetry, but they were in it together. They are also writing criticism and boosting each other’s work.
Part of what happens is that before this collective started, for many black poets, they were in the same situation that many African writers and even African American writers are in right now, which is that your work is being evaluated by people who have no investment in your context. You are writing your work and other people are marketing it and criticizing it according to what they think is important. Movements are important because what you have is people who are invested and come from a similar context and can read the work in the way that it was meant to be read. Especially if we talk about African writing.
I wonder what would happen if there is a kind of movement, whether intentional or not, where you have a group of writers saying here is how our work should be interpreted. I think that would also solve the kind of innovation question we talked about before. The reason why the Caine prize was important was because I went there with a story that could have been read in two ways. “Miracle” could have been read as content or as structure. I assumed it was just going to be read as content but there was this great moment when I was sitting with the other shortlisted writers and Zoe Wickham was on stage and they asked Zoe what she thought of the stories and she said there was one story that went from first-person plural to singular and she was intrigued by that. I felt edified that somebody had read the story from the perspective of craft.
So, I think a movement is a possible solution. Having more PoC in powerful positions in publishing is another solution. That is something that needs to change as soon as possible.
Photograph of Tope Folarin by Justin Gellerson.