Tope Folarin On 'A Particular Kind Of Black Man,' His First Novel The semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale from the Nigerian-American writer, his debut novel, finds a child of African immigrants growing up in Utah.
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Tope Folarin Was 'A Particular Kind Of Black Man' — So He Wrote A Book About It

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

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

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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")

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