Wednesday, January 22, 2020 8:50 am
Tope Folarin, a Nigerian-American writer, won the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story, Miracle. His debut novel, A Different Kind Of Black Man, was published last year to critical acclaim. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH, he speaks about the novel, identity, memory and racism in the United States.
How long did it take you to write your latest novel, A Different Kind of Black Man?
I started writing it in 2010. The thing is I knew what I wanted to write but I needed the time to gain the skills to write what I wanted to write. And so I wrote it till 2018. I finish the book in 2018. Altogether it was eight years. But a lot of that time was just spent knowing how to do some of the most difficult things so that it won’t ruin the book.
Is Miracle, your award-winning story, in the novel?
It is not in the book. But that story was really important to help me to finish the book because I wanted to tell a story in terms of plot and disruptions. And so that is something that I did as well in A Different Kind of Black Man. It’s satisfying to hear I suppose, but I learnt how to write my book by studying the stuff that I had written before.
A Different Kind of Black Man sounds semi-autobiographical. Is the novel semi-autobiographical?
Absolutely. But it’s a question people keep asking me. I think quite the reason why people are asking me is because I have such a unique story; for example If I have written about growing up in New York – there are some Nigerian immigrants who grew up in New York, some kids who grew up there too – maybe that is going to be such a fascinating topic. But for me the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is not so important. I think the most important thing is to tell a story. So that’s what I wanted to do: to tell a story as well as I could.
Why did you tell that story?
I wanted to tell a story about the way human beings develop. And I now often times they don’t think of immigrants as human beings. And so I thought about writing a story about a human being that is developing. And it just happens that that human being is a black boy who has Nigerian parents. That would be an important kind of statement. So that was my obsession- Let me tell a story as well as I can because I am convinced that If I do a good job, hopefully anyone can see themselves In that story; anyone can see themselves trying to construct themselves and identity even at difficult times.
You once spoke about how your dad was concerned about a character in the book. How much of your dad is in that character?
A lot of my dad is in that character. My dad plays a very important role in my lie. He is a major figure for me. He influenced me in so many ways. It’s kind of impossible to think about my life without him. And It is very difficult to think about trying to write about family and identity without invoking someone who is like my dad or someone who is very similar to my dad.
Did you experience identity conflict while growing up in America, given the fact that you were born to Nigerian parents?
Yeah. Absolutely, that’s what the book is about. It is about how to become a person because in my case I was born and raised in the US. My father had a solid sense of identity. He is a Nigerian man. He is very proud of that. And he wants to have everyone see us as Nigerian men. But meanwhile everyone around me is telling me that I am actually African American, that I am a black American. I don’t have the slightest idea what that is. And of course I am an American because I was born and raised there. And so the question becomes for a little child who is unnecessarily intellectually and emotionally equipped to resolve all these different identities: How do you become a human being when everyone is telling you that you are something different. And you don’t have the slightest idea what is happening inside of yourself. And to form that into something like an identity. So that is the journey of the novel: how do you reconcile these utterly conflicting identities and try to create something else?
Talking about memory, what role did it play while writing the book?
As I have said before, a lot of the book is based on my memories. But in writing the story, the work of fiction, I am not convinced there is necessarily a difference. But if there is a difference between fiction and non- fiction I think the difference is that the story is paramount in fiction. That is, If I am writing a memoir I kind of stick to the past. Whereas if I am writing a work of fiction I think I honour the story. So, that said, yes there is certain memories that I draw on in writing the story. But I think, to be perfectly honest, what I am also drawing on and perhaps the most important thing I am drawing on is the idea that our memories are malleable. I know some people think o memories as this kind of objective images rom the past. But in actuality memories are shaped by who we are. That’s what I wanted to capture in the book, how this child grows up with a sense of self. That, as I said before is incomplete, is not settled. And that as he grows older and perhaps begin to arrive at a destination he has to revise the way that he has thought about himself and even the memory that he ha formed, that has shaped itself to uphold the impression of himself that is not accurate.
You said something about being bullied while you were growing up, which sounded funny. Could you shed more light on your experiences growing up as a child, and how it has affected you?
Yeah. Sometime I asked my brother, I think a couple of weeks ago. I asked him, “Do you remember the time that you pushed me down?” Then he said, “I never did that to you”. I said, “Are you lying? Of course, you did.” And he said, “No. no, I never did that. That did not happen.” So we both called my father. My father said, “That did not happen. What’s wrong with you?” And so I had to go back and ask myself, “Why did I do that? I don’t think they have any Reason to lie to me. Why did I put that kind of false memory? Why did i do that? Why did I create this false memory?” And I guess I maybe had some conception of myself as a victim or somebody who have things happening to them. So maybe that was the basis of it.. but I just thought that was a funny thing because I remember that happening, even now. If I sit back and I close my eyes I remember that happening. And again memory is not perfect. And so if my brother is not lying to me, then for some reason I have created something that is inaccurate. But I think we do this all the time. So that is something I wanted to capture in the novel.
What were your experiences like while writing the novel? Did you ever feel discouraged at a point?
I knew I would publish this novel. I knew that it would be successful. I think that is what you have to do. Doing any kind of writing is difficult. And there will be number of eople who will be saying, “No why are you doing this?” And then of course when you are sending out youR work , it’s getting rejected and people are saying they don’t want to publish this. You have to have faith in yourself, that you are doing good. And then the other thing too is that nobody is asking you. Nobody is telling you please publish this novel when they saw your writing. Nobody knew who I was. Nobody was asking me. So you have to be kind of persistent. And with the novel, I knew that as long as I worked on my craft and the book was in its own way beautiful and had important things to say that it will find its own way. So it was my job to gain the skills for it to be able to find its own way.
It was thrilling to hear you read excerpts from the novel. I saw the style, the lyricism. Do you think style is important for fiction?
I do. I love style. If I read a book that doesn’t have any kind of style it’s going to be difficult for me to read it because I don’t care that much about plot. I like the experience of going on a journey. And I think the style is all about the journey. I like reading a book and it gets my attention so much so I have to put down and sort of close my eyes and think about it. And of course because I like that I would hope that a reader of mine would have the same experience. I think sentences are important. And I love beautiful sentences. I love sentences that seem inevitable anyway. You read a sentence and you say “Wow, I don’t know how this person wrote it. But it seems as if the sentence has always existed because it is so perfect. So that is what I care about. And I think as artists we would often try to produce the things that we love and enjoy in the world. And so for me, as somebody who know what a beautiful sentence is, that is what I am trying to produce.
The book reads like poetry.
Thank you so much.
Was it intentional?
Yeah, I love poetry, and I read as much as I can. So I am an aspiring poet to this day. So I try to smuggle some poetry into my novel. I will publish poetry someday.