Tope Folarin is a funny, lyrical, genre-bending writer, and A Particular Kind of Black Man is a powerhouse debut. Its protagonist, Tunde Akinola, is a first-generation Nigerian American trying desperately to assert control over his life by narrating his own story to himself—and, like his creator, he’s a wonderful storyteller. Even in its moments of isolation, abandonment, and deep sorrow, A Particular Kind of Black Man remains a pleasure to read.
Folarin will be launching A Particular Kind of Black Man on August 6 at Politics and Prose. City Paper spoke with the writer about the themes and ideas that informed his debut novel and what D.C. means to him.
WCP: How much has the book changed since you wrote the first draft?
Tope Folarin: I started writing the book in 2010, and, to be perfectly frank, I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to be. I wrote 80,000 words before I began thinking about structure. At that point, the book hewed much closer to my life, but then I decided to change the structure—got obsessed with it, really. As a result, I moved significantly away from my own story.
WCP: At what point does the current novel start diverging from the first draft?
TF: At the ice cream chapter, actually—though my father did sell ice cream when I was young, like Tunde’s father. It was the first time I saw him taking charge of his destiny in a really ambitious way. I was inspired by it. I remember that he bought all these business books—and my dad always treated me like an adult, so we both read the business books, and then we’d have conversations about them. I quite vividly remember trying to make heads or tails of these books so that I could discuss inventory and customer service with my father. I wanted to write a story in which a kid comes to recognize adulthood in that way.
WCP: One of Tunde’s major struggles in childhood is reckoning with religion. He grows up in Utah, where he occasionally encounters older Mormons whose views about Africans and African Americans are racist in a way that young Tunde can’t understand. How did you approach that?
TF: The most dramatic example is an older woman who offers to let Tunde serve her in heaven—which, to him, makes her seem like an angel. She’s offering him heaven, and to him it seems like she’s offering an uncomplicated form of love. That’s not something that exists in Tunde’s family. He has love, but it’s always touched by terror or tragedy, and so all he hears in that offer is love. He’s not old or sophisticated enough to understand what’s really happening. I think religion can often work that way. It offers a salve for any number of wounds we may have, and as a result, we aren’t always critical of it. I am religious in a way, and I think religion is an important practice for those who want to have it, but it does require critical engagement, too. I’d like the book to advocate for an alternate path, one in which we have a more vigorous intellectual engagement with the ramifications of religion.
WCP: Halfway through the book, Tunde takes over the narration. Where did that idea come from?
TF: I wanted to give the reader a moment in which to question the book’s reality because growing up, I struggled to reconcile my parents’ conception of reality with what I was taught in school. My dad told me all kinds of impossible stories about what happened in his past, and at first, I believed them. But as I grew older, I learned that his stories weren’t very logical or plausible. By the time I was in my late teens, I was thinking, “OK, the reason my parents haven’t had the success they want in this country is that they’re still clinging to these antiquated notions of the way the world works. It’s because they think impossible things can actually happen.” As a result, I repudiated much of what they told me. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school and started engaging with visual art that I was able to create a universe for myself in which I could integrate my parents’ approach to perceiving the world with the somewhat more logical one I’d developed.
WCP: Are you hoping to make Tunde into a literary alter ego? If so, what do you think is the difference between having a literary alter ego and writing autofiction?
TF: I would like to! I’m very interested in the idea of a literary alter ego. As far as autofiction goes—I love it, and I think it’s such an important movement. It’s so intentional. Autofiction requires a writer who says unabashedly, “This is pulled from my life.” With a literary alter ego, I think there’s more of an attempt to create a fictional world. The alter ego’s path intentionally diverges from the writer’s life. Tunde’s path diverges from my life, but I hope A Particular Kind of Black Man contains elements of autofiction, too. I’ve seen very few characters like myself. I wanted to write somebody like me, and somebody who, like me, is conscious of history acting on him. The moment Tunde comes into the world, history begins acting on him as a black man, an immigrant, and so on. How does he process that knowledge? And how can he become a whole human being, given those historical forces?
WCP: A Particular Kind of Black Man takes great interest in the protagonists’ social, political, and historical problems. How did you pull that off, and did you have role models?
TF: It was hard! There are so many writers who are my role models, but I wasn’t quite able to find a book that engaged with history the way I want to. I read as much as I can and go to as many readings as I can, but I never quite discovered the book that would have been my example. That said, it’s entirely possible that it’s out there and I missed it.
WCP: Why is going to readings so important?
TF: I would not be the writer I am today without D.C.’s literary and art scenes. I moved to D.C. for the free art. When I came here in 2008, I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to writing, and I chose D.C. specifically because there are so many free readings—it helped that I lived near Politics and Prose—and free art. I love the museums, and I love the embassy scene. I’ve seen so many free movies and concerts at embassies. There are so many resources for a budding artist here, and I’m so grateful. D.C. is so important to me.