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Q&A: Acclaimed novelist Tope Folarin on immigration, the wall and growing up different in Utah

SHARE Q&A: Acclaimed novelist Tope Folarin on immigration, the wall and growing up different in Utah

Author Tope Folarin

Simon and Schuster

SALT LAKE CITY — Growing up in Utah as the child of Nigerian immigrants, Tope Folarin could never forget that he was different.

He was reminded on the playground, when another child tried to rub the brown off his skin and started to cry when he couldn’t. And he was reminded by the kindly white woman who told him that if he was virtuous on Earth, he could be her servant in heaven.

These disturbing incidents in Folarin’s childhood are presented as fiction in his new novel, “A Particular Kind of Black Man,” published by Simon & Schuster in August to widespread acclaim.

They are among the challenges that the novel’s narrator, Tunde Akinola, faces as a child of Nigerian immigrants struggling to assimilate in Ogden and Layton, Utah cities that were starkly different from their homeland and from their expectations of what America would be like.

“Though she had imagined a country where love conquered all, where black people and white lived 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’d never heard of before,” says Tunde Akinola, the narrator of Folarin’s novel.

The novel goes on to explore Akinola’s struggle to find “the truth of who I am” amid the splinters of his family: his mother returned to Nigeria, his father remarried.

Anyone who reads just the first 10 pages of “A Particular Kind of Black Man’’ might come away thinking Folarin was glad to leave Utah for Texas as a teen, and later, for the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, earning two master’s degrees. Although Utah’s immigrant population has increased since he was a child, the state is still 90 percent white, according to the Census Bureau.

But Folarin, who is 37 and now lives in Washington, D.C., says Utah was formational for him in positive ways. He spoke recently with the Deseret News about growing up as a Nigerian-American Pentecostal in a state full of Latter-day Saints, how art helped form his identity, and why he believes America is still “the hope of the world.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: There are obvious parallels between your life and that of your narrator; for example, both of you were born in Ogden, Utah, to parents who came from Nigeria. Are other anecdotes in the story also things that happened to you?

Tope Folarin: The opening, about the old woman, is something that actually happened to me when I was very young. And also the rubbing of the skin. But I wanted to balance that portrayal of Utah with the other side as well.

I am the person I am today because of Utah. There were teachers who took an interest in me and took me under their respective wings. They gave me books to read, took me to museums in Salt Lake, and all kinds of things. I haven’t been back since the ‘90s much to my great shame, although I’m still a big Jazz fan and still think fondly of Utah.

DN: Your book has been called a coming-of-age novel; I see it more as a coming-of-identity novel. How does identity figure into your theme, and how can people who are nothing like your narrator or yourself find themselves in these pages?

“The book is about a person who’s basically handed an identity card from various people in his life.”

TF: Coming of identity — I love that phrase, and I wish I’d been using it for the past few weeks I’ve been on the road. I think that wonderfully captures what I’m trying to do. The book is about a person who’s basically handed an identity card from various people in his life. His mother and father say he’s Nigerian. He hears from other people that he’s an American; he hears from other people that he’s an African American. And he doesn’t feel comfortable in any of these identities, and as the book progresses, his identity and his entire self-worth begins to fall apart because he’s so confused. And then he takes on the process of writing his own story. He says ‘I need to construct my own story and inhabit it, because that’s the only pathway I have to becoming whole.’

That’s a story that a number of people can relate to, especially in the 21st century. One example is when we go online and create these avatars, these online personas who don’t necessarily align with our personas in the real world. And a number of people are stepping more firmly into their identities, saying they have a different kind of sexuality, or a different gender identity, or race as well. There are all kinds of interesting things that are happening.

One book I read while researching this book was “Dreams from my Father” by Barack Obama. The thing that was most interesting to me was that at one point, Barack Obama decides to become an African American. He comes from an interesting, varied background; he spent time in Indonesia as a child, his father is from Kenya, his mother is a white woman from Kansas, but of all the identities he could adopt, he makes a decision to become an African American.

The interesting thing in the 21st century is that maybe somebody can hold all these disparate parts of themself together and still be whole. If you want to make that decision, you can; but if you don’t, there’s space for you, as well.

DN: Did you come to any decision about your own identity while writing the book?

TF: I did, yes. In terms of my status in the world, I am a black person, and I’m happy about that, and I’m proud of that, but I think of myself more as a diasporic black person, which is to say I certainly have a connection to African American culture — that’s a core part of who I am — but I also have an association with Nigeria and Africa at large; I also lived in Europe for four years, and I have a close association there as well.

The other part, too, is that I’m an artist. And the way I found myself, if I’m to be perfectly frank, was in grad school. I spent a lot of time reading novels. I read everyone I could get my hands on, from Proust to Twain. I read Philip Roth and (John) Updike, I read a lot of Deborah Eisenberg, who is maybe my favorite writer. I think in reading all of this stuff, and spending a lot of time at museums and also going to a lot of plays, that’s when I began to settle into myself, who I am. My dad would find this sacrilegious, but going to a museum I found to be just as much of a spiritual experience as going to church. I was able to center myself and find calm while contemplating pieces of art.

DN: You said at a recent presentation that you suffered “profound guilt” about being black when you were young. Why, and has that changed?

TF: I didn’t know what it meant to be black. Friends would say, “You’re a black person” and I didn’t know what that meant. I just felt like me. My parents, my father in particular, didn’t necessarily have the best relationship with African Americans. He didn’t think they were taking full advantage of their presence in America, and he would make comments about traits African Americans supposedly had that he didn’t like. And I would point out, African Americans were likely stereotyping him as well, and people in our community were likely stereotyping him as well. I did get past it, but it was very difficult to bridge, and I spent many, many years of my life attempting to get there.

DN: America is known as a melting pot, but there are states where that’s not true at all. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, for example, are 95 percent white, which has prompted some conversation among policymakers about how mostly white states can attract a more diverse population. What, if anything, can these states do to make them more attractive to immigrants and minorities? Or should they even be trying?

TF: I’m not quite sure that’s the solution.

There was a video that I saw recently of Rep. Ilhan Omar (a Democrat who was born in Somalia) at the Minneapolis airport, and her constituents came out to greet her after an especially bruising week, and the people who came to greet her were from all races and ages and creeds. I was really touched by that, because my understanding is that she represents a place that’s predominantly white. I understand that there are people who have problems with some of her policies, and I get that, but I was heartened by that video because I think that’s what happens when people finally get to know each other. 

It sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky, but my experience has always been, when people get to know each other and experience the cultures and the food and everything else, they recognize that beneath everything else, we’re human, and that goes a long way toward people moving past any difficulties that they might have at the outset.

DN: Your protagonist’s father believed it was important for his children to speak perfect English in an “American accent” in order for them to be successful. Can you share some of your thoughts on accents and language, and whether immigrants should speak “perfect” English, or if Americans should be more tolerant of people who don’t sound like themselves?

TP: Absolutely, I think people should be more tolerant, but at the same time, I recognize that part of the reason that I’ve been successful is that my father insisted that my siblings and I speak English perfectly. He went to the extent of getting elocution tapes that we would listen to, because he was convinced that if he had had an American accent, his life would have been very different.

And I understand that when people meet me for the first time, they might be put at ease because of the way I speak. But I think that’s unfortunate, because when you use that formulation, when you’re saying, “they’re one of the good ones,” you’re also saying that others aren’t the good ones because they have accents or carry certain cultural practices into their lives.

You alluded to the fact that in a couple of decades, America is going to be primarily a nation of minorities, and I think what’s standing in the way of that transition is accepting people for who they are. There are a lot of people who are fiercely proud of being an American who have really thick accents; they are Americans and patriots as well. 

DN: President Trump has proposed a merit-based immigration system that would provide speedier entry to younger and better educated people. One reason for this, he says, is that the nation needs more workers who will “contribute to our social safety net.” Do you agree with this?

TF: It’s an unfortunate standard. My father does not have a college degree; he immigrated hoping to get his college degree, and for various reasons, that didn’t pan out. But I don’t know another person who works harder than he does. And he worked incredibly hard to ensure that all his kids had a great education.

For me, one of the most touching moments I had in my life was when I came home from my first semester of college, and my dad was working at the airport. He’s had a series of working-class jobs his entire life, and he was working as one of these people who drive the carts around for people who may have disabilities and need to get to another area of the airport very quickly.

And I come off the plane, and he is standing there with a number of his friends, who are from a number of African countries, who all have the same job, and they’re all clapping for me as I come off the plane. And my dad gave me this big hug, and I could see it in his eyes and the eyes of everyone else I met as well, that they were all proud of me because I was the walking manifestations of their dreams. 

And that’s the dream that so many people have when they come to this country. And they say ‘if I can’t make it, I want someone else to make it, I’m going to stay here even if there’s a siren call calling me back to my country, even if it might be easier for me there.’

“‘If I can’t make it, I want someone else to make it, I’m going to stay here even if there’s a siren call calling me back to my country, even if it might be easier for me there.’”

DN: Is there any space, any middle ground, the country could coalesce around to come to agreement about the wall that the president wants, and what to do about the border?

TP: I don’t support a wall, but that said, I do think most Americans support the idea that there needs to be some sort of security at the border, that we should not have an open border. But the question is, who are you letting inside? You can’t predict who is going to contribute a great deal to society. Even if you decide, oh, we only want highly educated people or Ph.D.s to come in, you might prevent the son or daughter of someone who works in a field somewhere, and is deeply intelligent and ambitious and might help put this country on an even better path than it is now.

My father didn’t go to college; my mother didn’t finish high school. But they worked hard and had a family and all of their kids are successful and doing interesting things and care deeply for this country. The reason America remains the hope of the world is that people have this vision of America as a place where anything is possible, and that belief is the kind of belief that will compel somebody to walk over a really horrid landscape for hours on end. They’re not doing that because it makes sense; they’re doing it because they have faith that once they arrive, something impossible and interesting will happen to them if they work hard.