“She told me I could serve her in heaven.” From that powerful opening line in A Particular Kind of Black Man, award-winning author Tope Folarin leads readers through an exploration of identity as seen through the eyes of a first-generation Nigerian-American. Folarin, whose “day job” is as LISC’s vice president of content and storytelling, says the story is relevant not just because of its connection to immigration and race, but because it looks at the way people struggle to build their own personal narratives…to live into their own stories. On the eve of his book tour, he talked about how his work as a novelist intersects with his work at LISC.
Q: You’re a Rhodes Scholar, a winner of the 2013 Caine Prize for African fiction and someone who has been steeped in public policy work, especially with regard to economic empowerment and community development. So, with all of that, why this book? Why now?
A: I guess I was pining for a work of fiction about a child of African immigrants. The parents of such children often have a different conception of race than the rest of American society, because they come from a place where most people are black. The historical narratives of African-Americans and Africans often clash, and the children are usually stuck in the middle. Most of us come into the world with a kind of identity card—who your people are, who your family is, where you come from. You can eventually decide to think and act differently but you have that foundation. Children of immigrants have to construct identity for themselves.
You said in a recent interview that the narrator of your book bears the burden of the diaspora on his shoulders. As the child of Nigerian immigrants, do you feel that same sense of responsibility?
When I was younger, I felt a responsibility to conduct myself in a manner that honored my family and the diaspora at large; I think many children of immigrants bear this burden as well. But, a few years ago, I began to depart from this idea, not because I don’t feel strong sense of association with my cultural heritage but because as an artist, and as a person, I have to figure out who I am, and what makes me tick. My sense of connection to the African diaspora filters into my work, but I don’t think about it all the time. Instead, I try to explore what my intuition or my imagination want to explore. I hope people see that in the book as well. I want them to think seriously about their own identities—which parts they inherited and which parts they played an active part in constructing. Because we live in the internet age, we are building online identities and sometimes ignoring parts of who we are in the real world, and I think exploring how our identities are constructed is particularly interesting and important.
How does that perspective influence your work as a storyteller?
I feel an obligation to people of color to ensure that our stories are being told in the right way, and that we’re getting opportunities we need. That’s part of what the book is about, the idea that to be successful you have to comport yourself in certain ways, you have to be nonthreatening and constantly pleasant, that you have to discard that parts of yourself that aren’t instantly comprehensible. Part of my mission in this book and as a writer is to say to people that it is acceptable to be who you are.
Does that also influence how you approach your work at LISC?
Absolutely. LISC works in all kinds of communities where questions of identify are at the fore. Often, how people see themselves in relation to society has a profound impact on their trajectories. I want to tell their stories…about the work LISC is doing, about the lives we’ve impacted, and also about the people who choose to do this work. I’m interested in how narratives shape us, and how we have the power to construct narratives that change the way people perceive us. My work at LISC relates directly to the book. I believe in the power of storytelling; it is the singular force in human history. Step back and think about what your story is, and in that story you can find the core elements of who you are.
Your message seems particularly timely, given the national debate over immigration and LISC’s work to catalyze economic opportunity in immigrant communities. How does your book connect those ideas?
Inevitably, when we talk about immigration what we are really talking about is who gets to be an American. When my dad became a naturalized citizen, there was no discernible difference in how people treated him. He was still an outsider. That is something immigrants still face today. And, I think it goes back to that central question of identity.
You are starting a book tour next week. What comes next?
The book tour is an opportunity to get out of my own head and interact with people who bring their own sense of self to these conversations. Inevitably, I’ll mostly meet people who have not read the book yet, so I want to give them a compelling reason to commit their precious time to think about my book. I have a second novel rattling around in my head as well…but I also have a 2-year-old who keeps me busy and a day job that matters a great deal to me. So, we’ll see.