A Particular Kind of Bildungsroman Tope Folarin’s A Particular Kind of Black Man

Tope Folarin’s ambitious novel, A Particular Kind of Black Man, offers a grand examination of provincial societies and, ultimately, the human condition.

In his inventive, complex but relatable debut novel, Tope Folarin writes about the life of a young Nigerian boy who struggles to find his place in America after his family’s migration from Nigeria. Tunde Akinola, the young Nigerian boy, not only grapples with the complications of migration. He is also burdened with his mother’s schizophrenia and his immigrant father’s struggles to find his feet in the predominantly white state of Utah. A Particular Kind of Black Man is an immigrant story but also a bildungsroman that centres identity, memory, love and pain.

Despite having lived all his life in the West, Folarin pinged the consciousness of African literary audiences in 2013 when his short story, ‘Miracle’, won him the Caine Prize. ‘Miracle’ spurred debates about its fictional provenance and the identity of its author, who was born and raised in Utah and Texas. The ‘Miracle’ debate has not spared A Particular Kind of Black Man as some critics have reduced it to an immigrant story, while some define it as a coming-of-age novel. Both are a disservice to what Folarin’s novel offers. 

Tunde’s blackness is a marker of difference in Utah, and he repeatedly contends with this difference in the first part of the novel. Kinky hair and dark skin—ordinarily unobtrusive facts of physical appearance—become subjects of intense scrutiny. Tunde’s father, for his own part, is obsessed with moulding his son into a particular kind of black man—men like Sidney Poiter, Hakeem Olajuwon and Bryant Gumbel; men accepted in mainstream America for their exceptionality. Much later, it is realizing this about his father that leads Tunde to say: 

…since I began writing about my life a few months ago, I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about my father and the way he raised Tayo and me. All those books he made us read, the shows he made us watch, his obsession with our grades. It’s obvious to me now that his entire objective was to mould each of us into his idea of the perfect black man.

Tunde’s realization evidences the interconnected themes that bind Folarin’s narrative. His deep reflection illuminates the pain and economic uncertainty of migration as well as his family’s struggles with adaptation and racial discrimination. The most serious consequence of these troubles is a gradual dissolution of family bonds.

Although not directly connected to her loneliness in America or her obvious sense of dissatisfaction, the schizophrenia of Tunde’s mother is the basis for the family’s disintegration. Having arrived in America expecting ‘peace and love’ as the fulfilment of her own American Dream, she becomes ill. Instead of peace or love, she goes on to abuse Tunde, leaving in him fear and a damaging acceptance of rejection. Her return to Nigeria paves way for illuminating telephone conversations between Tunde and his grandma. 

The disappointments that diminish the family’s American Dream leave Tunde in turmoil. He is a Nigerian boy living in America with a father whose woes have strained their relationship. His mother’s illness has pushed her back to Nigeria. His father’s new wife has no love to spare. To find his place in the world, Tunde must ground himself in memory. As Nicci Gerrard, the British journalist and novelist, once said, ‘the terror of losing memories is the terror of losing the active self.’ Memory, for Tunde, becomes both a key to the past and an anchor for the self. When he travels to Nigeria on his continuing search for self, Tunde acknowledges: ‘Memory isn’t just a catalog of things past; in times of desperation or loss or exile a memory can be a passageway into the future.’

Folarin’s ambitious novel does more than put the complexities of Tunde’s life on display. It also offers a grand examination of provincial societies and, ultimately, the human condition. After the family departs provincial Utah (with its dire lack of the sociological structures to accommodate everyone it should), Tunde finds some respite in a large African-American community. A reckoning with African American history becomes a source of inspiration to him, as he encounters important figures in the struggle for civil rights. He also finds comfort in music and writing. 

Love arrives in the form of Noelle, a charming black student Tunde meets on an exchange programme at Bates College. Their relationship evidently improves the quality of his life. Folarin’s writing of Tunde and Noelle is impassioned in a different way, a departure from the deep contemplations of loss and existential struggle that had come before and, instead, the fevered confessions of teenagers in a romance novel.

Yet, even while in love, something vital is missing. Noelle helps Tunde resolve the conflict that stunts his emotional growth and affects his capacity to aspire. ‘There is a part of you I can’t reach,’ Noelle says. ‘You won’t let me get inside.’ To overcome this obstacle, Noelle pushes Tunde towards self-discovery. Prompted, Tunde agrees to go in search of that other home that is not America, the distant place where grandma lives with his cousins, aunties, and uncles. His search for meaning will also lead him back to his mother.

In an inventive style, Folarin presents a coming of age story that explores migration and memory. While some of his Nigerian contemporaries on and beyond the Caine Prize circuit have struggled to translate mastery of the short story to the novel, Folarin’s prose and sense of control have found fertile ground in the longer form. A Particular Kind of Black Man is an important addition to the commodious body of African literature daily complicated by the fact of diaspora

A Particular Kind of Black Man
Tope Folarin
272 pp. Simon x Schuster, 2019.

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