A particular kind of immigrant journey

Tope Folarin’s coming-of-age story recounts the transformations of a Nigerian-American family in Utah.

 

“She told me I could serve her in heaven,” narrator Tunde Akinola says in the opening line of Nigerian-American writer Tope Folarin’s debut novel, A Particular Kind of Black Man. He is recounting a dream-like memory, the first of many in this coming-of-age story. Five-year-old Tunde is on his way home from school when he meets a stranger, an elderly white woman. Blinded by the harsh sun of the Utah desert and encased by a “penetrating silence,” he feels captivated, even comforted, by her words. But when Tunde joyfully tells his Nigerian immigrant father about the encounter, he reacts in horror, and then devastation. The encounter takes place in the early ‘80s, just years after the Mormon Church struck down racist laws against Black parishioners. The moment Tunde mistook for an angel’s invitation into heaven was in fact an offering for an afterlife where Cain and Ham’s descendants, cursed with Blackness, are fit only to be servants. It is Tunde’s father’s mission to cultivate in his sons “a particular kind of black man”  — “whose blackness would not prevent (him) from succeeding.”

Photo illustration by Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Like this primordial reverie, much of the novel is punctuated by glimpses of frenzied optimism sobered by pragmatism. An American pop-mythos initially beckons Tunde’s parents from their native Nigeria to Ogden, Utah. His father, a university student, is drawn by the gunslinger cowboys in ten-gallon hats in his favorite TV Westerns, while Tunde’s mother is seduced by the catchy tunes of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Natives of Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital and most populous city, Tunde’s parents — rather than getting to clink glasses with John Wayne and John Lennon or even venturing into Utah’s many vast mountainous natural parks — are beset by a sparsely populated suburban American West of glaring sunlight, stretches of desert and placid streets colonized by two-bedroom apartments and low-wage jobs. Isolated in this anonymous landscape, the family begins to fray, increasing the pressure on Tunde’s father.

Undeterred by anti-Black racism, Tunde’s father, a newly credentialed mechanical engineer, sets out to conquer Utah’s suburban frontier. But under the blazing sun, amid precarious freezer units and a fast-approaching winter, his latest scheme, an ice cream truck business, seems doomed. Still, you desperately want the Akinolas to prevail, especially once Tunde’s mother begins to succumb to mental illness. When the family moves to Cirrilo, Texas, Tunde, now a teenager, befriends an African American boy who teaches him how to be Black “like Will Smith, like Michael Jordan.” It is only then that Tunde begins to realize that in his father’s attempts to make his sons into the “particular kind of black man” accepted by whites, he has alienated Tunde from American Blacks, other Nigerians and even himself. We are reminded of Tunde’s meeting with the elderly white woman in the novel’s opening lines. By so completely embodying his father’s vision of success, perhaps Tunde has unwittingly entered his father’s nightmare, a heaven where Black boys, finally men, are servants to the whims of whites. Now, as Tunde embarks on his college education, he must cultivate his own kind of Black man.

A Particular Kind of Black Man is a long-awaited debut. If you know Folarin’s name from his 2013 Caine Prize-winning short story “Miracle” and his 2016 story “Genesis,” an early version of this novel, then you’ll recognize his evocation of the fever dreams of immigrants in outlier communities. Folarin writes about the Utah setting with the familiarity of a native and the insight of a newcomer. In “Miracle,” these communities are “made up of truths and lies,” and it is in the distance between the two that A Particular Kind of Black Man lives. Throughout the novel, Tunde desperately attempts to reconstruct and chronicle his life. In the process, he succeeds in eroding our sense of the gap between truths and lies, memories and lived realities. Although we begin to question the narrator, we never question his motives.

In its conclusion, the novel does more than illustrate the promises and failings of the American dream and the persistence of white supremacy. Through a patchwork of memories, dreams, telephone calls, and lyrical passages of fleeting thoughts and obsessions, Folarin molds his bildungsroman into one Black boy’s attempt to discover and articulate his own “particular kind of black man.” While some readers may find this latter part of the novel disarming, it is here where it diverts most starkly from the typical tropes of immigrant travail, becoming instead an existentialist odyssey that plumbs the depths of the human psyche. A Particular Kind of Black Man is, indeed, a particular kind of book — ambitious, incisive and imaginative, a promising debut.

Julie Iromuanya is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (Coffee House Press), a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She is an assistant professor in the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Chicago and affiliate faculty of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture. She is at work on a second novel, A Season of LightEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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