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African identity in a globalised world

What makes someone African? In a globalised world, is there such a thing as an African identity? If you’re African by origin but were born and raised abroad, what makes you African? A conversation about identity with Caine Prize-winning author Tope Folarin.

When the Nigerian writer Tope Folarin won the Caine Prize for African Writing last July, some of the coverage that followed wasn’t about the winning story itself but rather about the fact that Tope wasn’t born in Africa and had – at the time of announcement – visited Nigeria only once, as a baby. On the one hand that aspect of the coverage revealed the trouble many have today in accepting the diversity of African identities; abroad we complain when others who have problems with the fullness of our being try to limit it by asking that question, ‘Yes, but where are you really from?’, then we turn around and, out of fear that what it is to be African will dissipate if we don’t hold fast to and protect a fixed and narrow idea of THE African identity, do the same to one another.

Read: Exploring the Identity of Sudanese culture. Is it Arabic or African?

Ultimately, the diversity of African identities is something we will all have to come to terms with eventually as it’s likely to become a much needed strength in our increasingly globalised world – and this diversity is set to grow, not contract. Besides, being African is about much more than where you were born or grew up.  And for fans of literature or popular fiction, the more African identities there are the greater the variety of stories to be told, read, thought about and discussed. If each story reflects something of ourselves and something of other ways of being African in the world, surely that’s something to look forward to.

On the other hand, I fear some of the discussions of “African-ness” might have distracted people from Miracle, Tope’s award-winning story, which is beautifully written, touching, gripping, and thought provoking. It’s an astonishingly self-assured piece of writing from someone who has clearly thought a great deal about what is at stake for many Africans in the diaspora today, what holds their identity together. We waited till the initial brouhaha died down to have a chat with Tope, which took the form of a Q&A by email.

If you haven’t already read the story, it’s a good idea to do so now (you can read and/or download it HERE) before reading the Q&A.

Tope Folarin (Photo credit: Open Book Fest)
Tope Folarin (Photo credit: Open Book Fest)

To begin, congratulations on your Caine Prize win. The Chair of Judges, praised your story Miracle as “a delightful and beautifully paced narrative, exquisitely observed and utterly compelling”. I couldn’t have said it better. Your story captures something almost any African in the diaspora can relate to, even if they have never set foot in the sort of church you describe. How does it feel to have achieve this, and when did you start to suspect you had it in you? What emotions did you run through while writing it?

Thanks so much for your kind words.

Stories come to me in images. An image may come to me while I’m at work, or while I’m washing the dishes. Once the image arrives, I’ll write it down somewhere, and then I’ll begin to construct a story around it.

In the case of Miracle, the image that came to me was the moment when the child is separated from the whole. I wanted to capture everything about this powerful image—the intensity of the crowd, the sense of nakedness the child feels when he is separated from everyone else. I experimented with a few approaches, and I was incredibly pleased when I finally discovered a way to tell the story in a manner that honoured the image that inspired it.

For anyone reading this who might be curious about the way the publishing industry works, what doors did winning the Caine Prize open? What did it make possible that you could not do before? And how did the win change your life and the way you see yourself?

Winning the Caine Prize changed everything. This sounds like a cliché, I know, but in my case it’s true. For example, before I won the Caine Prize I was looking for an agent, and I was still struggling to get my work published. The morning after I won the prize I had a number of offers in my inbox, from both agents and publishers. In addition, the Caine expanded my audience dramatically.

Miracle is a chapter from your forthcoming novel The Proximity of Distance. But did you write it as a short story or as part of a novel? How are the challenges of writing a short story different from those of writing a novel?

I wrote Miracle as a story. My novel is a novel-in-stories, a form I’ve become enamoured with over the years.

The main challenge I’ve encountered while writing my book is ensuring that each chapter—each story—has a unique, compelling storyline, while ensuring that these stories flow together. This is a challenge I enjoy.

In the coverage that followed your Caine Prize win, one of the things some questioned was your “African-ness”, i.e. whether you were “African enough”. This is because the Caine Prize is meant to recognise the richness and diversity of African writing, which some people interpret as highlighting “writing from Africa”, and while your parents are Nigerian, you were born in America, have spent most of your life there, and only visited Nigeria as a baby for your naming ceremony. How did it feel to have your degree of African-ness questioned? In your view, what does it mean to be African? Do you think there’s a degree of remove at which being African becomes an act of faith? Or to put it another way, is there a point at which someone with African roots stops being African?

I honestly think that the act of claiming any identity is akin to an act of faith. After all, to my knowledge none of us enter the world with a particular identity stamped on our foreheads. We develop and grow in contexts that shape our beliefs and perspectives.

The Caine Prize—indeed, much of the world—recognises that the term ‘African’ is in flux, and has been for quite a while. Many of us were born abroad and have not spent a great deal of time in Africa, and yet our parents have been telling us that we’re African from the moment we were born, and our friends have told us that we aren’t quite American, we aren’t quite British, we aren’t quite Canadian. Our lives and our stories are important precisely because they point to a future in which identity will be a constantly contested topic, so much so that I believe our traditional methods of categorising ourselves will have to be amended and/or updated.

To put it plainly—I truly believe that anyone who claims that I or anyone else isn’t ‘African’ enough is herself standing on unstable ground.

Ibrahim, a taxi driver from Ghana in New York City. (Photo credit: Susan Liebold)
Ibrahim, a taxi driver from Ghana in New York City. (Photo credit: Susan Liebold)

It is indeed clear, as you say, that identity is becoming more fluid in today’s globalised world; for instance, you consider yourself Nigerian and American, which makes sense given your background. But why do you think we are uncomfortable with people who don’t fit the pigeonholes of place and nationality? Why are many of us ill-prepared to accept the diversity of African identities? What needs to happen for us to accept the variety of African identities as still being African? What reactions have you had in response to your sense of dual-nationality?

I think some people are uncomfortable with folks who don’t fit the ‘pigeonholes of place and nationality’ because, in the first instance, we aren’t instantly comprehensible. We don’t speak like our parents, or like our cousins in Africa, we may dress differently, and sometimes we grew up with different values. All of us who inhabit the margins between cultures are engaged in the act of fashioning new identities for ourselves—not because we’re interested in making some grand political statement, but because we need to find new ways of being in this world. Ways of being that capture the various influences that shaped us, and that simultaneously enable us to chart new paths into the future.

Every culture has a ‘founding story,’ a story about a brave group of pilgrims who ventured into the unknown and established a new home in an alien land. I believe that many of us are engaged in the same work—we are identity pilgrims, and even though (like our pilgrim forbears) we are moving into uncharted territory in order to find more space for ourselves, I think future generations will benefit from our efforts.

Papaye Restaurant in the Bronx. Best spot in the city for Ghanaian food, according to Blitz the Ambassador.
Papaye Restaurant in the Bronx. Best spot in the city for Ghanaian food, according to Blitz the Ambassador.

How was Miracle received by readers in Africa versus Africans in the diaspora? What were some of the most unexpected reactions to the story?

I noticed fairly quickly that some readers from Nigeria read Miracle like it was a story about a church in Nigeria. This reading influenced their perception of my story, of course, because the question became if I had actually captured what it’s like to attend a Pentecostal service in Nigeria. Readers in America and elsewhere, however, generally understood that I was writing about an immigrant church in America—a ‘pilgrim’ church, if you will. This may be a subtle difference, but it is an important one—if you read this story with the understanding that everyone in the church is struggling with identity except for the prophet, you may come away with a different conclusion.

“I’m trying to write back – even though I can’t be there physically. I’m trying to write back to Nigeria.” Can you elaborate on this? Why do you feel the need to write back to Nigeria?

When I was growing up my parents never had the money to ship us out to Nigeria, so the only contact I had with my relatives who lived there, and later my mother when she moved back, was the occasional phone conversation, and the time I spent with them in my imagination. As a writer, I can travel to Nigeria whenever I wish, wherever I am. I find this liberating and incredibly exciting.

You once said you feel something is missing from your life, that you feel this significant hole in your life because you haven’t been back to Nigeria since your naming ceremony. But is it possible to fill this hole? And if so, how?

I fill this hole with prayer and art. And the older I get, the more surprised I am by the linkages between the two. For example, creating a work of art requires a great deal of faith, just like the act of prayer, and a great work of art can often stun me into silence, just like a profound religious experience.

Alain Langueu prays during a midnight service at Deeper Life Bible Church in northeast Washington D.C. (Photo credit: Daniel Rosenbaum)
Alain Langueu prays during a midnight service at Deeper Life Bible Church in northeast Washington D.C. (Photo credit: Daniel Rosenbaum)

Following your visit to South Africa, you mentioned having to revise some of the ideas you’d had before the visit. Can you tell us about some of those ideas and how you’d formed them?

Before I traveled to South Africa as a student in 2002, I’d gained all of my ideas about South Africa from books. Of course, books tend to emphasise narrative in a way that reality doesn’t, or can’t, and once I arrived in South Africa I discovered for the first time that even the most nuanced books often lack nuance.

For example, when I arrived in South Africa I was obsessed with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It seemed like the perfect response to decades of apartheid and division, and once I arrived in South Africa, I learned that the TRC represented a critical step forward for South Africa. I also learned that some people felt that the TRC didn’t do enough to address the atrocities perpetuated by the apartheid regime, or the pain that some people still feel. I learned an important lesson about the power of public policy, and its limits as well.

Unfortunately, that absence of nuance continues to hamstring writing about Africa. Quoting you again: “But if there’s one thing that I am resolved to do it is to ensure my kids never forget what it means to be a human being.” What does it mean to be a human being, and in what ways have people tried to circumscribe your humanity? Also, in what ways do we circumscribe our own humanity?

Being a human being—focusing on our shared humanity—is difficult at times because our identities are premised on difference. Our identities often emphasise what separates us, and sometimes it’s easy to get lost in these differences, to forget that beneath the different songs are people who like to sing, and beneath the different clothes are bodies that are broadly similar.

I’m not sure that people have necessarily circumscribed my humanity—I try my best to prevent this from happening—but I think far too many of us spend our time focusing on the little things, while forgetting the fundamental similarities that stare at us in the face whenever we glance at another human being.

Your novel-in-progress is a coming of age tale about a Nigerian-American, like yourself. How is the work on this going, and when do you hope to have it finished? Have you thought of what your next book will be about?

The book is going really well—I’ve been working quite hard on it over the past couple months, and I like the way it is developing. I have a few ideas about what the next book may be about, but I’m keen to finish my current project before thinking about the next one.

African in New York. Sy Alassane in a scene from “Restless City.”
African in New York. Sy Alassane in a scene from “Restless City.”

You were recently at the Ake Arts & Book Festival in Nigeria. How did it feel to be in the country, among almost no one but Nigerians, after such a long time away? What surprised you?

My recent trip to Nigeria is the most important trip I’ve taken in my life. I was there with a number of artists from around the world, many of whom I’d met at other festivals earlier in the year, so Ake was like a reunion of sorts for me. I also met many of my family members for the first time in 30+ years, and I saw my mother for the first time since I was child. And, to top it off, Ake took place in Abeokuta, which is where my father’s family is from.

Never have I felt as comfortable as I felt in Nigeria. I’ve wondered about this since I returned. Did I feel so comfortable because I spent much of my time with artists and writers, talking and laughing and teasing? Or because my family members instantly accepted me for who I am—that for the first time in my life I did not have to recite a series of justifications for my mere presence? Or perhaps it was a combination of these factors?

Whatever the case may be, I felt incredibly alive while I was there. And I cannot wait to return.

Tope at Ake (Photo credit and more pix: BrittlePaper)
Tope at Ake (Photo credit and more pix: BrittlePaper)

Yes, having to continually justify one’s presence. Any African in the diaspora knows exactly what that feels like. And what were your impressions of the festival and of the health of the literary scene in Nigeria today?

The festival was incredible—props to Lola Shoneyin for conceiving and managing such a wonderful event. We had an opportunity to engage with the broader community—through school visits and other events—and with each other during our panel discussions, and at various engagements during the evenings as well. I suspect that all of us who attended Ake will be talking about it for a long while.

And my trip to Ake confirmed my belief that the literary scene is quite strong in Nigeria, and across Africa. I spend a lot of time thinking about the various artistic movements of the 20th century—the various ‘modern’ movements (surrealism, Dadaism and the like) the Harlem Renaissance, the French New Wave, etc. It seems to me that we are living in the midst of a literary movement in Africa and the African diaspora. Perhaps it’s too early to identify this movement, or to speak about it in any great depth, but I think readers will be pleased and excited by the work that emerges from this population in the coming months and years.

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