Debut novelist Tope Folarin, winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, crafts a powerful story that is equal parts loneliness and hope.
Tunde is the young son of Nigerian immigrants growing up in a very white Utah in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Despite his college education, Tunde’s father constantly shifts from one job to another, unable to find one that can support his family. When Tunde and his brother are young, their mother begins showing symptoms of schizophrenia. She sometimes hits or pinches Tunde, which he learns to accept as an expression of love. One day, she kidnaps her sons, and they flee to a women’s shelter, disrupting Tunde’s relationship with his father. Eventually, she returns to Nigeria, leaving Tunde, his brother and his father behind.
Understanding the social structures between black communities and white communities is especially difficult for Tunde, as he grows up surrounded by white people in Utah, some of whom consider him a servant or rub his skin, expecting the black to come off. His misguided attempts to fit in continue through high school and into college, such as when he forces himself to listen to Creed until he starts to like it. He is always an outsider, narrating his surroundings almost like he believes himself to be watching a movie, not watching his life unfold. Still, his admission that he is struggling between two contrasting yet seemingly real sets of memories comes as an interesting surprise and takes the book in a slightly surreal direction.
The title refers to the “kind of black man” who is acceptable to white people. As Tunde slowly unravels the layers of implications of his desire to be this type of man, he begins to understand that his fragmented sense of home must be rectified before he can grow as a person.
While juggling themes of the struggles of immigrant families and the effect of parental mental illness, Folarin plays with structure and pacing, sometimes filling a page with only one poignant line. Once Tunde realizes that he can’t trust his memory, less is more. “And I’m learning that 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.”
It’s an insightful and moving novel, through and through.