There was a time when Tope Folarin came almost daily to Politics and Prose not to sip iced lattes, as he’s doing on this recent Sunday afternoon, but to learn his craft by reckoning with language. Back then, he sat in this bookstore cafe and copied poetry into a raggedy notebook.
“It pained me that I couldn’t afford to buy the books,” Folarin says, leaning in to take another sip.
Four years ago, as he wrote down verse after verse, his academic pedigree as a graduate of Morehouse College and a Rhodes Scholar were meaningless. He was out of work and unsure where he fit into the Washington scene. He did know that the story he would someday tell would be of the complexity of blending cultural and national identities. In his case, Nigerian and American.
Last week, the 31-year-old was awarded the prestigious Caine Prize, given annually for a short story by an African writer. With the prize, Folarin gained instant legitimacy, but his achievement also spurred a conversation in the literary world about the boundaries of the far-flung African diaspora and what it means to be an African writer.
Folarin, who has lived in Washington, D.C., for five years, has not returned to the homeland of his Nigerian parents since he was about a year old. His childhood memories are those of the place he was born, Ogden, Utah, and later Grand Prairie, Tex., where he was reared.
Lagos is a place he sees only in his dreams. His mother, who became ill when Folarin was young, returned there when he was 6 years old. He has not seen her since. She and other relatives in Nigeria are souls with voices he cannot touch.
So is he an African writer? Is he an American writer? Does growing up virtually cloistered in Utah, eating moin moin and jollof rice in a household where Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey are played on repeat, make you Nigerian enough?
“It’s the same conversation I’ve been having my entire life about ‘where do I fit?’ ” Folarin says. “I was prepared for the questions.”
Toying with those queries (and sometimes accusations) has been an important part of Folarin’s coming of age as a storyteller. It is his relationship with Nigeria, a place he hardly knows but at the same time knows intimately, that shapes his writing and sense of self.
Amid the buzz of the bookstore cafe, his voice is devoid of any discernible accent — a result of his father’s insistence that his children mimic newscasters Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. Folarin, slight and ebony-skinned and dressed in a polo shirt and jeans, seems as much at home behind the cafe table as behind his black-framed glasses.
Folarin, an assistant in Washington to a member of the board for the entity that oversees the audits of public companies, says the mosaic of short stories he is currently polishing form a novel, and the story for which he won the Caine Prize — “Miracle” — is a chapter from that as-yet-unpublished book. “Miracle” is set in Texas at an evangelical Nigerian church where the congregation has come to witness the healing powers of a blind pastor-prophet. The prophet praises the flock as those who “haven’t forgotten your people back home.”
The boy at the center of the story, who is unnamed and narrates the piece, grapples with the meaning of “miracle” when the prophet attempts to heal his poor eyesight. He comes to the realization that the miraculous has been before him all along: in his family’s ability to stay together “despite the terror of my mother’s abrupt departure” and in his own ability to see with his thick glasses when centuries ago that would have been impossible. The boy also finally sees a truth in his father’s constant admonition that they are blessed to be living in poverty in America. Back in Nigeria, relatives “would die for the chance.” These blessings are his miracle.
Folarin believes his work has a place in the dynamic space occupied by young writers of the African diaspora. Critical acclaim has come to several, including Taiye Selasi, a Ghanaian Nigerian writer who was born in London, raised in Boston and lives in New York, New Delhi and Rome, and Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo, an earlier winner of the Caine Prize and now a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. (The Cain Prize may be won by African nationals and by those born in or whose parents were born in Africa.)
Both Selasi and Bulawayo released novels this year. It was Selasi, author of “Ghana Must Go,” who coined the term Afropolitan, a combination of the words African and cosmopolitan, to refer to the generation of moneyed young Africans who jet-set around the world, are highly educated and know their parents’ home countries as well as the places they were born.
Folarin brings up Afropolitanism to refute those who would say he is not a Nigerian writer because he has not spent time in the country. “I haven’t been able to access this [cosmopolitan] lifestyle because I’ve been struggling and hustling my entire life,” he says.
Folarin says he was the first black child to attend his Utah elementary school and recalls the day when a white classmate tried to wipe off Folarin’s dark skin color. When his skin color did not change, the classmate declared Folarin dirty.
Folarin moved with his family to Texas at age 14. He found black classmates there, whom he was desperate to impress. On his first day of classes, he put on red pants two sizes too small and a white shirt and thought he looked like Michael Jackson. “Everybody loves Michael Jackson, and he’s black!” he recalls thinking. The other children pointed and laughed.
Folarin’s father came to Utah as a college student and dropped out after Tope was born; he sold ice cream and cleaned trailers to sustain the family and he insisted that the children work hard in school. “He would say, ‘second place is first loser,’ ” Folarin says.
Folarin finished high school near the top of his class and enrolled at Morehouse College, the renowned, traditionally black, all-male college. But there, too, he experienced another form of culture shock. Folarin had never heard of the black upper-crust organization Jack & Jill of America or the black fraternities and sororities that are a large part of the social life of historically black schools. Folarin felt out of place and spent a year and a half as an exchange student, first at Bates College in Maine, then at a university in South Africa.
When he returned to Morehouse to complete his final year of study, he was told he had lost some of his financial aid package because he had failed to complete forms while abroad. He was broke, desperate to earn his degree in political science and was living on a friend’s floor. He did what any American would do: He wrote to Oprah.
Two weeks later, the school informed him that his senior year would be covered. (He subsequently met Oprah Winfrey and attributes the financial assistance to her help or the intervention of someone on her team.)
Four months later, Folarin was named a 2004 Rhodes Scholar. At Oxford, he began to examine whether he should follow his father’s wishes that he earn a law degree at Yale. At Oxford, he decided to take a different path.
“When I first got there a friend of mine said, ‘I love Philip Roth,’ ” says Folarin, who had never heard of the American novelist. He began reading contemporary fiction and worked on what he describes as his first “failed novel.”
After a few years of detours — working as a spokesman for Google in London; taking a low-level position on the Obama campaign; a period of unemployment — Folarin moved to the District in 2008 and connected with poets and writers here, including E. Ethelbert Miller. Those connections and that encouragement led Folarin to submit “Miracle” for the Caine Prize.
In London last week, where Folarin accepted the prize, he had a conversation with another finalist, whom Folarin declines to name. The other writer told Folarin that he should begin using his full Nigerian name — Oluwabusayo Temitope Folarin — rather than calling himself Tope (pronounced tow-PAY).
“Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t allow people to mispronounce his name,” said the other writer, according to Folarin.
“I don’t see calling myself Tope as a capitulation,” Folarin says. And, he insists, it’s a better fit for his 21st-century hybrid Nigerian American life.
“I had to recognize that if I wrote about my missing of Africa, my missing of Nigeria, my missing of my mom, then perhaps I could infuse my stories with a poignancy,” he says. “I’m trying to write back — even though I can’t be there physically. I’m trying to write back to Nigeria.”