Photo by David Fleming
Tope Folarin becomes the first writer born outside of Africa to win the Caine Prize with his short story set in Texas in an evangelical Nigerian church. [28:24]
Music Credits: Excerpts of guitar music by Jorge Hernandez used courtesy of Mr. Hernandez.
Tope Folarin: We need jobs; we need good grades; we need green cards; we need American passports; we need our parents to understand that we are Americans; we need our children to understand they are Nigerians. We need new kidneys, new lungs, new limbs, new hearts; we need to forget the harsh rigidity of our lives to remember why we believe, to be beloved and to hope. We need miracles.
Jo Reed: That was Tope Folarin, reading an excerpt from his prize-winning short story, "Miracle." And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
The Caine Prize for African Writing is an annual literary award for the best original short story by an African writer published in the English language. While the award is a British one, begun by the man who headed the prestigious Mann Booker literary award for over 20 years, and the Caine Prize is awarded in England at Oxford University, but, it is still considered by many to be the leading literary prize for African writers. For 2013 winner, Tope Folarin, the awards ceremony was like a homecoming. Tope earned two degrees at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. But more importantly, the award was also an affirmation of the 31-year-old's identity, both as a writer and as an Nigerian-American. Not only is "Miracle" Tope's first published story, but Tope was born and raised in the United States, which makes him the first writer born outside of Africa to win the Cain prize. His winning story "Miracle" is set in Texas in an evangelical Nigerian church and it tackles the challenges of immigration from both collective and singular perspectives. I spoke to Tope Folarin recently and asked him how a guy like him with a degree in political science and another in social policy became interested in literature and acquainted with the Caine Prize.
Tope Folarin: I first heard about the Caine Prize maybe about four or five years ago when I was in grad school and I've always been interested in literature but my interest in literature was renewed at Oxford. When I went to Oxford I had come there after a four-year period of not reading much literature because I was trying to do as well academically as I could at Morehouse, and so during my first party at Oxford a lot of my friends were talking about various writers they liked, people like Philip Roth, Zadie Smith. I hadn't heard much if anything about some of these writers and so in the interest of having something interesting to say at the next party I began to read a lot more, and that's kind of how I became associated -- or acquainted I should say with the Caine Prize because I started reading a lot more African writers during that period as well. And when I moved to D.C. I started to follow the Caine Prize web site to see what writers were featured, how they were doing and that sort of thing. I never considered that I would apply or submit a story for the Caine Prize until I had a story published by Transition magazine out of Harvard in 2012, and one writer kind of reached out to me by e-mail and he said, "This is a very strong story. You should think about submitting it for the Caine Prize." And my first thought at that point was "Am I even eligible for the Caine Prize?" I was born and raised in America and even though my parents are from Nigeria, I haven't spent that much time in Africa, specifically Nigeria, myself. So I went on the web site, I saw that I was eligible because I am the son of two African nationals, and because the publisher has to submit the prize, not the writer, so I called Transition and said, "Would you guys consider submitting the prize on my behalf?" They said "Yes" and they did so; this time last year as it happens . . .
Jo Reed: Well how did you found out that you won the Caine Prize? Did they send you a telegram? Call you on the phone?
Tope Folarin: What happens is that they short-list five writers in May, so last May, May of 2012, I discovered I had been short-listed, and I was incredibly happy about that because there is this wonderful program for short-listed writers: they fly you in late June, early July, you do a series of programs in London, readings, talks, that sort of thing, and you do this for a week and it culminates in the actual Caine Prize ceremony where they announce at Oxford University who's won the prize. And so they have all manner of writers there and luminaries and great people and we're all sitting nervously, kind of picking at our food. I was sitting next to Ben Okri who's a writer I've admired for a very long time and so I was nervous about the fact that they were about to announce the prize, I was nervous about the fact that I was sitting next to Ben Okri, and he saw me immediately, kind of handed me some champagne and said, "Just have a good time." And I didn't take his advice fully but I laughed at that, but at the end of this ceremony the chairman of the committee goes up and he announces the name, and right before that somebody pulled me out and said, "Hey, you've won. You have a minute to prepare your speech." And so your head's kind of shaking; I go back to sit down. The press that was there had become accustomed to this tradition of the winner leaving just a minute before the announcement so the cameras, the CNN, Reuters, BBC, people who were there, they immediately kind of came over to my table, they started taking pictures while I'm trying to compose my speech in my head. Then they announce my name and I go up and accept the award, so it was especially poignant because I went to grad school at Oxford so to return to Oxford to accept this award for a passion that I developed at Oxford was incredibly special for me.
Jo Reed: And you were the first to win the prize who was not born in Africa?
Tope Folarin: Yes. So that caused some -- some controversy I suppose and I understand why, but I think it's an important conversation to have because I am the son of two people who left Nigeria in the late ‘70s and so there's this entire wave of first-generation, second-generation Americans who are in my position who have parents who are from Africa, who have spent the bulk of their lives in Canada or America or somewhere in Europe, and we've been essentially raised in African households and then the moment we leave the household we enter America or we enter Canada or we enter Germany or the United Kingdom. And so we've been sort of walking back and forth across these lines our entire lives and at some point institutions -- art institutions, governments, they have to reckon with the fact that we exist and that we live and that we might identify ourselves slightly different than our parents did or the people around us do. And I think the Caine Prize-- and perhaps I'm somewhat biased in saying this, but I think they took a really great step forward in recognizing my efforts even though, again, I haven't spent a great deal of my life in Africa.
Jo Reed: Well, in fact the story that you won the Caine Prize for, which is called "Miracle," reflects that conflict, that challenge, that transition--
Tope Folarin: Exactly, yeah, and I think it's funny you say that because this time last year when I submitted the prize I was so happy that Transition published it because I searched out Transition magazine. I had read the magazine when I was in college, first I was a political science major in college so I read a lot of their articles about sort of politics and sociology and that sort of thing, but then I began to notice their fiction and I noticed that they had published a lot of fiction writers that I greatly admired. And I noticed, too, that the magazine itself was similar to me, that it had a similar trajectory. It started in Africa and Uganda and then Wole Soyinka took it to West Africa and he started editing it from Nigeria and then it wasn't published for a few years and then Henry Louis Gates -- he resurrected it and he took it to Harvard and so across the Atlantic, and it was in the early ‘90s they started publishing it again and they've published it since then. And so I thought that, "Here's a magazine that kind of understands me because its own trajectory is similar to mine, and perhaps they'll get the story I'm trying to tell," and they did. And so it was a wonderful feeling when they agreed to submit the prize on my behalf and when I won and everybody recognized that I'd won because of this Transition story.
Jo Reed: That's so interesting because it's like another circle that was closed. You discovered literature when you were in Oxford, and you're being honored for your literature at Oxford.
Tope Folarin: Exactly. It's so—
Jo Reed: Transition magazine -- talking about your transition which mirrors the magazine's itself.
Tope Folarin: Yeah, a wonderful, wonderful moment of symmetry I think, and just so pleasing, and also an indication I think that perhaps I'm doing the right thing and that means a great deal to me as well.
Jo Reed: I'm going to ask you to read from "Miracle" in a moment --
Tope Folarin: Sure.
Jo Reed: But, very briefly, just give us a synopsis of what the story is about.
Tope Folarin: So the story is about a church community in north Texas and the church-- everybody in the church is excited about the fact that a prophet from Nigeria is coming to this church, and so the story opens with the arrival of the prophet and he promises that he's going to perform miracles in this church and everyone's sort of excited. So that's the kind of premise of it and it goes on from there.
Jo Reed: Okay, and it's narrated by an unnamed narrator.
Tope Folarin: Yes. Initially, it's narrated by what's called a first-person-plural "we" voice so it's narrated by the congregation, by everyone who's there essentially, "we." At the midway point of the story, somebody steps forward or somebody's called from the crowd and he begins to narrate the story.
Jo Reed: So it moves from the first person plural to the first person singular.
Tope Folarin: Singular, exactly.
Jo Reed: If you don't mind --
Tope Folarin: Of course, no.
Jo Reed: Please read an excerpt from "Miracle."
Tope Folarin: "The tinny Nigerian gospel music ends when the pastor stands and he prays over us again. He prays so long and so hard that we feel the weight of his words pressing down on us. His prayer is so insistent, so sincere that his words emerge from the dark chrysalis of his mouth as bright, fluttering prophesies. In our hearts we stop asking if and begin wondering when our deeply held wishes will come true. After his sweating and shaking and cajoling, he shouts another 'Amen!' a word that now seems defiant, not pleading. We echo his defiance as loudly as we can and when we open our eyes we see him pointing to the back of the church. Our eyes follow the line of his finger and we see the short old man hunched over in the back, two men on either side of him. Many of us have seen him before, in this very space. We've seen the old man perform miracles that were previously only possible in the pages of our Bibles. We've seen him command the infirm to be well, the crippled to walk, the poor to become wealthy. Even those of us who are new, who know nothing of him can sense the power emanating from him. We have come from all over north Texas to see him. Some of us have come from Oklahoma, some of us from Arkansas, a few of us from Louisiana, and a couple from New Mexico. We own his books, his tapes, his holy water, his anointing oil. We know that he is an instrument of God's will and we have come because we need miracles. We need jobs; we need good grades; we need green cards; we need American passports; we need our parents to understand that we are Americans; we need our children to understand they are Nigerians. We need new kidneys, new lungs, new limbs, new hearts; we need to forget the harsh rigidity of our lives to remember why we believe, to be beloved and to hope. We need miracles."
Jo Reed: That was Tope Folarin, reading a short excerpt from his short story, "Miracle," which won the 2013 Caine prize.
There's so much that's packed I think into that almost opening of your short story and I'm so moved every time I read this by those two sentences: "We need our parents to understand we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians," and that sums up an immigrant experience between first generation and people who actually made the journey over.
Tope Folarin: That's absolutely it and I wanted to kind of write a sentence that captured that feeling of dislocation and hesitation and constant kind of confusion that I felt when I was growing up, and I-- the moment I wrote it I remember vividly. It was 2 a.m.-- I write best at night-- and I was trying to find a way to kind of capture this feeling and I typed it out and I thought, "Now I have a story," ‘cause I didn't know where I was going to go with it but I knew that now I have a story because now the kind of-- the germ, the seed of it is here on the page and I can move forward from here. So that's when I felt some confidence in where the thing was going.
Jo Reed: What did inspire you to write it? Was it that? Was it trying to express that feeling?
Tope Folarin: Yeah. It was that feeling that I wanted to express and also thought that the church is kind of the best site to describe what happens in an immigrant community because the thing about going to an immigrant church, go to a Nigerian church, for example, and instantly you're going back to Nigeria as it were. There's a Nigerian flag on the wall; you smell Nigerian food when you walk in because you know at the end of the service that they'll, that you'll be eating Nigerian food there. When they're singing they're singing the Yoruba or Igbo or whatever language that they spoke back home, but it's an older experience as well because the people who have built this church are building a kind of cathedral of memories because they're trying to recollect what Nigeria was when they left in the ‘70s or ‘80s. So there's also this kind of older aura about the place that is somewhat confusing for somebody who has grown up and has been raised in America who's going into this space. I wanted to capture that feeling. I also wanted to capture the kind of, I think there's no better word for it than a kind of desperation that people have when they go to these churches because they are for the most part living very difficult lives, things aren't going the way they thought they would go. They came to America inspired by a dream, they've arrived in America, they don't have the jobs they wanted, they're not able to send enough money back home, and so this is the one place every week where they can have a sense that they are on the right path and they can get the power and the energy they need to continue into their weeks and so I wanted to capture-- there's so many things that are at play and at work in the church setting, in the church milieu on a weekly basis that I thought could really enable me to tell a story about what it means to be-- to try to sort of grasp onto this American identity that so many people are pining for.
Jo Reed: Well, and I would also think it provides community. It is the one place where you're not an "other," you're a "we."
Tope Folarin: Well, that's exactly it, but in the case of the story there is one person who perhaps isn't a part of that "we" and so yeah, I wanted to catch that-- capture that interplay as well.
Jo Reed: I was thinking more of your father's generation.
Tope Folarin: Yeah. No. Of course, yeah, so for his generation that is the one place and I was aware of this. I remember I had a conversation with my father one day and I said, "Why can't we go to another church, a church where -- a black American church or a Lutheran -- some other church?" and he said, "Well, because this is the church that's closest to my heart," and he kind of told me everything in that sentence. What he was saying is that it wasn't just about church; it wasn't just about praying or Jesus or whatever else. It was about this is where he could be fully himself in a way that he couldn't be when he went in to work on Monday and people were asking about his accent or asking him to repeat what he had said because they didn't understand what he'd said. When he went to church on Sunday he was who he was back home and he could relax; he could be comfortable. He didn't understand that that didn't necessarily apply to his children, we couldn't necessarily be fully comfortable in that setting, but he thought that by bringing us to church we'd have a better sense of where we were from, from his perspective. Again, "We need our children to understand that they are Nigerians," you know, and so that was the message that he was trying to convey, and I did learn a great deal I think about what it means to be a Nigerian, but all of my Nigerian experiences were made in America and so that's what my father never fully understand. And so there was-- they were removed from the Nigerian context and they had been adapted to the American experience.
Jo Reed: I would think also in the case of your father and you, this was exacerbated because when he came here he didn't go to New York where you can find everybody or Washington, which more and more has a much stronger African community. You were in Utah.
Tope Folarin: Exactly, yeah.
Jo Reed: How did you end up in Utah and what was that like? How do you maintain a Nigerian identity in Utah?
Tope Folarin: Yeah. That's a really important question. We ended up in Utah first of all because my father came here as a student and a school in Utah called Weber State University offered him a scholarship and so he came and then my mother followed shortly there afterwards. I came earlier than expected I think so he wasn't able to finish college and so here he was a Nigerian immigrant in Utah, he was no longer connected to the institution that had brought him over, and he was basically left to his own devices. There were Mormon missionaries who had been to various places in Africa but they were obviously in the minority. He was dealing with people who didn't know much about him or where he came from and so it became important for him to constantly sort of assert his identity I think, to constantly-- to show how proud he was of where he came from, even when other people were tempted to dismiss him or actually did dismiss him. And so that kind of resilience and that insistence on identifying himself and being proud of who he was was something that he passed along to us. So I recognize in my father now as an adult that he probably felt as if life was pressing in on him in a way and on his children more importantly. His children leave home; he's given them Nigerian food; he's given them Nigerian music; they come back with these foreign concepts that he doesn't necessarily agree with in some ways. And so by the time I'm a teenager, 12, 13, we get up and move to Texas and we started going to these churches and I noticed immediately how comfortable my father is in Texas because there is a relatively large Nigerian diaspora in Texas and we immediately become a part of that community and life changes for me in a really fundamental way.
Jo Reed: I was going to ask you, "And how did that change for you?"
Tope Folarin: It changed because my first kind of year in Texas I hated Texas, because I had friends in Utah who I thought understood who I was and I didn't know many African Americans in Utah; I knew maybe one or two. All of a sudden I move to Texas and I'm surrounded by African Americans and I don't know what it means to be an African American. Up to this point I was a black person in America, and that was kind of the lone distinction that mattered in Utah, but in Texas I'm exposed to music that I haven't listened to before, ways of speaking and being in the world that I've never experienced before, and my friends immediately identify me as somebody who's an outsider, who doesn't fit in or belong because of the way I speak, because I don't know their cultural references and that sort of thing. And so I was having to deal with not only am I the weird kid from Utah; I'm the weird black kid from Utah who doesn't know how to be black, and I'm the weird black kid from Utah who doesn't know how to be a Nigerian. And so I needed to find a space for myself that enabled me to kind of develop and incorporate all these kind of diverse influences into a holistic person, and that took a very long time.
Jo Reed: And then you chose to go to an historically black college; you went to Morehouse.
Tope Folarin: Yes.
Jo Reed: What led to that decision?
Tope Folarin: Two things led to that decision. First of all, I remembered seeing a PBS special about Morehouse when I was quite young and I remember being enthralled by the images I saw on the screen of smart, strong African American men who were proud of who they were and I remember that leaving an impression on me and thinking at the time that that was something I wanted to be associated with. And then of course around the same time A Different World was airing on NBC after the Cosby Show and this show featured a cast of really sort of interesting, again intelligent, strong African American young adults, and again that's something that seemed appealing at the time. And then I moved to Texas and my parents, as all Nigerian parents I'm sure, wanted me to go to an Ivy League school and so we did some of the school visits and I went to Morehouse. Morehouse kind of flew me in and I remember going to a class and just kind of knowing that I was supposed to be there. And it was a decision my parents didn't fully understand and nobody in my life really understood it but I kind of knew that I needed to go to Morehouse. And I also think that it was a continuation of my identity journey as well because here I am, at that point an 18-year-old African American male and I'm searching for a space that will accept me and help me to cultivate some of the skills that I think I have and also discover skills that I don't know about yet. And it seems that Morehouse is -- at the time I thought Morehouse is the best place where I can become me, where I can achieve some kind of sense of self-actualization and leave perhaps with a sense -- a better sense of what I'm meant to do in this world.
Jo Reed: Well, I think all of that is true but it was still a difficult journey--
Tope Folarin: It was—
Jo Reed: --for you and Morehouse kind of surprisingly.
Tope Folarin: Morehouse was difficult because again I'm introduced to another component of my-- of black identity in the United States that I'm not familiar with, which is the class system, and a lot of people who go to Morehouse emerge from very wealthy and prominent African American families in the United States and they have their own kind of social rites as well that I knew nothing about when I went to Morehouse.
Jo Reed: Like the Jack and Jills.
Tope Folarin: The Jack and Jills exactly, the fraternities at Morehouse, the sororities at Spelman College and I knew not a thing about these institutions when I went to Morehouse. And so I found myself again being isolated in certain instances -- it was almost as if they began speaking a language that I wasn't fluent in sometimes. And even though I had the kind of academic aptitude to hang out with these people and go to the same classes with these people, after class it was a different matter entirely. And so through my first year at Morehouse I ended up -- and this was ultimately beneficial but at the time quite painful -- I spent most of my time in the library just reading as hard as I could too because I wanted to impress my father when I graduated from high school. This is a story that really kind of changed the course of my life actually. When I graduated from high school my father was there and he didn't come to many school events and as it happens I sang the school song at graduation and I received a special award at graduation for some of the things I had done. So I came off the stage after they announced my name and I received my diploma and my father was crying; I'd only ever seen him cry once. And so I walk up to him to give him a hug and he steps back and he says, "I'm so disappointed in you. You should have graduated first in your class." He turned around and walked away, and I was incredibly upset about that for about a month or two, but then by the time I got to Morehouse there was a part of me that said, "He's right; I could have done better." And so after I got through the kind of angst and anger that any I think adolescent would have in that situation I decided at Morehouse that I'd work harder than I ever would and that I would not leave Morehouse thinking that I had left something on the table, that I would completely exhaust myself in trying to be the best student I could be. And so I think the fact that I was isolated at Morehouse kind of helped me in that journey because I said, "Well, this is an -- even more of an indication that I need to work as hard as I can here."
Jo Reed: What were you majoring in?
Tope Folarin: I did a political science major -- and this is a funny story actually because I was a political science major because I'm interested in politics and I thought here's an avenue to pursue that in some ways, but I was also interested in English obviously -- well, maybe not so obviously, but I was grappling with that and I decided on political science because it made a lot of sense because I could go to law school afterwards with a credential that law schools I thought at the time would understand, whereas English to me seemed like something that would not necessarily lead to something that would enable me to make money and I was kind of in that mode. I think like many college students you're thinking about the practical thing to do —
Jo Reed: And I also think for many children of immigrants.
Tope Folarin: Yes, well, absolutely. <laughs> You're encouraged to be a lawyer or a doctor or whatever else and so that was certainly in the back of my mind and -- but the funny thing is that I took a lot of English classes and so I found a way to pursue something that was important to me but within the context of an academic program that would lead me to law school or some other lucrative venture in the future.
Jo Reed: Well how was it coming to terms with your desire to be a writer? That is a tough decision to make and especially with a father who quite understandably wants a more secure career for you.
Tope Folarin: That's absolutely it. I think now looking back on it it's clear to me that my becoming a writer was kind of the next step in my identity journey because that's who I am and I had been rejecting that for not dealing with that for quite a long time. So after I left Oxford I started working at Google, which for me I thought at the time was a dream job and it was in many ways because I got to travel all over the world. I spent most of my time on the road. And so my father was incredibly happy and proud of me, ‘cause every immigrant parent wants to brag to their immigrant friends about what their kids are doing and so he could go to church on Sunday and say, "Oh, my son's working at Google now" so he could say that to—
Jo Reed: At Google --
Tope Folarin: Exactly. He could say that, but -- I wasn't sleeping a lot at Google because I was staying up every night to write and initially I thought "Well, it's just something I need to do or something that's fun," but then it became more serious and I began to think, "I need to do this; I need to give myself a shot." And that was kind of the message going through my head, I need to give myself a shot, which I -- was essentially me saying, "I need to step aside for a bit and see if this is something that I can do." And thus began one of the more difficult periods in my life because my assumption leaving Google was that I'd write for six months or something and then I'd get a job somewhere and everything would be hunky-dory. Of course, I arrived in 2008 and the crash happened and nobody was hiring. And so what initially I thought would be a six-month period ended up being an 18-month period with unemployment. And it was a harrowing time for me, but at the same time I started this really rigorous course of independent study. And I started reading lots and lots of poetry -- I had never read poetry before, but I noticed that all of my favorite writers were poets as well -- and so I started reading poetry, and I would commit myself to reading poetry for four or five hours a day, writing for four or five hours a day and watching a film or two as well and I did this every single day without rest. And after 18 months, looking back I saw that that was perhaps the most important moment in my life because it was as if I needed these things to sustain me.
Jo Reed: Now when you told your father that "Dad, I'm going to write," how did he respond?
Tope Folarin: I didn't tell him that for a while <laughs> if I'm being honest. I would mention it briefly. I would say, "Hey, I'm writing a book" and I would say it at the tail end of a conversation when he was about to hang up and he'd say, "Oh, good job." Like, "Keep it up but what about the job? Are you going back to Google?" was probably <laughs> what he'd say after that. So I didn't really mention it to him just because it was still-- I was still working on the book and I was still working on myself and I didn't want to present anything to him until I could present him something that I could defend staunchly. And so, to be honest, I don't think he really knew about my writing until I won the Caine Prize, to be perfectly frank, that I was serious about being a writer. When I told —
Jo Reed: Well, what a way to find out--
Tope Folarin: Yeah, exactly. <laughs> So I'm glad he found out then but I think when I was going back to London I said, "Hey, Dad, I'm going to London," and he's like "Oh, what's going on?" and I said, "Well, I've been short-listed for this literary award and then he became interested because, again like all immigrant parents it's something he can talk to with his fellow parents. And also it meant that I perhaps was good at this in some ways, and I think that put him at ease that I wasn't just a dilettante.
Jo Reed: And I bet he was touched that you applied for a prize that dealt with African writing.
Tope Folarin: Yes. Yeah, that's exactly it. Yeah, it's another full-circle moment because in a way the first—
Jo Reed: You're claiming it.
Tope Folarin: Yeah, I'm claiming it and claiming me as well, which is hugely beneficial and important to me for a person who's constantly been kind of trying to discover where he fits in this crazy, crazy world; who will accept me? To be accepted by the good folks at the Caine Prize meant so much. It says something about I think again my place in the world and also about the fact that I need to be comfortable with being a integrated person because here I am in D.C. and this is where I live and this is where I work, but a part of me is -- will always obviously be in Africa and will be a Nigerian, will be concerned about African issues. And so, the mission for me is to constantly learn how to keep these two sides of myself in dialog with each other.
Jo Reed: That was writer Tope Folarin, we were talking about his award-winning short story "Miracle". "Miracle" is a chapter in Tope's nearly completed novel of 11 interlinking stories.
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