Before Tope Folarin won the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing, it might not have been completely clear that he was an African writer. His parents are Nigerian, of course, but he was born in Utah, where he grew up; he went to school in Texas and Georgia; he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford; and he now lives in Washington, DC. As he told me, in fact, it hadn't occurred to him that his short story, "Miracle," would be eligible for consideration for the Caine prize, until the Nigerian novelist Helon Habila urged him to have it submitted. He did, and it won, and now he can certainly be an "African writer" if he wants to be.
Maybe the most interesting thing about Tope Folarin's Caine Prize is that there wasn't much controversy about it. It raised a few eyebrows that the award had gone to a story about Nigerian Christianity set in Texas and written by someone who was born and raised in the United States. But mostly the fact that the most high-profile prize for African literature went to a solidly American writer passed without heated polemic, at least that I saw. If you expected Tope Folarin's authenticity to be called into question, you would have been (mostly) disappointed. A few days before Folarin won, in fact, Maaza Mengiste wrote a blistering op-ed, in which she denounced the question of who is a "real" African:
At a recent conference on African literature in Frankfurt, I sat on a panel with two other female writers. A question was asked almost immediately: do you consider yourself an African writer? We each needed to pause before answering; we had to wait for translators to repeat the inquiry in our respective languages. None of us spoke the same language, and none of the languages being translated from German were indigenous to the countries where we were born. Yet the question didn’t take that into consideration. It was so broad as to be disconcertingly limiting, yet it wasn’t the first time I’d heard it and it wouldn’t be the last. It seems that every new writer with any remote connection to the continent of Africa, either willingly or unwillingly, has first to wrestle with this question of identity before talking about what should matter most: their book.
I wanted to ask: why is what I call myself important to you? I responded instead with another question: would a writer of German origin be asked this if she’d lived in America for more than 30 years? My nationality makes up as much a part of who I am as my experiences. I have made my home in America. It is where I first fell in love and had my heart broken, where I got my ego bruised and learned to stand again. It is where I met my husband and, one day, where my children will be born. But my strongest and happiest childhood memories are of Ethiopia. It is where I learned about storytelling and began to imagine my own stories. It is where my grandparents are buried and where I know my parents will be laid to rest. It is where my imagination goes when I sit down to write. It is home too. Which of these formative countries do you want me to separate myself from, and for what purpose?
Tope Folarin is not the new African writer. But I do think it's worth saying: his Caine Prize signals an emerging acceptance of the radical diversity that has always been latent in the category. There have always been many Africas, after all; the continent is too hopelessly large and multitudinous for a single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously put it. The word "Africa" itself has served, historically, as a single story for a stretch of human geography so vast, in reality, as to beggar the imagination, and one might observe that that's precisely what the word was for: when faced with the impossible diversity of African humanity, white people wielded the word "Africa" like a crucifix at vampires (when not using other, much more vicious words). But while everybody knows, on some level, that Africa isn't a country, it can sometimes be difficult to act on that knowledge. It's too easy and too comfortable to fall back into these old patterns and generalizations, to talk about "Africa" as if it names a thing, a place, and a category, as if we all already know what it is.
Tope Folarin is doing many things, but one of them is a refusal to rest comfortably on what he already knows himself to be. To declare himself an American, as he could easily do, would be to separate himself from Africa; to declare himself an African, which he also could do, would be to separate himself from the American southwest. But he's a writer, and one with no desire to rest on any one of the identities provided for him, ready-made, by a world that wants to make things simple and easy for itself. He'll write his own sense of self, for himself. I look forward to reading it.
You can read Folarin's Caine Prize-winning story "Miracle" (and my review of it here, if you like). But we can expect more from him soon, as his fictional autobiographical work-in-progress, The Proximity of Distance, comes out in dribs and drabs. His story "The Summer of Ice Cream" is in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the story "New Mom" is to be found in the just published—and excellent—Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara anthology, and apparently he has two more pieces from the project coming out in other places soon, one in Callaloo.
This interview was conducted over Skype, on October 9th, the day the Nobel Prize for literature was announced.
You were in Berlin recently, right?
I was, a couple of weeks ago. They have an international literature festival there. I've known about the festival for a few years now, and it truly is an international assortment of writers. You had folks from Europe and Australia, obviously folks from Africa, America, and Canada, and we're all kind of squished together, so you're forced to have conversations with one another, which isn't always the case, and I really appreciated that.
Who were you squished together with?
Let's see, among others, I had a long conversation with Junot Díaz, for example, which was really cool. And Yvonne [Owuor], the great author of Dust, she and I hung out a bit... I love her, because I think she is so committed to a kind of... It's not intentional, but she's eccentric, in a way—not a pejorative way—because it's who she is, there's no affectation whatsoever. I really enjoyed walking around with her. And she's also just incredibly... I think she doesn't have the arrogance that I've noticed a lot of writers or artists in general seem to have. She speaks honestly about her ambitions and that sort of thing. I didn't feel like I had to kind of spend a lot of time interacting with her to puncture any contrived masks she may have put on for the benefit of others, so I appreciated that.
There was Ukrainian writer, who's somebody of some importance—I can't for the life of me remember his name right now, which is my fault, but we had a great conversation—there were a few German writers. Also, I was surprised by the number of German press folks who were there… There was one in particular, we were hanging out in town, after one night, and this reporter comes up to me, and—I suppose he was kind of upholding his reputation for German directness—he said, "Well, you're basically here for one story; do you feel under any pressure in order to come up with a book that will justify all that acclaim?" I appreciated the directness of the question.
What do you say to that question?
Well, I said that I recognize what is happening on a certain level. I think that the festival is reaching out to... it wants, quote-unquote "diversity," and they see the Caine Prize and they say, well, if we invite this person over, then we have somebody else who's offering a different perspective. So I recognize that in inviting me, there are a lot of things that are happening.
That said, for me, the opportunity to travel around the world because of the Caine Prize has been hugely beneficial for my trajectory as an artist, and in terms of coming up with the work that is honest. I related to him an anecdote that I'll relate to you now. Shortly after winning the prize, I was in Capetown for the Open Book festival. There was this surreal moment when I was on a stage with Teju Cole and NoViolet Bulawayo, and I forget her first name, but [Yewande] Omotoso—the writer of Bom Boy, which is a great book—and Mukoma [Ngugi] was there as well. They had just announced, literally a few moments before, that NoViolet had been shortlisted for the Booker. So for the first five minutes of the panel, they were basically taking pictures of her. I had this moment where I recognized that, wow, my project differs in really important ways from NoViolet's project. During the conversation, there was someone in the audience who said I really admire what you've done, because you captured the Zimbabwe of my youth. I think that NoViolet's work is concerned with place in a way that mine isn't, my work is explicitly about placelessness. So, I was thinking that perhaps it would make some sense to write about place because it seems as if that's something people can relate to. But having that conversation with myself was essential, because when I got back to my hotel room, I thought, "No, no, I'll commit to what I'm doing here, and as long as I'm honest about the project, someone will connect to what I'm saying."
All that to say, I don't feel that kind of pressure at all. If anything, this kind of exposure has reaffirmed my commitment to writing what I want to write about.
I would love to hear you say more about the difference between place and placeless-ness.
I think that a lot of fiction that attracts critical attention in the states and perhaps in the West in general, especially writing from a certain group of people—I'll be explicit, African writers or Asian writers—is about coming from one place and going to the next. And I think one reason this resonates with so many people is that the Western writer, who has no connection to the place that the writer is coming from or writing about, can see something of themselves in the portrait of America that this immigrant writes about, or the portrait of the UK that this person writes about.
My life has been kind of about moving on from one place to the next, and developing an identity that is composed of disparate parts. So my fiction is concerned with that kind of journey. In the dark hours of the night, when I'm thinking about art and writing, I do sometimes think, well, if I was writing about a journey from Zimbabwe to the United States—I think NoViolet is wonderful, I'm not at all positing she did this—but I think you'd have natural constituencies who'll be attracted to your work. You'll have folks in Zimbabwe who will say, wow, this is a great depiction of Zimbabwe, circa whatever, you'll have people who will say, yes, "Destroyed Michigan," what a wonderful way of putting it, Michigan is destroyed.
If, like me, your fiction is concerned with how in the hell do I become a person, and determine how I am as a person, when I've been in so many places that have so many different definitions of what a person is supposed to be, I think you're kind of entering more esoteric territory. The question then becomes how do you make that journey relatable? The solution I've come up with is that one has to be committed to pulling out the human elements of that story, and the underlying assumption in all of my work has to be, well, I am a human being, and I came into the world with the basic set of emotions that everyone else did. So even if I'm responding to situations that are unique to me or other people who are in that situation, one hopes that people are able to get a sense of humanity and how a human being might respond to these situations, even if they haven't been in these particular situations before.
I want to ask the obligatory "African Writer" question, because everyone answers in a different way. You, for example, you won the "Caine Prize for African Writing," but it means something different for you than it does for NoViolet Bulawayo or Okwiri Oduor.
I can answer this two ways. At this point, it's been the great thing that's happened in my artistic life. Because, you know, the year before, I'd just published my first story, and two or three years before that, I'd been on this journey of trying to become a better artist. Initially, my passion was poetry, and I'd spent about two or three years writing as many poems as I could, and then I made a transition to fiction writing in 2010. I started sending out pieces at the top of 2012, and Transition selected a piece from the slush, and published it, and that piece went on to win. It has given me this amazing exposure to a number of people that wouldn't know the first thing about my work if I hadn't won the Caine Prize. The whole thing about winning the Caine Prize is that I'd been pining for other prizes or other kinds of exposure, and I thought if I'm published by this journal people will get a sense of who I am, if someone great mentions my work, then people will have access to my work. But of all the scenarios I'd concocted, the Caine Prize is the best, because it has this international reputation; I'm not sure there's any other prize that has that same kind of reach for the short story. Obviously there's the BBC prize, and other prizes, but in terms of, especially, those who are emerging and establishing, I think the Caine Prize occupies a very special place.
That said, the other side of it is to establish myself in the States as a writer, and the Caine Prize doesn't have perhaps the same reputation here—maybe in certain precincts it does—but I think as a general proposition in literary America, not as many people know about it, or have a sense that it's something important. Because I didn't come out of the MFA farm system, I'm having to go through this process of establishing my literary credentials here in the States.
Part of that is that if I'm introduced to someone as the winner of the Caine Prize for African writing, and I'm on the list of 39 writers under 40 from Africa, a whole set of associations rise to their mind, that's like Chimamanda, Dinaw, whatever, he's in that category. So, in some ways it's a continuation of something I've been reckoning with my entire life, which is this persistent insistence that I am something different. I'm not, as others have, trying to say that No, I'm not African, I'm certainly African. I'm not positing, as Taiye does, that there's no African literature [laughs] but I am saying—again to quietly insist—that I have to, in describing myself, and even writing fiction, that I'm trying my best to capture every part of who I am in that.
So, we have the African label, but I do ask that people—to the extent that they can, and are interested—to account for the American part of me as well.
When I was talking to Maaza Mengiste, she as telling me that she has her novel set in the Ethiopian revolution, and she was telling me that she has a jazz novel set in the United States that she was writing at exactly the same time.
But at a certain point, she had to pick one. So she hopped onto the novel that became Beneath the Lion's Gaze. There's something... it's fascinating to imagine how differently she would be received as a writer if she had written the jazz novel first.
Yeah, exactly. I like Maaza, I went to this Callaloo workshop, actually like the week before I went to London for the Caine Prize stuff, and we became friendly there. I didn't know that she was writing anything like that. It's so interesting. She would be perceived as a completely different writer if she had done that.
Do you have other work that doesn't fall into the semi-autobiographical category?
I'm wondering why you're asking that; do you think that it's a limiting category? I'm wondering what the impetus to the question is.
Well, it seems like every writer has a lot of different things they're working on, but—like that guy in Germany, who said "you're the guy with the one story"—your "one thing" can become the one thing you're known for. Okwiri Oduor said that people treat her like "My Father's Head" is the only story she's ever written, for example. So I'm curious... do you have projects besides the novel?
Well, that's where my intellectual and artistic interests are right now. It certainly is autobiographical, I'm not going to claim it's not. But I've discovered that even if I start with an autobiographical premise—yes, I was born in raised in Utah, yes, I went to high school in Texas—the moment I sit and attempt to pin down these ideas, it becomes something different. If a reader is reading my work, and they say "Now I know all there is to know about Tope, or "Ta-peh," because of what I've read," that would be inaccurate. I'm trying my best to tell a very particular story about identity that, in some ways, is similar to mine, and in some ways isn't.
When I was in Oxford, studying for my masters, I was writing a thesis on identity, and kind of in the midst of it, I discovered that the ideas I was trying to address in the academic framework actually probably fit better in a fiction framework. Maybe in an artistic framework. Because, I was trying... My thesis, for my master's project, was that we have the option of creating our own identities here in the 21st century, and I think that's something our parents and grandparents didn't have. I have the option of saying "This is who I am," in a way my parents and grandparents didn't have. My fiction is really interested in investigating that idea. Here's a character who's in this situation; what does he decide, and why does he decide what he decides? Especially in a world that says, well, phenotypically, you are a black person so I'll group you with these black people.
In some ways, it's a permutation of Barack Obama's project in Dreams of my Father where, in the end, the character, Barack Obama, makes a definitive decision about who he is, he said, well, I'm an African-American. I think that's the kind of decision that Barack Obama had to make in the late 70's or 80's. Because in order to survive politically, he had to throw in his hat in one camp or another. Not saying he did that for that reason, but in the societal context, that was the choice that was available to him. I'm not sure if somebody has to make that decision now.
A long way of saying that the fiction starts from an autobiographical place, but because it's pursuing—because it's attempting to answer this question—it inevitably goes off in a different direction.
This is also an autobiographical impulse. Taiye's book comes from that place. Here you have, in Taiye's case, someone who was born in London, has a parent from Ghana, has a parent from Nigeria, arrives in the States, and then goes off to Oxford for grad school. Someone who's been through that journey, I think, despite the terror, and despite the discomfort one experiences growing up in these different contexts, I suspect that a person who emerges from that has very important ideas about what it means to be a human in the 21st-century when borders are collapsing, the same kind of Thomas Friedman point... It's a cliché at this point, but there's something to it: borders are collapsing, and the Net facilitates communication and that sort of thing.
It's funny that today was the day of Nobel Prize, and every year people talk about Roth or whoever else. I read Goodbye Columbus all the time, and it's funny to read that, because here's a book that came out 40 or 50 years ago, and it's obsessed with Jewishness. The character is interested in a woman who's perhaps a class or two above him, and defines Jewishness differently than he does. Is it because of class? Is it because of some other factor? Who knows. But the identities in that book are relatively fixed. One reason...
I hope I'm not spoiling it, I'm sure you've read it?
[non-committal noise to indicate that I read it over a decade ago and don't even remember the ending]
The relationship doesn't work, ultimately, because of class, because the male character begins to understand that in order to enter her world, he'll have to make a series of concessions that he doesn't want to make. I'm not sure if that kind of...
Perhaps it is. Obviously, there are economic problems that folks have, and there are definite cultural barriers that people have to surmount. But I also think that it's possible to define yourself in the 21st-century in ways that it wasn't before.
Can I ask you about what you're writing now? I've seen the title The Proximity of Distance floating around; is that a novel or—I also read somewhere that you have a collection of short stories. Is that right?
Yeah, the novel is a novel of stories, so everything you've read is part of the novel. I'm sure you've read it out of sequence, but yeah, I'm just finishing up that project.
Are you at a stage where you like to talk about?
[Laughs] I can talk about it! It's autobiographical, in certain ways, but in other ways it's... You know, I was talking to Junot about this, about the character he's kind of known for, in Drown, and This is How You Lose Her, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, how even if this character starts in an autobiographical place, the character inevitably makes decisions that separate the character from who you are. I've discovered that in my own work: there is stuff that happens at the end that clearly resembles stuff that happened my life, but it needs to happen for the book to exist in the world.
Does it ever worry you that people will take it as more autobiographical than it is?
That isn't so much of a concern for me. Again, reading Roth, or reading Mailer, or reading Díaz, these are all folks—reading Danticat—these are all folks who write from a very personal place. Or even Michael Thomas, who wrote a book a few years ago called Man Gone Down that received some critical praise.
I've been wondering why people are constantly asking me about that. If I'd written about a character that grows up in some urban center, and who has a more conventional trajectory in terms of culture, I'm not sure as many people would be asking that question. The question would certainly be asked, since writers are always asked about the autobiographical content of their work. But because I have such a unique and weird history, people think, okay, either this is the only thing he can write about, or this is about him, basically, and why is he calling it fiction.
Again, I think that my life places me in a position to write about identity conversations—about identity construction—in a way that I wouldn't be able to if I grew up in a place with an established community. Like Roth, I emerged from this community that's kind of ignored, that has been ignored, that hasn't received much recognition in American letters. I'm talking about this group of people for the first time, here we are. The questions would be a bit more muted than they are, if I'm writing about traveling from one country to another, if the broad outlines of this story conform to the narrative about what it means to be an immigrant. Then perhaps people would be less interested in that story. Some people like it and get it, but other people are honing in on this autobiographical question, which is why I was asking before, "Is this all you can do?" If I started from a place like, I'm an Indian immigrant in New York, or something, I'm sure I could write that, but the amount of research it would take to get at that character in an honest way would be pretty, um... It would be a lot. So I'm relying on autobiography to establish basic things that enable me to kind of get at the meat of what I'm trying to get at.
Now that I think about it, part of why I wanted to ask you that question was because of something that Maaza Mengiste said, where, in a very nice way, she said "I'm tired of talking about identity." As someone who is in the position of asking questions, I'm very aware that autobiography is an easy question to ask, while fiction is often experienced at a sub-verbal level, and craft can be hard to talk about.
I think that every story that I start starts from a place of craft and structure. What I was most concerned about, when "Miracle" was shortlisted, was that people would only read it autobiographically, that people would say that this was just an African church service. And that did happen. But I was elated that people saw that I was trying to tell a story, structurally, as well as in terms of plot. I was asking, or I was trying to pose questions about community and identity that I really hadn't seen before. In some ways, the conceit of the revival service is, on its face, somewhat entertaining, and many people access the story that way, like, "Oh, it's funny that this kid isn't really healed, and pastors do this all the time, how funny." But I was hoping that other people would read it as someone who has lost himself for the first time in this mass, and he's being forced to account for his individuality in a very public place. The stakes are higher for him than they'd be for most people, because his response determined the faith that other people can see in him. There were a series of other questions, and the revival service becomes a vehicle for asking another series of questions.
The same hopefully applies to "The Summer of Ice Cream," which is, again, on its face, just a story about selling ice cream. But I was inspired by a story—well, it's in dialogue with a story by Edith Pearlman called "Binocular Vision," which is a story about the first time a kid enters the world of adults in a very abrupt way. I thought, well, I like that story, it's a good and interesting story, but what if that story of arrival into adulthood is complicated by race and is complicated by religion and it's complicated by a number of other things, what happens to that character?
I have to admit, I just really enjoyed the mechanics of ice cream selling in that story... how the freezers are managed, the dry ice, there's an absorption in those kinds of details that's very nicely done.
You mentioned having not come up through the MFA farm system... does that feel like a lack?
Ye-ah... You know when I decided that I was going to write fiction, of course, I considered applying to Iowa, or Michigan, or Columbia, I hovered over those applications. But I just decided that I could become a writer without doing that. My main concern was about access to people who matter, you know, people who can say "Here's a writer who has something to say. Let's give him a platform for that view." After an exhaustive search on the web, I knew that if someone went to Iowa, James Allen McPherson or Marilynne Robinson are there. Like in the case of Chinelo [Okparanta], she went to Iowa, and she benefited from it; Paul Harding likes her work a lot, Robinson likes her work. That sort of thing would be incredibly beneficial in terms of getting an agent, getting a publisher.
But on the other side, I knew intuitively even though initially I didn't admit it to myself, that I needed to get a personal MFA, which is to say that if I was in that context, I would act more like a student than an artist, and I was afraid of that, because I was a fairly good student, and one of the reasons was that I was very adept at getting a sense of what a professor wanted, and doing that very well. If I was in an artistic context, I was afraid that... Let's say that Paul Harding was teaching a class, maybe some of that desire to please would filter into my work. I thought it would be important to sit by myself, with books, and kind of get a sense of what resonated, and begin to respond to that.
I read somewhere that you were reading first books by great writers, was that part of your personal MFA?
I was aggressive about doing that. I read thirty or forty "first books." I had this incredible... I guess "fear" is the word for it. It took a tremendous leap of faith to begin the project, because when you're kind of standing on the outside looking in, you don't know very basic things, like how do I get a character in and out of the room. How do I make this scene work, how do I write dialogue, very basic questions that I have. So I did it, partly to show myself that it could be done, that these writers that I admired had the same questions, and they managed to produce this great work anyway. And also to get a sense of what people write about, their first time around.
It's funny to read a book like Edward P. Jones' first book, which is concerned with DC. It has a very intimate knowledge of what it means to be a denizen of DC, and a member of a particular community in DC. Or Diaz's work, or Danticat's work, or Zadie Smith's work. Or Helen Oyeyemi as well. These are all stories that are kind of situated in something the author is somewhat familiar with. I think what separates the great debut novelist from the kind-of-okay debut novelist, is that they're both writing about the same thing, but the great novelist has this gift to infuse the ordinary with something above and beyond what the generally gifted artist will do. I think I got a sense of that by reading those first books.
What did you learn from all that, in terms of how to get a character into the room, getting in the door. Can you give me a concrete example?
For me, the first step was that I've always had this compulsion to watch movies and to listen to music. When I started at Morehouse I had this goal in mind, that by the end of my time at Morehouse, I wanted to get this scholarship, I wanted a Rhodes, and I wanted to finish at the top of my class. My first day of Morehouse, I was thinking about my last day at Morehouse. Part of the reason I did this was I was addicted, at the time, to science fiction and fantasy novels and to watching movies. So I decided that I needed to cut out these things that were not helping me achieve my goal. I discovered like two weeks into my experience at Morehouse that if I had some extra time, I would go out and watch a movie. I was like, "What does this have to do with me doing well in class?"
Sometime around my sophomore year, I stumbled on something Susan Sontag had written, about how she honored her impulses. In her case, she didn't quite know why she watched lots of films, but she was obsessed with watching films and going to museums and looking at art. At the outset, she didn't know that this would culminate in her becoming a writer and a critic, but she was fastidious about saying, "Well, here are my impulses, I'll honor them, and they'll lead me where I need to go." I felt a lot better after I read that, and then I started reading some Carl Jung, and he also talked about the collective unconscious, this idea there are certain things we're trying to express all the time. My strategy, when I began to think about becoming an artist, was to admit to myself that I was an artist, and that, for me, was incredible, because the moment that I said to myself I am an artist, I felt this simultaneous rush of relief and commitment to becoming better. Because I thought, "OK, now I have recognized who I am, now what do I have to do?"
I hadn't read a lot at that point, but I did recognize that I love language and I love image. And so, I thought the place I can get that is poetry, and so I spent a year and a half doing nothing but reading and writing poetry. That was incredibly useful to me in terms of getting a sense of how language works, on a sentence or word-by-word level, and also getting a sense of how images work. There were certain images that I would come across in texts that would completely knock me out. There's a section in a poem called "The Room" by Tomas Tranströmer, for example, that runs:
They turn the light off, and its white globe glows an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet in a glass of darkness.
The first time I read that, it completely knocked me out. After I got over the euphoria of that line, I thought "Why does this line have this impact on me?" I read Tranströmer, and I learned that he had a long series of conversations with Robert Bly, so I began to read Robert Bly. If I saw that Robert Bly and Mark Strand were doing something together, then I read that. When I started doing fiction, I still had these concerns about language and image, so I thought "who is writing fiction out there that's concerned with the same things?" I had read some of Denis Johnson's poetry, so I read Jesus' Son, and I kid you not, for two months, that's all I read. I thought this was the ideal place that fiction should be. Fiction that is intensely imagistic and poetic, but is also, in its own way, concerned with telling a story. Then after Denis Johnson, I started reading Deborah Eisenberg, who also does image incredibly well. Then I started reading lots of Baldwin, because I thought he was conceptualizing and answering questions about black identity that other people weren't.
So it was in some ways analogous to what happens if you're an academic, if you're reading a paper and then you read the footnotes and follow them. In some ways, my artistic journey was influenced by my intense engagement with the academy.
Do you still write poetry?
No, I can't say I do. I tend to be very focused; right now, my focus is on writing the best book I can. All of my energies are in that direction and I don't want to distract myself. I suppose at some point in the future, once the book is out, then perhaps I can re-engage with that process.
My sustained engagement with poetry helped me immensely, in ways that I can't even comprehend. It's the same reason why every weekend, when I can, I go to the museum. If I've gained anything from this experience of reading as widely and intensely as I can, it's that it's incredibly important to feed the subconscious. So I hope that I did a good job of feeding the subconscious in those two years when I was reading and writing poetry. And whenever there's a poetry reading in town, I'll go, if I can get off of work in time. I try to stay connected to that world. But a lot of my artistic energies are devoted to getting the novel to work.
Are you ever tempted to write about DC?
You know, when I think about the next project... I was just reading Ben Lerner's work, and also Teju Cole's work as well, with these protagonists who are relatively young, really hyper-intellectual and self-aware, and a lot of the text is interior. It seems as if a lot of people are interested in accessing the world through the mind of some intelligent and hyper-aware person. I'm intrigued by the challenges of that kind of protagonist. Because it's different to write about childhood, which, for me, is the current obsession; my book ends when the protagonist is twenty-one, and a large part of that is the way a child sees the world. So I've been immersed in that world, and in a different way, perhaps, than NoViolet's project, which in many important ways seems to focus on the idiosyncratic voice of the narrator. I think I'm more interested in the kind of naiveté and coming to experience the world in a world that doesn't quite know what to make of you.
But all that to say, I'm not sure I'm going to write a novel of place, where I say "here's what it means to be a worker drone in DC which is my day life," or "here's what DC is all about." I suspect it will be more about "here's how this weird person sees the world and interacts with the world."
What stage is the novel in?
I'm almost done. It's been good to get pieces published in various places. The first chapter is going to be published by Callaloo next month, and then another chapter is going to be published by someone else at the top of the year. It's been good to engage with each chapter with an editor with their own sensibilities about fiction or storytelling.
Have people's responses to it been interesting?
It's been good. When "Miracle" was published, I didn't really see a response to it until it was shortlisted. So it was hard to gauge how people felt about it. I very earnestly attached my email address to my bio on the contributor's page, hoping someone would email me, but nobody did.
I wasn't in an MFA program, I just kind of haunted every reading, every poetry reading, wherever I could. During one of these readings I met a local radio show host, and she invited me to come on her program, and we would have conversations and interview various writers. Sometimes she would call me, if I was at work or something, and say, "Hey, I'm going to be with this person, if you can, come into the station and we'll interview this person together." I'm deeply grateful to her for doing this for me, because it was a wonderful entry point.
One day, she called me and said "I have Helon Habila coming into the studio, and so, if you can, definitely come in and interview him." I had been trying to contact Helon before; I have this habit of writing these people and saying "hey." When I was applying for the Rhodes, I did the same thing, I emailed a bunch of Rhodes scholars and said "Hey, I'm interested in applying for the Rhodes, I'd love to get your sense of what it takes to become a Rhodes scholar." Everybody I wrote, during that time, wrote me back. Everybody I'd written about my desire to be a writer, not a single one had written me back. But I know he's busy, and we are very good friends today. When he saw I'd be interviewing him, he said, "Sorry I didn't email you back, perhaps we can talk after the interview?" I interviewed him, and I handed him a story after the interview, and he—he kind of rolled his eyes a little—but when he got to his destination, he called me and said "Hey, I really like your story, I think you have talent, so let's talk about it."
When I published "Miracle" in Transition, I sent it to him, and he's the one who said you should send this to the Caine Prize, this is a very strong story. To that point I had never even considered... I didn't even know that I was eligible for the Caine Prize. And so, I think the fact that I was actively trying to get a response helped me in that case. If I hadn't done that, I would have never known that I was eligible, I would never have asked my publisher to submit the story on my behalf
It taught me a really important lesson about engaging with people about my work. People respond to the work the way they will, I can't account for that. But part of it is just getting your work in front of someone's eyes, and hoping that they see something that resonates.
What was it like when you were interviewing people on that radio show?
That was am-a-zing. Because I had to not be a fan, so if I was taking to, let's say, one time, George Pelecanos was on the show and I was just kind of in awe of the Pelecanos. I had to turn the fan-boy down a bit. Writers like to be asked about process and sentences.
My experience with interviewers—as if I'm some kind of expert here—the only thing that I care about is that there is engagement with the work. So many interviewers ask the autobiography question without having engaged at all with the work; "How was it when your father took you to the church, and you left the church?" And I'm like, what are you talking about? That didn't actually happen to me, that was a vehicle for the story.
So I think that engagement with the work is the most important thing. When I was on the radio show, for example, I'd say that this passage here, really moved me, and here's why. I had to balance asking technical questions with the fact the audience might not be interested in the essence of that technical question. But if I asked a technical question, what the characters are trying to do, or the process by which the writer, she or he, is writing about the character, that would be interesting. I was always trying to get at the writer's sensibilities and why is the writer interested in writing, trying to get at that... it sounds kind of hokey, but trying to get at the mystical process of trying to create something, especially in the face of all this other stuff. Being a human being, because ideally, you want to just create and get it out there, but then you're sitting at your desk and you open your web browser and see that so and so has gotten this massive deal. The human part of you, that person that wants to be out there. How is it that you balance that with your desire to be an artist and that sort of thing? I just tried to read as closely as I could, every time, and kind of trust that, over the course of the conversation, something would be jogged in my reading or sense of their work that would inspire them to answer the question in an unconventional way.
The interviews in this series will lead up to the Symposium of African Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. The event, which will take place December 2-3, 2014, will feature conversations with Laila Lalami, Maaza Mengiste, Nnedi Okorafor, Sofia Samatar, and Taiye Selasi. "African Writers in a New World" will conclude with a conference report from the Symposium. Details are available at http://africanwriters2014.wordpress.com/.
ALSO IN THIS SERIES:
Interview: Maaza Mengiste
Interview: Laila Lalami
Interview: Miral al-Tahawy
Interview: Sofia Samatar
Interview: Teju Cole