This post is part of a series of reviews of the Caine Prize 2016 shortlist. You can download Folarin’s story as a pdf here.
Tope Folarin has a way of telling stories from a child’s point of view. His 2013 Caine Prize-winning story, “Miracle,” was about a child at a church service in Texas. I loved reading it, and I saw him do a reading from his story in the Africa 39 collection, which was also very good. I’m glad I get to read more work by him (seriously when is that book coming out?). “Genesis,” Folarin’s story shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize, is a really powerful story about mental illness, race, and family in America. It weaves these themes together in a really intricate, beautiful, and sad way.
The story is about a boy’s experiences living in Utah, including being the only person of color at school, or encountering religious differences (and racism) from the vantage of the naivete and vulnerability of a child. It also deals a lot with mental health, as the boy’s mother endures episodes of anger, violence, and even seeing things. These episodes lead the mother to eventually escape with her children to a shelter for a time. Viewed from a child’s perspective, these experiences have a sort of rawness that is really powerful. The story doesn’t just tell what happens, nor does it try to analyze it – the storyteller responds, and it colors the events throughout.
The story is also perhaps semi-autobiographical. Folarin was born in Ogden, Utah, to immigrant parents, just like the narrator of this story. He has also talked before about his mother dealing with mental health issues when he was little, ultimately resulting in her returning to Nigeria. Folarin’s work has always been rooted in his own experiences, which I think is part of what gives strength to the writing. When Aaron Bady asked him about his autobiographical novel-in-progress (from which, I would assume, “Genesis” emerged), Folarin said:
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.
Moments in the author’s life surely shaped how and what he has written. This is likely true for many authors, but especially for someone writing fiction that travels in the same circles and paths as their lived life. Unlike Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, who took issue with a fictional story trafficking so heavily on autobiography (to be clear, Túbọ̀sún wasn’t critical of the story as such, but thinking through categorization and what the Caine Prize includes), I’d rather we shatter the categorical differences altogether. What makes fiction non-fiction? Buried many novels that take place in faraway worlds often lurks the “real.” And non-fiction can be written in a way that bends reality as well. Such categories obscure the complexities of a story. For a writer to write aspects of his life into a story that is also sometimes fiction seems quite fine to me, and if that process also leads to the story feeling that much more resonating, all the better.
Folarin has said that his “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.” Taking this story, alongside his other recent works, a broader story of placelessness is surely taking shape, and it’s one that brings family, race, and faith together in very interesting ways.