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Tope Folarin: The Caine Prize Recognises the Term “African” is in Flux

Since last year, when Tope Folarin won the Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story “Miracle”, debate about African writing and the identity of African writers has been heating up. It all started with Folarin’s “African-ness” being questioned because, although his parents are Nigerian, he grew up in the US.

Siji Jabbar of This is Africa says they “waited till the initial brouhaha died down” before interviewing Folarin. However, in the discussion they also touch on the question of African identity in a globalised world, with Folarin commenting that the Caine Prize realises that the term “African” is in flux. “Many of us were born abroad and have not spent a great deal of time in Africa, and yet our parents have been telling us that we’re African from the moment we were born, and our friends have told us that we aren’t quite American, we aren’t quite British, we aren’t quite Canadian.”

He highlights the importance of stories written from this fluid sense of self, as “they point to a future in which identity will be a constantly contested topic, so much so that I believe our traditional methods of categorizing ourselves will have to be amended and/or updated”.

The interview does not get stuck on this one issue and Folarin also discusses how “Miracle” will form part of his forthcoming novel, Proximity of Distance, which will be a “novel-in-stories”.

When the Nigerian writer Tope Folarin won the Caine Prize for African Writing last July, some of the coverage that followed wasn’t about the winning story itself but rather about the fact that Tope wasn’t born in Africa and had – at the time of announcement – visited Nigeria only once, as a baby. On the one hand that aspect of the coverage revealed the trouble many have today in accepting the diversity of African identities; abroad we complain when others who have problems with the fullness of our being try to limit it by asking that question, ‘Yes, but where are you really from?’, then we turn around and, out of fear that what it is to be African will dissipate if we don’t hold fast to and protect a fixed and narrow idea of THE African identity, do the same to one another.

Ultimately, the diversity of African identities is something we will all have to come to terms with eventually as it’s likely to become a much needed strength in our increasingly globalised world – and this diversity is set to grow, not contract. Besides, being African is about much more than where you were born or grew up. And for fans of literature or popular fiction, the more African identities there are the greater the variety of stories to be told, read, thought about and discussed. If each story reflects something of ourselves and something of other ways of being African in the world, surely that’s something to look forward to.

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Image courtesy PlanitKane


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