Tope Folarin, Morehouse grad, wins prestigious Whiting Award with debut novel

The stories in ‘A Particular Kind of Black Man’ glimpse an upside down world

Tope Folarin, the son of Nigerian immigrants and a 2004 graduate of Morehouse College, has won the Whiting Award for fiction.

Folarin is among 10 writers, poets and playwrights whose Whiting Awards were announced Wednesday evening. Each year the Whiting Awards are given to 10 emerging writers, each of whom also receives a $50,000 prize.

The award honors Folarin’s novel “A Particular Kind of Black Man,” published in 2019 by Simon & Schuster. The autobiographical tale, of a family of Nigerian immigrants growing up in Utah, was also chosen as one of NPR’s best books of 2019.

The Whiting judges described the novelist as “an engrossing storyteller, [who] crafts marvelous sentences that act as a clear pane of glass through which one glimpses an upside-down world.”

The New York Times called the book “wild, vulnerable and lived” and “(a) study of the particulate self, the self as a constellation of moving parts.”

Reached at his home in Washington, D.C., here he lives with his wife Stephanie and their two children, Funmi and Femi, Folarin said “I’m happy the cat will be out of the bag.”

He was informed in February he would win the prize, but the judges requested that all winners keep their awards secret until Wednesday. “I’ve been sitting on the news for a while,” he said.

The award is one of the most prestigious honors in letters and Whiting winners frequently go on to win Pulitzers. Last year’s Pulitzer Prizes in literature were all won by Whiting honorees, including Atlantan Jericho Brown, who won the 2020 Pulitzer in poetry for “The Tradition.”

Like Tunde Akinola, the protagonist in his novel, Folarin grew up in in Utah and Texas.

Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

His very disciplined father drove an ice cream truck and delivered packages for UPS, among other blue-collar jobs, but insisted on academic excellence from the Folarin children.

The father posted a note on the refrigerator every week listing the accomplishments he expected from his children that week. “Anything below an A was basically unacceptable,” said Folarin, whose full name is Oluwabusayo Temitope Folarin.

When Folarin arrived at Morehouse in 2000, he posted his own list on his mirror, which included the vow that he would win a Rhodes Scholarship. He did.

Growing up American, but in a Nigerian family, Folarin felt a mixed allegiance.

“Who the heck am I?” was a continuing question. He recognized that his life’s challenge would be constructing an identity for himself, and he has made that question central to his fiction. “Much of my work will be situated in that in-between state,” he said.

His scholarship money at Morehouse somehow disappeared during his senior year. Media magnate Oprah Winfrey stepped in to cover his costs for that year, as she has for other Morehouse students through her $25 million Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program.

Determined to become a writer, Folarin carefully studied the debut work of a host of other authors, including Philip Roth, Amy Tan, Dinaw Mengestu, James Baldwin and Deborah Eisenberg.

“I began to get this sense that my life was worthy of fiction, something I didn’t know before.”

He won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2013 and was shortlisted for the same prize again in 2016.

In Washington, Folarin works as a writer for the Local Initiative Support Corporation, a community development organization. After his daytime work is over, he fulfills his self-imposed 1,000-words-a-night quota on his next book.

He expects to continue working at such socially-conscious jobs while pursuing his writing muse.

“I need to be around people and interact with people,” he said. “I can’t be the kind of writer who spends years in isolation and walks out into the sun with when my book comes out.”

The other winners of the 2021 Whiting Awards are:

Joshua Bennett, in poetry and nonfiction (“Being Property Once Myself,” “The Sobbing School,” “Owe”); Jordan E. Cooper in drama (“Black Boy Fly,” “Ain’t No Mo’,” “Alice Wonder”); Steven Dunn in fiction (“Potted Meat,” “water & power”); Donnetta Lavinia Grays in drama (“Where We Stand,” “Warriors Don’t Cry,” “Last Night and the Night Before”); Marwa Helal in poetry (“Invasive species”); Sarah Stewart Johnson in nonfiction (“The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World”); Sylvia Khoury in drama (“Selling Kabul,” “The Place Women Go,” Against the Hillside”); Ladan Osman in poetry (“Exiles of Eden”); and Xandria Phillips in poetry (”Hull.”)

The Whiting Awards were established by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation in 1985. Since that year $8.5 million has been awarded to 360 writers of fiction and nonfiction and to poets, and playwrights.

When Flora Ettlinger Whiting died in 1971 at age 90, she left an estate worth about $25 million, according to the New York Times. Most of the money was left to her daughter, Anna and to the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, the sponsor of the Whiting Awards.

The foundation was named after her late husband, Giles Whiting, who was president of the Persian Rug Manufacturing Company, and died in 1937.