Novel * A. Igoni Barrett * What if Kafka was Nigerian? * 2015
Sometimes you have to get yourself out of your comfort zone. If you’ve flipped through the archives of this blog, you’ll note that I have a clear preference when it comes to fiction. To be fair, that’s kind of the whole point of this endeavor – to catalogue my thoughts on a particular kind of book – but the longer I do this the more I realize what a wide umbrella the concept of “apocalypse” actually is. Also, sometimes I don’t feel like reading about White Guys in Space, you know? So I widen my scope, embrace the term “apocalypse” to be a historical understanding more than anything else, which is how I shoehorn my unrepentant love of Modernism in here. The historical concept of an apocalypse is fairly simple on the surface: a thing happens which has repercussions. In the case of Modernism the main event is World War I. Obviously there’s a lot that happened before which set up that conflict, but it’s a pretty easy thing to point to and go: here’s where things changed. Other major historical changes can’t really be pinned on a particular event, but nonetheless have long-lasting, apocalyptic implications. Colonialism is pretty high up on the list of things which irrevocably changed the world.
I’ve talked about this before, with the seminal Chinua Achebe work Things Fall Apart. That was a novel about the slow and irreversible influence of Europeans on Africa, and the nebulous, difficult question of whether or not colonialism is/was a bad thing. The book I’m talking about here, Blackass, is a contemporary look at the same question, albeit a century or so later (compared to when Things Fall Apart took place). This novel takes place in Lagos, Nigeria, a modern African megalopolis, which is a long way from the tribal village of Okonkwo. And look, I have to imagine that Barrett, as a Nigerian author tackling these issues, is aware of the long shadow of Achebe. I mean, it comes up in the text itself. That said, Blackass reads more like Kafka or Salman Rushdie than anything else. It’s a deceptively breezy read, fun and quick, but also brings up all kinds of difficult thoughts and questions for the reader.
I don’t know why you read books. Maybe you don’t want to deal with difficult thoughts and questions. If that’s the case, you are clearly in the wrong place. Here’s what I want out of a good book, it’s easy, anyone could do it. Good story, compelling characters, depth and subtext. Easy! You’re being facetious. Anyway, novels like Blackass are important for dudes like me, which is to say white Americans, to read once in a while. I love where I live but I’ll be honest with y’all, it’s a straight up cracker barrel around here. In order to have any hope of broadening my perspective, I have to turn elsewhere – also, who wants to talk to people? With novels (or nonfiction, or whatever you want) like this, you’re forced to look at the perspective of someone else. Someone with a vastly different experience than yours, an entirely different outlook and understanding of the world. That can be difficult, but it’s necessary, at least if you want to be a decent human being. Otherwise just double down on your own, very limited perspective, and be President. Ugh.
The premise of Blackass is pretty straightforward. It begins with a thirty-something Nigerian man named Furo Wariboko waking up in his bedroom, which is in his parent’s house. He has a job interview that morning, which is a pretty big deal since employment in Lagos is difficult to come by. Once Furo wakes up, however, he has discovered that he is now a white guy. A ginger even. Red hair, green eyes, the works. Later we discover the reason for the book’s title: his ass is still extremely black. Furo panics and slips out of the house without being seen by his family, who he assumes would flip out and call the cops I guess. Despite his alarming transformation, Furo still recognizes the need to get to his interview and compete for the job which he hopes will finally launch his life. The first scenes of the book cover his journey to the place where his interview takes place, and deep in the warrens of Lagos, a white dude stands out. It’s like one record scratch moment after the other. As the story moves on, however, Furo starts to figure things out. He moves from being baffled by his whiteness to learning to exploit it. It gets uncomfortable.
It doesn’t take very long to figure out that Furo kind of sucks. Still, he’s the kind of guy who lulls you into thinking he might be okay, he’s got a charisma about him that makes some of the shitty things he does go down easier. Also, to be fair to the guy, his entire identity has been upended so I guess we can cut him some slack there. Still, it’s telling that his first impulse is to ditch his family. No note, nothing, he just up and bails. And here’s the first Very Important Lesson for some of the heart-in-the-right-place white liberals I’ve known in my life: black people are people and sometimes they’re assholes. Blackass would be an entirely different statement if Furo was unmoved by his experience and went out of his way to uphold his own blackness and did saintly deeds on behalf of his community with his new honky powers. This book ain’t about that. This book is about a normal dude, a guy who lives in Lagos which, and you may or may not know this, is not a great place to live. This book is about identity politics, but only from the viewpoint of a single, unremarkable individual in a massive city of 16 million individuals.
Furo quickly learns that his newfound whiteness comes with newfound power. His first moments are awkward and upsetting, since he’s in an entirely black neighborhood he’s extremely conspicuous. It gets worse when he talks because, oh hey he’s still the same guy and knows all the beats and rhythms of speech and life where he lives. The patois of his people sounds super weird coming from a redhead’s mouth, though – almost but not quite patronizing. Still, before even a few hours have passed, Furo has learned that he can exploit his whiteness. He borrows money from a random lady with promises to pay her back. He never does. When he shows up to his job interview, he gets in an argument with one of the fifty or so people in line for the single available job. Furo just walks right in, and ends up with a VP of marketing job. It is explicitly stated by the owner of the company that the reason for his hiring is because of his color. Keep in mind, this is Nigeria. The owner is black, but he also knows that the whites in Nigeria tend to have money and influence – remnants of colonial power. To succeed, the owner feels he needs to make clients and possible investors comfortable, and white people make other white people comfortable.
The only drawback of getting his job is that it doesn’t start for two weeks. Furo has convinced himself that he can’t go back home, that his family wouldn’t accept his new self. So he slums it, spending the night in an abandoned construction project with the corpse of a dead dog and is promptly eaten alive by mosquitos. Lagos sounds like a nightmare, and Barrett does nothing to sugarcoat the considerable downsides of the city. Anyway, I’ll skip ahead a little bit. Furo is a user. That’s why he sucks, and that’s in his heart as a person. His transformative whiteness only allows him to use people more. It amplifies what is already shitty about him as a person. While homeless, Furo runs into two people. The first is a writer, who we later discover is trans (and whose character is honestly a little thin, mostly there to give context to Furo’s story), who takes an interest in Furo because he suspects Furo’s transformation secret. Furo shamelessly asks this dude he just met if he can crash at his place. Which is something a crazy person does. He is denied this, but lucky for him there’s this foxy lady there named Syreeta there to offer him a place to stay.
Furo ends up treating this lady – who does the most for him of anyone in this story – horribly. The end of the story is the worst thing he does, with the possible exception of allowing his family to believe he’s missing. Syreeta is leading a complicated life, by which I mean she’s a professional mistress. She has a powerful boyfriend who gives her a place to stay, nice things, and cash money. For reasons known only to her, she adopts Furo as a sort of live-in mistress of her own. They bang, she gives him a place to live while he pursues his career, and after a while they actually form a functioning relationship. However, Furo – who has tellingly changed his name to Frank – is on an upward trajectory with his career. By the end, he’s dumped his first employer for one with more potential and who is willing to pay much more. Also, he wouldn’t have to live in Lagos any longer. However, Syreeta is pregnant, and she wants the kid. Was this the scam all along? Possibly – after all, she is basically a professional mistress, a live-in escort. The ending give the lie to that assumption though. Here’s Frank’s response to the situation:
“Furo resolved to stop Syreeta. He wouldn’t allow her to bring a baby into the world he was building for himself. It was a risk he couldn’t take. His black behind was trouble enough to live with, impossible to be rid of, but a black baby would destroy any chance of a new life. Of that he was certain, the baby would be black. Furo’s baby. Not Frank’s. Not his.
Because he was, frankly, white.”
So he does a terrible thing. Frank convinces Syreeta that oh hey baby, I totally love you and stuff. I want to marry you and whisk you away from here and we can live as a proper couple and have a family. But I need to save some money first, get my career going, so just head down to the clinic and take care of this situation and later on we’ll do it for real. She agrees to this, because I bet being a professional mistress is a bad time. As soon as he knows the baby is gone, Frank too is gone. He takes off with empty promises of paying her back, but as we know from that first random lady who lent him money, Furo doesn’t pay back shit. Because he’s an asshole, and by embracing his new whiteness, he is able to amplify that.
Blackass is an examination of race identity in a post-colonial Nigeria, sure, but mostly it’s the story of a weird thing happening to a guy, who then goes on to exploit that change to better his financial situation. The book doesn’t assign blame to social structures or history, the realities of colonialism are simply accepted as the way things are. Furo’s whiteness opens more doors for him than would otherwise be available because of that reality. By turning white – not just in color, but in how he thinks of himself – Frank is simply embracing that truth. It’s hard to blame the dude (I mean, other than the shitty trick he pulled on Syreeta) for choosing an easier life for himself. Nobody seems to blame him for accepting the good things that come his way once be becomes Frank, either. Life for the average person in Lagos is hard. Furo is a college-educated man in his thirties living with his parents and chronically unemployed despite the hundreds of applications he has sent out. Frank is a college-educated man in his thirties with a hot girlfriend, and excellent job, and the promise of more money and a better life. That doesn’t excuse his horrible behavior, which is somewhat redeemed by the very end in which he allows his family back in his life, but it does explain an awful lot.