Nadine Gordimer praised A. Igoni Barrett for his ability to render “colloquial literature without seeking spurious attention by vulgar daring.” Setting aside Gordimer’s strange conflation of the colloquial mode with vulgarity and crass ostentation, she is right about the easy elegance to the prose of Barrett’s first novel.
When Blackass was published by Chatto and Windus in the UK in 2015, reviewers quite reasonably fixated on the Kafka riff that is the novel’s premise. Barrett’s protagonist Furo Wariboko transforms from a black Nigerian into a white Nigerian. Yes, the reference to The Metamorphosis is deliberate, but perhaps there is also an allusion here to the African author Apuleius and The Golden Ass. Blackass is part of a longer lineage.
Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep. He was lying nude in bed, and when he raised his head a fraction he could see his alabaster belly, and his pale legs beyond, covered with fuzz that glinted bronze in the cold daylight pouring in through the open window. He sat up with a sudden motion that swilled the panic in his stomach and spilled his hands into his lap… His hands were not black but white.
Thirty-three year old Wariboko has been drowning in the deep unemployment crisis in Lagos for three years, but he has an interview that morning for a position as a business book salesman. Attending the offices of his prospective employer as a newly minted white man, Wariboko finds his currency is immediately increased—he gets promoted. Barrett’s absurdist satire allows some neat jabs at the superficiality of “white” literary pretensions and perceptions of Nigeria. Asked, during the job interview, when he last read a book, Wariboko recalls padding his résumé by claiming reading as a hobby. The only book he can think of is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart—arguably the only Nigerian novel and novelist that most white readers or oyibo can name. There are fine layers to this.
Blackass has been criticized in the UK for superficiality, and some of this critique almost certainly arises from the lack of self-reflection during the opening scenes of the book: the metamorphosis is presented as a practical problem—how to leave the house unseen; how to reach the job interview; the misalignment of Wariboko’s name, voice and résumé with his whiteness—rather than as an ontological crisis. Some readers will find themselves thinking of Trading Places, the Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd comedy. Is the point that whiteness and its privileges prevent self-reflection? Or is superficiality a price paid for the mythic mode?
In his attempt to conceal his whiteness from his family, Wariboko enters exile and misadventure. The odyssey brings him pain.
He wished he had someone with whom to share his burden. If only he could go to this mother and say, ‘Mummy, something is wrong, look at what happened to me!’ And his mother would take control just like when he was seven and caught chickenpox from school. She would pacify his fears with promises of ice-cream binges. She would strip off his clothes and bathe him in warm Dettol-smelling water, the rub him down with calamine lotion and set him loose to run shrieking around the house, her little war-painted savage.
With its Kipling-esque sense of Wariboko’s newfound burden as a white man; with its nods to the transmission of disease under colonialism and ideologies of infection and disinfection; with its inversion of the racist advertisements of washing black children into whiteness, themselves derived from the fables of the slave Aesop, Blackass is anything but superficial. Dettol ads used to promote the disinfectant’s efficacy when applied to girls who would be boys, and Lysol was touted as a method of birth control. As with his complex deployment of the Things Fall Apart reference, Barrett shows a gift for stacking allusions with great irony, which is the true discomfiting power of weep-inward satire, as opposed to laugh-aloud comedy. To read this novel as a contemporary Nigerian take on Kafka is to do it a disservice. There is something more profound at work in the oscillation between the writing and the reading of Blackass.
“Black and white, we’re all brothers,” the man continued. “We should support each other, you know, like Bob Marley, one love.”
When Wariboko describes the new torture of mosquitos as “those Brit-massacring heroes of West Africa’s anti-colonial resistance,” or very early in the book when a Nigerian employee attempts to ingratiate himself with the white Wariboko by invoking Bob Marley, Barrett is in control of his comedy. The jokes are loud, but not so loud as the ideologies they mock. Blackass is also notable for its polyglossic range. It takes in the street slang of Lagos, the mannerisms of bureaucracy, and the metafictional aspects of Barrett’s Twitter account.
What is a Kafka-esque metamorphosis in the context of free-roaming digital identities? Each of us knows a dozen or a thousand iterations of Gregor Samsa, or Tiresias, or Furo Wariboko. The apparent ease of the transition is part of the point; the real difficulty lies in transcending the perception of some specious essentialism. Whatever the shade of your ass, A. Igoni Barrett’s brilliant first novel will make you shift uneasily and hilariously upon it.