Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
Graywolf Press, 2016
Blackass is a fresh and compelling exploration of blackness (and whiteness) in current-day Nigeria. A. Igoni Barrett’s debut novel balances strong roots in literary and cultural history with a comprehensive portrait of a twenty-first century life. When Furo Wariboko, a young black Nigerian man, wakes up white, it’s hard not to remember Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who woke as a bug, then lived the rest of his life confined to his bedroom. Barrett seems to encourage the comparison, winking at readers with a radio jingle Furo hears that morning: “Mortein! Kills Insects Dead!” However, the similarity between Gregor and Furo ends at finding themselves in a new skin. Furo’s trajectory is dramatically different—after waking early, he ventures out for a job interview. His life is positively transformed by his change in skin color. Though cab drivers upcharge a white man, previously padlocked doors are flung open for Furo. He wakes as one of the fifty percent of Nigeria’s young adults who are unemployed and desperate, heading out for his second job interview in three years. Upon arriving at publishing company Haba! Nigeria Ltd., he’s escorted past the long line of job hopefuls and into executive offices. When he leaves, Furo is a Marketing Executive with a salary, car, and driver. He embraces his whiteness and the new identity it brings, so much so that he decides to disappear completely from his family and former life.
Early in the book, Barrett references the Nigerian novel best known to English language readers. Furo plans to discuss Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in his interview at Haba!, hoping to establish his credibility as a reader. Furo was required to read the book for school and he remembers his teacher’s interpretation, that the white man represents progress and the protagonist, Okonkwo, meets his death because he tries to fight progress. This colonial reading of a post-colonial cultural touchstone reads as violence against Okonkwo and the culture he represents. Furo makes no commentary on the lesson, doesn’t question his teacher or articulate another perspective. The lack of push back leaves the reader outraged and uncomfortable, fearing that Furo could suffer a fate similar to Okonkwo’s.
On his second day as a white man, Furo visits a high-end shopping mall in the white part of town. He worries that the mall is where the bubble will burst; someone, white or black, will notice his ragged clothes and dirtiness and recognize him as a fraud. Instead, he meets Syreeta, a beautiful woman who offers him a place to stay until his job starts. It’s in Syreeta’s bedroom that Furo learns a humiliating secret. Despite his pale skin, green eyes, and red hair, his transformation is not complete. His ass is still black:
The bigger terror was that the blackness on his buttocks would spread into sight, would creep outwards to engulf everything, to show him up as an imposter. …No one asks to be born, to be black or white or any colour in between, and yet the identity a person is born into becomes that hardest to explain to the world. …he realized he had been mistaken in assuming his new identity had overthrown the old. His idea of what he was, of who the world saw him as, was shaken by the blemish on his backside. He knew that so long as the vestiges of his old self remained with him, his new self would never be safe from ridicule and incomprehension. Syreeta, clearly, had shown him that.
What follows is a desperate attempt to change the skin of his ass. Still, Syreeta takes Furo to meet her friends, showing off the white man she’s proud to have matched with.
The novel covers twenty-five days, with flashbacks to Furo’s education and youth. On the most basic level, Furo’s story is illustrative of how racism functions, even in a majority black city and country. When Furo disappears, his sister takes to Twitter in hopes of finding him. The publicity campaign does not urge Furo back home, rather, he deletes his social media accounts and changes his name to Frank Whyte, certain that this alter ego will keep him safely distanced from his past self. Furo’s overnight transformation and his attempts to solidify it are the perfect vehicles for investigating deeper questions of race and identity.
An unexpected yet welcome character is Igoni, the author Furo meets in a mall coffee shop. The writer’s metanarrative of researching, writing about, and interacting with Furo alternates with Furo’s narrative in sections. Igoni is the first person Furo hits up for a place to stay. Though the author refuses to let Furo stay with him, his writerly curiosity is ignited. Ultimately, Igoni experiences an identity transformation similar in nature to Furo’s. Though both men are unrecognizable at the end of the novel, they are unchanged at the core, and intimacy reveals them to be who they were at the start. Igoni’s presence in the novel, steering Furo back toward the life he fled, adds another layer of personal, emotional significance to Furo’s fight to keep his secret.
Blackass is highly readable and hard to put down. Furo’s story is an emotional and effective exploration of identity, how its formation slips in and out of our control, and how it changes (or doesn’t). In addition to all that, Barrett treats readers to a satisfying ending, which surprises right up to its final sentences. Furo’s whiteness doesn’t save him from an Okonkwo-like fate—it’s in his blackness that he finds redemption.