A. Igoni Barrett, Blackass (Graywolf Press, 2016)
By Timothy Ogene
The line of connection between A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass and Kafka’s Metamorphosis is not hard to trace. It is established at the very beginning of the novel, with a prefatory quote from Metamorphosis: “’And now?’ Gregor asked himself, looking around in the darkness.’”
The premise of both novels is straightforward: a young man wakes up one morning and finds himself transformed into what he is not. For Gregor Samsa, Kafka’s protagonist, it is a transformation “into a monstrous insect.” But for Furo Wariboko, Barrett’s 33-year old protagonist, transformation is a racial affair. He wakes up to find that he has changed from black to white, in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city. And to further complicate things, his arse does not undergo this bizarre transformation, it stubbornly retains its blackness to Furo’s distress. On that first day, like Kafka’s Gregor, Furo does not react with the depth of panic one would expect in such circumstance. He is distressed but does not alert his family. Instead, after observing his usual morning rituals and flinging a “hand mirror” at a “reddish-brown cockroach” that “emerged [. . .] from under his bed,” he picks up his files and goes off to interview for a sales position. It is the absurdity of Furo’s reaction, the decision to carry on with his day as planned, that gives away the novel’s deliberate suspension of reality and the beginning of a constructed world that nonetheless mirrors, or attempts to mirror, our understanding of reality.
If Furo’s transformation does not completely engage Kafka’s situational allegory, the intensity of events happening in a single space, it echoes George Schuyler’s Black No More, a satirical novel about the tensions and anxieties of race in America at the turn of the twentieth century. One could almost say, that Barrett’s Blackass takes its cue from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, its sociological commentary from Schuyler’s Black No More, and its procedures and language of articulation from the politics of identity in contemporary Nigeria. Unlike Schuyler’s satire and its narration of race relations, the opportunity for close reflections on race in Barrett’s work are diluted by the absence of extreme black-white layers of conflict in everyday Nigeria. The setting itself forces a limit on what can and cannot be explored in terms of race-relations. However, the psychological legacies of colonialism, that subtle and almost unconscious glorification of whiteness, is dramatized in the sudden socio-economic opportunities that avail themselves to Furo.
Being white in Nigeria, Furo soon realizes, is associated with privilege or some measure of access to privilege. And in real terms, it is that privilege, not the whiteness itself, that draws attention. He is indeed shocked at the rate with which luck came to him: a job offer with pecks beyond his original expectation, and a string of businessmen making him counter offers knowing that his whiteness translates into tangible opportunities for them. But within these offers and favours are hints of his objectification by those around him. He is a means to an end, a link to an idea of wealth. It is his whiteness, a symbol of privilege, that attracts interest, not his humanity. While he gradually begins to enjoy his new status, exploiting it, his awareness of the illogical workings of race equally begins to increase. He has done nothing to deserve the attention, to deserve the open doors, but must find ways to retain his place and privilege, to erase all traces of his past as a black man. So, like Schuyler’s Max Disher, who chooses to go by Mathew Fisher, Furo adopts a new name, a gesture that adds to an escalating anxiety within him, of being alone though showered with a new variety of attention.
Perhaps the worst dilemma here is the internal truth that lurks within him, a black Nigerian in a white skin, an existential confusion that Franz Fanon would have gleefully spotted and carefully analysed. To those he encounters, his claim to Nigerianness is jarring and disorienting. How could this white man speak with the depth of cultural precision and insight that can only be attained by black Nigerians? By amplifying his crisis of race and nationality, the novel gestures towards a wider question of belonging as acted out in societies where race and nationality are constantly contested. What, for instance, does it mean to be American, and what are the yardsticks for measuring who is more American than the other?
Furo’s own claim to cultural insight is an unnerving imposition. “I’m Nigerian,” he repeatedly answers his interlocutors, to which they either drew back and laughed, or dismissed as mere performance. But in there lies his liminality, the not-quite-ness of his new existence. He is beginning “to see that he had no past as he was and no future as he has been.” He tries to deconstruct what he is, authentic or inauthentic. And the loneliness of liminality begins to set in. He is a man alone, stripped of identity, dislocated from the specifics of home and place of birth. But his consolation lies in the prospects attached to his new whiteness – jobs and attention – as against his previous state of joblessness and looming failure.
For readers who are aware of the far-reaching insidiousness of racial dynamics, Barrett’s reluctance to engage expected tropes and conflicts can be frustrating. But between the reader’s expectation and the writer’s reluctance arises a further question: why seek complete reality in fiction? And whose reality are we talking about here? That of the Western reader, whose awareness of race is different from those of the West African reader whose idea of race follows a different historical trajectory? Perhaps the writer’s duty is to remind us that fiction is simply what it is, a slant account of reality, sometimes frustrating in its refusal to confirm what we know; other times offering us what we know but in doses that upset our sense of satisfaction.
Barrett’s novel is very much aware of its own internal reality. For instance, by offering us a non-foreign foreigner, it performs the sort of distance required to objectively assess one’s own country or city. And it is from that distance, as invested visitors, that we take stock of everyday life in Lagos. What we see is a Lagos the old Furo could not have paused to ponder. But now, transformed into a foreigner with a different measure of self-awareness and sense of space,
“he made discoveries about this new place he had lived in all his life.”
There are moments when the novel gravitates towards a general critique of the cultural residue of colonialism, with emphasis on the puzzling obsession with the West as a “symbol of progress.” That obsession is dramatized through Furo’s recollection of his teacher’s misreading of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. To his teacher, “Okonkwo fought against the white man and lost. “ And Okonkwo’s defeat is a sign that “Progress always wins […].”
Barrett’s novel, to some degree, is an attempt to understand the psychology of the post-colonial city dweller who, by reason of entrapment between a destabilized cultural past and a future shaped by western values, slips into an identity crisis that expresses itself in claims that contradict themselves. To Western readers, aware of recurrent racial tensions, Furo’s exploitation of race to his advantage is a familiar territory with a long history.