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Blackass – a review of A. Igoni Barret’s satirical novel

The nuances of identity are hinted at but perhaps not explored thoroughly enough in this intriguing book, says Farai K Dzvairo

Zimbabwe and Nigeria were colonised by the same British overlords, yet the two had very different colonial experiences. As Zimbabwe was a settler colony, it is not unusual to see white people who have lived in Zimbabwe all their lives and identify as Zimbabwean. In Nigeria, however, the British ruled indirectly through the use of existing political structures, without having to actually settle in the country. Today there are no ‘white Nigerians’, only transitory expatriates, and very few of them at that. This is the environment in which Furo Wariboko, the protagonist of A. Igoni Barrett’s first satirical novel Blackass, finds himself transformed overnight from a typical black Nigerian man into a white one.

I was left wondering about all the nuances of identity that had been hinted at superficially and left hanging throughout the book.

After dealing with the initial discomfort and teething problems of looking so alien within his community, Furo starts to enjoy some of that white privilege we hear so much about. How does he deal with these problems? Professionally, romantically and socially, doors he never would have seen in his ‘normal’ skin start opening for Furo and he takes full advantage of all of them. At one point Furo starts to feel entitled to the perks and special treatment his skin affords him. This is reflected in his condescending treatment of the people around him, including those who have shown him nothing but kindness from the beginning.

What makes us who we are?

Once Furo had settled into his new skin, the first question that came to mind was that of intersectionality: Yes, he was now a white man with white-man-in-Africa privileges, but was his subsequent behaviour because he had become white or because this was his fundamental character? In effect, was white Furo acting the way black Furo would have acted had he been born white, or was white Furo a projection of how black Furo would like to have acted as black man if he had the opportunity?

I was disappointed that Barrett didn’t explore these themes in greater detail through the character of Furo. While race and gender are different, one cannot fully understand the intricacies of one without at least acknowledging the role played by the other in social interaction and conditioning.

Perhaps these questions are the reason that Barrett introduces himself as a secondary character whom Furo meets during his escapades. Or maybe it is a post-modernist gimmick that enables him to star in his own novel and to explore the phenomenon and ubiquity of social media? The fictional Igoni is a writer who becomes fixated on ‘the white Nigerian’ after a chance meeting at a shopping centre. He uses social media to find out that Furo’s family has no idea about his transition and believes him to be missing. Adventurous in his use of the tweets of Furo’s sister as a means of illustrating how Furo’s family dealt with his disappearance, Barrett is clever in also using the platform to show us how online connections can go offline when the character Igoni arranges to meet Tekena, Furo’s sister, in person. Although I found this section of the book to go on for too long, with too little reward at the end, I did enjoy the innovative approach to prose. It reminded me of when Teju Cole, with a little help from his friends, tweeted an entire story back in 2014.

Does outer change equal inner change?

Igoni’s character also undergoes a transformation behind the scenes, although hers is from identifying as male when first introduced to Furo to identifying as female by the time she meets Furo’s sister. It is unclear whether this was Barrett’s attempt to incorporate intersectionality into his novel or whether it was just another twist to add to the storyline. Having changed her name to Morpheus, possibly in honour of the Greek god of dreams, who could also change his form at will, Igoni/Morpheus experiences a few unsolicited advances from men and concludes that ‘Womanhood comes with its peculiar burdens, among them the constant reminder of a subordinate status whose dominant symptom was uninvited sexual attention from men.’

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 the hardest to explain to the world.”

After Tekena dismisses one of these men in spectacular fashion, Morpheus reflects that ‘a woman defended me from what I used to be’. Unfortunately Barrett doesn’t follow this train of thought any further, but I found it striking that while Furo went from black to white and started enjoying increased power and influence, Morpheus went from male to female and her early experiences included the need for defence of some kind. So perhaps he is saying there is privilege in being white and male and dis-privilege in being black and female?

This is a novel about transformation, but how much of that is in the work? Neither Furo’s transition nor Igoni’s is complete. Furo’s black posterior declares his heritage and Morpheus’ penis remains in place. Is the author trying to indicate that no matter how much our outer appearance changes, we remain the same person in some places?

The narrator’s musings on race and fate are worth quoting. He distils this in a pithy note: “No one asks to be born, to be black or white or any color in between and yet the identity a person is born into becomes the hardest to explain to the world.”

Power dynamics in relationships

The ever-shifting power dynamics of relationships are also touched on in this novel. Alliances that appear to be parasitic on the surface turn out to be symbiotic when it is revealed that both parties were using each other, even if one did a better job of hiding it than the other.

While it is obvious that white Furo automatically commands more initial respect than black Furo would have, what is not clear is whether this ‘respect’ is real or only for show.

I appreciated that we were left to come to our own conclusions regarding whether Furo actually gained confidence because of his appearance, or whether it was enough for him to only act confident because those around him would defer to him regardless of the truth.

A hurried conclusion

It’s obvious from the detail in this book that Barrett loves Lagos and wanted to showcase some of its vibrancy and character. The descriptions of places and events were colourful and engaging but as I got to the end of the book I was waiting for something to happen. The final chapter read as a rushed attempt to conclude everything in the most bizarre way possible. I was left wondering about all the nuances of identity that had been hinted at superficially and left hanging throughout the book. It may have been that there were too many big ideas that just wouldn’t fit into such a short story or that the author’s intent was to get us to ask ourselves the questions, instead of imposing his views on us through his characters. After all, as Maxim Gorky famously said: “Keep reading books, but remember that a book is only a book, and you should learn to think for yourself.” Here’s to continuing the conversation about what makes us who we are.

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