Author: Igoni Barrett
Furo Wariboko, the protagonist in Igoni Barrett’s Kafkaesque dark satirical comedy wakes up and discovers that ‘dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep’. Like Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis, he is quite erm different than when he went to bed; only in this instance, he is not a gigantic insect, he is now a white man. For a book that begins with what is practically the climax, things continue to get uproariously crazy from that point.
Furo is an unemployed university graduate in his early thirties living in Lagos with his parents and sister who one day inexplicably wakes up as a white man. There is no time to ponder on and investigate this sudden transformation as he has a job interview that very morning and so he escapes from his family and makes his way to the interview venue but not without a little drama on the way. At the venue of the interview, he is offered a higher post with perks including a company car to be resumed at in 2 weeks. Unable to go back home after the interview, he is forced to sleep in an uncompleted building where he discovers that mosquitoes are not impressed by Caucasian skin and at the end of his wandering the next day when he ends up at a mall, he meets Syreeta who at first approaches him in order to make her married lover jealous but after accepting his request to stay at her place till he resumes his job becomes his lover and benefactor. There is only one issue of note about Furo’s transformation, his ass remains black. As succinctly put by the writer ‘it is easier to be than to become’.
At first it is confusing for Furo to settle into his new skin as seen in his encounters with the first few people he comes across after he successfully escapes from his home without being discovered by his family. He calls out greetings and stares at neighborhood haunts out of habit, he is disturbed by the stares that naturally come with sighting a white man in such incongruous circumstances, he persistently insists that he is truly Furo Wariboko and that he is Nigerian. But the transition gets easier as Furo is reminded of the privileges of being Caucasian; he is offered an executive job after applying as a salesperson, Syreeta, a true Lagos babe with an heart of gold but not without her own intentions, invites and allows him to stay on in her home, he is fawned over and offered favors and soon Furo Wariboko becomes Frank Whyte, the metamorphosis is complete.
It is a bit unsettling how Furo is quickly reconciled to his new circumstances and the decision to walk away from his family. While he attempts to explain this away to himself as a way of sparing them, particularly his mother, the circus of the initial horror and subsequent pain and expenses that would inevitably follow his revealing his current state, Furo’s treatment of other people who interact with him in his new skin, the lack of hesitation to advantage as well as his new found ease in condescending to his ‘inferiors’ gives him away as selfish and manipulative and shows that perhaps his new skin and body is simply a gateway to him finally being who he always was.
Another moment is the ‘Twitter segment’ in which Igoni lets us into the world of retweets, subs and hashtags, it is here Igoni (the writer as the character) begins to search for leads on Furo after meeting him at a mall and where he meets Furo’s sister who has opened a Twitter account to search for her missing brother via the worldwide web but is also not impartial to taking advantage of Furo’s absence to being an online celebrity.
Blackass is a truly fascinating novel and two high moments stood out for me. The first is that the author, Igoni inserts himself into the book as a character and no, this does not mean that he names a character after himself, he is the character. He becomes a narrator that connects us to the lives of Furo’s anguished family and towards the end of the book, goes through a transformation of his own. Another moment is the ‘Twitter segment’ in which Igoni lets us into the world of retweets, subs and hashtags, it is here Igoni (the writer as the character) begins to search for leads on Furo after meeting him at a mall and where he meets Furo’s sister who has opened a Twitter account to search for her missing brother via the worldwide web but is also not impartial to taking advantage of Furo’s absence to being an online celebrity. There are also a great many laughs to be found here, mad cosmopolitan Lagos is the perfect location and the city truly comes alive here with memorable characters, conversations and much more.
In all, Blackass comes off to me as a book about the questions revolving around identity. Are the persons we truly are curtailed by factors like race, class, religion, education etc? Given a sudden change of circumstances, if certain factors were changed or completely removed, would we remain the persons we think we are? Do the events that unfold following Furo’s transformation not show that he is selfish, manipulative and condescending and that he perhaps wasn’t that person before his transformation simply because he couldn’t afford to?.
With his debut novel, Igoni Barrett has given us a book with humor, satire, exasperation and a whole lot of questions and he has done it brilliantly. If you haven’t read it already, you should.