A Novel
A. Igoni Barrett
(Graywolf Press)
Furo Wariboko has a problem. Or several of them. He lives in noisy Laos, Nigeria, one of the most polluted, car-and-truck jammed cities in the world. He lives with his family. He is unemployed. He doesn't have a girlfriend.

But his worst problem is that when he went to sleep last night, he was black; but when he woke up, he was white.

    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.

You think you got problems. Try to sink your teeth into that one. Or the obverse: you go to sleep a honky . . . and you wake up a black.

Furo knows that this is all going to be a little hard to explain to his father, his younger sister --- and especially his mother. Because she's a no nonsense kind of woman; how can he just up and break the news to her? So he does what you and I would probably do. he ruffs it. He sneaks out of the house, goes off for the job interview he had recently scheduled at HABA! NIGERIA LTD. He goes out on the street, and immediately notices that things are a little different now.

Before his sudden change, he would have been standing in line with the forty other young black men waiting to be interviewed for a salesman's job. This time though, they hustle him in the building and upstairs to meet the president of the company. And he is hired immediately.

And so it is, and so with author Barrett, we get to learn a great deal about being black in Nigeria; and about how people will treat you, one way or another. Because in Blackass we get to journey about with Furo who, in the few weeks we get to know him, will discover a world he has never seen in his thirty-three years on earth.

In his new skin, he is quickly, in a couple of days, he is offered three different high-paying jobs. (He's been looking over a year for employment, any employment.

Then, women? He finds himself being seduced by more than one beautiful woman . . . and soon enough, learns why they are coming after him, why his new love Syreeta "had picked him up on that second day of his awakening."

    Perhaps he had always known. Lagos big girl, with her sugar daddy and her snazzy jeep and her apartment in Lekki, but missing the white man to give her entry into the mixed-race babies club. And when we are done with Blackass, we will learn much (maybe too much) about what they call The Race Card . . . in Lagos, and, probably, in the world.

§   §   §

A. Igoni Barrett is a thirty-six year old author (his father is a writer too, from Jamaica). I'm thinking he must have enjoyed the hell out of writing this one. Because it's fun, plays with this race business exactly as it should be played. Subtle; not overdoing it. Play it as it comes.

At the same time, it gets to be a little bit scary as we go along with him, so we keep wondering how in the hell is he going to get out of this mess. And it is a mess. Just imagine (you!) overnight . . . completely changed. Outside. Not on the inside.

When he meets Igoni Tobra, he meets a guy who quickly figures out his secret, one who quickly vows to "out" him; and we find ourselves thinking that we don't want Igoni to pull the trigger, please, not yet, because Furo (and the reader) are having too much fun with this out-of-the-blue change.

For instance, when Furo goes into a "buka" (home-style streetside Lagos café) and places his order with the woman who runs the place, asking for "egusi soup," and she, hearing his Nigerian accent, like Igoni, knows that he is no ordinary "oyibo" (white). She asks, "Abeg, no vex, but you be albino?" When he says no, she "changed her expression from wonder one moment to glee the next."

It's the same glee that we find when Syreeta picks him up at a fancy upscale diner called The Palms ("for the Lagos rich, but also for yuppie teenagers, music video directors, and politicians eager to showcase the investment paradise.") Syreeta takes him right home with her, like a prize possession. She feeds him, lets him sleep there (and sleep with her), buys him clothes and an expensive passport that he can use to get a job.

But the most fun with Syreeta comes when she takes him off to meet her chums, the uptown women looking for "mixed-race babies." As they drink more and more, "the ladies' speech slipped further and further into the maze of slang, seeking those shaded places where meaning hid in plain sight,"

    "That my agabo Nikos nah proper olingo man she."

    "Nothing do you kpakam."

    "Yemi still dey shop adro for inside Dublin?"

    "Your oko jus' dey love up like person wey chio kognomi!"

As he is listening to this pure Lagos street-talk (which most of us probably cannot figure out), we know how strange Furo appears to them all: a young white man who can hear, comprehend, and speak back with the same words. It is at once comfortable, a place all of them can fall back into.

Barrett pulls this off because he knows how not to run it into the ground: the novel is brief, pithy, jammed with the kind of tension that all of us go through when we experience a metamorphosis right out of Ovid. Those times when we don a mask, or venture into a place we may not comprehend, landing in a new country where what people do seems a little unworldly, their speech a little strange, their currency vexing (why all the different colors and sizes? And who do these faces belong to?)

Barrett also yanks other changelings into the story. Igoni Tobra (the author said in interview that it is Tobra whom he most identifies with; they share the same name) also goes through his own transformation . . . one that may even seem a bit of a stretch for some readers. He turns out to be in the middle of a sex-change operation, giving the author a chance to play with a few other masks. A black who is white; a man who is a woman; the operator that Furo turns out to be, all the while pretending to be a simple innocent; and Igoni, the kindly appearing traitor, who will quickly be sporting some breasts.

It is that costume that all of us don, especially when we are in new territory; the change that comes as we move into new poses, with a new language, a new mind-set, a new name.

With his new skin, Furo chooses to call himself, with delicious irony, "Frank Whyte." The writer explains some of this in a nice aside on Nigerian tribal names: "Many Kalabari families still retained this legacy of the slave-trading days when the chieftains answered one name in the clan and another to the white customer, the European sailors, who had no intereest in learning their names and thus partly in mockery and partly from necessity, addressed them by English nicknames."

    Hence it became that Fyneface was Karibo, Yellowe was Iyally, Black Duke was Oweredaba, Bobmanuel was Ekine, Georgewill was Otagi, Harry was Idoniboye-Obu, and, according to Furo, Whyte was Wariboko.

§   §   §

The novel is entitled Blackass because, just as Achilles turns out to bear a singular weakness in the one part of his body that didn't get dipped --- his heel --- so it is with Furo. After he gets out of Syreeta's bed the first night, "a muffled scream punched the air, and Furo, coughing up juice, whirled around to find Syreeta staring. She raised her hand, pointed a stiffened finger at his groin, her movements slow, her eyes rounded as she says,

    "What happened?"

    He glanced down in fear. "What?"

    "Your ass, your ass! I mean your ass!"

    Fugo spun around, saw his reflection, then turned again, and looked over his shoulder.

    "Your ass is black!" Syreeta cried, and as Furo stared in the mirror, frozen in shock, she flung up her arms, flopped on her back, and wailed with laughter.

§   §   §

Readers will assume that the closest tale we have to Blackass is going to be Kafka's story. Barrett encourages this by quoting from The Metamorphosis on the dedication page, and --- to drive home the point --- has Furo, on the very first day of his transformation, get out of bed, and spot, as he does so, "A large reddish-brown cockroach emerged at that instant from under the bed, and, waving its antennae furiously skittered across the floor and into the darkened wardrobe." Furo immediately throws a hand mirror at it.

The symbolism is a bit heavy-handed. (More, Kafka's creature wasn't even a cockroach; the better translation of Ungeziefer is "vermin," later made more specific by the cleaning lady as "dung beetle"). I think a better parallel would be H. G. Wells' Invisible Man, in which a scientist comes up with a potion that turns him, well, invisible. Interesting, until he learns the disadvantages of being such. Like: it can be very lonely in there. It's difficult to build a relationships with anyone. (Try kissing someone you can't see). To go out in public, the invisible man has to go au naturel or, on the other hand, must cover his whole body (including his face). When he's roaming around in the buff, he is free to pick up anything he wants, but money or jewelry tend to alarm others if it goes floating off by itself. Thus, his new no-face soon becomes a curse.

So it is with Furo. When he hangs out with the rich ladies he is bored, disgusted by their mixed-race babies. Like all who have deep dark secrets (we all have deep dark secrets), he is afraid that someone is going to learn the truth and expose him (like the invisible man, who, if he is going about in his birthday suit ceases being invisible when it rains).

There is another problem Barrett digs up. Even though "he didn't have a hand in what he was didn't mean he wasn't culpable."

    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.

And so? "He realised he had been mistaken in assuming his new identity had overthrown the old."

This one gets a big star from us, and like Wells' tale, makes the reader damn glad it didn't happen to us.

Or that we don't have to live --- and drive --- in Lagos.

--- James W. Washington
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH