I came across the book Blackass by the Nigerian author A. Igoni Barrett by accident. It happened while I was looking to buy Ayobami Adebayo’s book Stay With Me, and when I read the blurb of Barrett’s novel, my curiosity was immediately awakened: the story of a young Nigerian who wakes up one day as a white man in the middle of the bustling city of Lagos.
Having recently travelled to Lagos myself, I am aware of the differences in treatment from the locals if you’re an ‘oyinbo’, a white person, and so I promptly bought the book and started reading it as soon as it arrived in the mail. Initially, I casually strolled through the pages, enjoying the funnily confusing first moments of Furo Wariboko as a white man.
Barrett evokes the expected, typical instances of difference in treatment of a white man in Africa: oyinbo Furo gets started at, the taxi drivers he interacts with more than triple their prices, women pity him and help him navigate through the city, jobs are offered, seats are given up, passport are handed out.
A few chapters into the novel, though, the focus shifts from funny culture-clash, cliche moments to Furo’s life, his new job, his mysterious girlfriend, his past, or his quest for a passport that depicts an accurate picture. The novel evolves almost into a kind of ‘Bildungsroman’, the coming of age or the development of the protagonist, illustrated by the colourful surroundings of Lagos and later on Abuja. We laugh a little less and follow the protagonist on a frantic mission to fit into Lagosian society as a white man with a thick Nigerian accent and passport.
At the end of the novel, as a reader, we know quite a lot about the functioning – or dysfunction- of Nigeria and its economic capital Lagos, its job market and customs, and the hopes and dreams of common Nigerians, but we have received very little critical analysis of the treatment of Furo as a white man compared to the treatment of other Nigerians by their own countrymen.
The narrative gives the (false?) impression that Furo’s treatment has less to do with his skin and more with his connections, or the instances are just that mundane and expected, that critical investigation is made to look superfluous. For example, it seems obvious in the novel that Nigerian women would be more interested in Furo as a white man than they would be in Furo as a black man. We already know this. But why is Nigerian society constructed in such a way? What does Furo’s ‘whiteness’ implicitly indicate to men and women in Nigerian society? Where do these norms and ideals come from? – Our questions remain unanswered.
Blackass is the story about Furo waking up as a white man in Lagos, it attempts to raise questions about identity and belonging, but it does not answer them, it does not even suggest an answer, and, in my opinion, even the questions are not so well formulated either.
Barrett’s novel is a mixture of a loose adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphoses, a biographical story, and a funny travel account through Lagos. If you are looking for a funny, and at times satirical, account of life in Lagos, with a pointed plot twist, then Barrett’s book will definitely be to your liking.
If you are looking, like me, for example, for a deeply critical analysis of the binary racial oppositions and ideologies in Nigeria, and maybe even in Africa at large, Barrett’s novel will leave you unsatisfied.
In spite of this, Furo Wariboko and his dark secret, his black ass, have struck a chord with me, because, in an age of fluidity, where everyone can be everything, where fraud is common, where people hide behind filters, makeup, clothes, and money, like Furo, we all eventually learn that no matter how hard we try, we can never fully run away from the truth.