On waking up white: Nigerian gets a surprise in ‘Blackass’

Blackass. A. Igoni Barrett. Graywolf. 262 pages $16.
Blackass. A. Igoni Barrett. Graywolf. 262 pages $16.

A. Igoni Barrett’s first novel arrives to great anticipation. Since age 24, when he won the BBC World Service short-story contest in 2005, Barrett has been viewed as one of Africa’s most promising young writers. A pair of lauded short-story collections did nothing to dim the luster, the most recent of which, Love is Power or Something Like That, was named a “best book of 2013” by NPR.

Now. After that bit of throat-clearing, I’ve almost worked up the grit to utter the title of this splendid work — a title that may strike some readers as needlessly crass. But in the telling of its story, Blackass redeems itself, its crudeness morphing into an almost affectionate emblem of Igoni’s boldness and generosity as a writer.

Blackass, I’m happy to say, has a rare quality shared only by the best of novels. It teaches you how to read it, something I needed 30 or 40 pages to catch on to. Up till then, the story of an ambitious Nigerian waking up to discover that he has turned white seemed burdened by its all-too-obvious symbolism, its all-too-obvious indictment of colonialism, its all-too-obvious evocation of Kafka.

Furo Warboko, an educated young man with few prospects, has been unemployed for three years. Once he slips out of the house (how to explain the sudden change to his weak father, loving mother or frivolous younger sister?) and onto the teeming streets of Lagos, it is as if he has developed a superpower. Pretty women flirt with him, functionaries defer, and he not only gets a job but an executive position for which he has no qualifications, evidently all because he is white.

To this point, Blackass parades its aspirations to social satire like a banner, making its points earnestly. The narrative lacks sparkle, the characters are two-dimensional.

Furo is the beneficiary of too many coincidences, the most important of which is Syreeta, a beautiful and wealthy courtesan who, out of no discernible motivation, takes him in and smooths his paths with her money and contacts.

And then, almost from one page to the next, the narrative snaps into focus, the satire begins to reveal its depths and subtleties, and the wit crackles, as when Furo and Syreeta, now lovers, have a meaningless quarrel. “Syreeta said to Furo, ‘Why are you such a big dictator’ to which he replied smirking, ‘Because you are such a small country.’ They laughed together.’ 

The better we come to know Furo, the more likable he becomes. As Syreeta tells him, he is “a good man.” It is not so much that his sudden Caucasian appearance has given him white privilege, though it has, but more that people notice him now that he is white. And once he is noticed, the appealing quality of his character comes into view.

The change gives Furo a new viewpoint, as well. Unable to find a taxi he can afford, he has this little epiphany. “His frustration turned to anger. Anger directed everywhere. Everywhere he turned he made new discoveries about this new place he had lived all his life. Life in Lagos was locked in a constant struggle against empathy. Empathy was too much to ask for, too much to give: it was good only for beggars to exploit in their sob stories aimed at your pocket through your heart.”

From the start, Barrett owns the Kafka connection with an epigraph from The Metamorphosis. But Furo is an anti-Gregor Samsa. He comes from a loving family. Instead of passively disappearing into his fate, Furo embraces it, uniting the new identity with the old one. His story, far from a bleak examination of the meaninglessness of the human condition, affirms the eternal capacity for human optimism.

Chauncey Mabe is a writer in Miami.