For more than fifty years, I have closely followed Nigerian writing—especially fiction—beginning with the pioneers of the continent’s writing: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and others. Nigeria has dominated the writing of the continent because of its large population and, especially in the early years, its high literacy. I suspect this domination will continue in the future. In the past decade, especially, there has been an explosion of Nigerian literature; many writers have achieved international fame. And the younger ones keep publishing exciting new books, often critical of their country, often tackling new issues and themes. No other country on the continent today has such a rich tradition and high literary productivity as Nigeria. Think of it this way: the country is the continent’s leader, not just in its economy.
Add to the list of emerging new Nigerian novelists A. Igoni Barrett, who—according to the information about him—has published an earlier book, Love Is Power, or Something Like That—a collection of short stories that I have not read. Now he’s published a novel, called Blackass, an often-disturbing satire with cutting-edge humor of contemporary life in Lagos, the country’s largest city. I’ll say right up front that the book is uneven, with a number of slow sections, but nevertheless worthy of our attention because of a malaise, which if correct, might be called the Nigerian disease. And that sickness is the continued assumption that white is better than black, a carry-over from colonial days when the idea was droned into the colony’s subjects. I hope that Barrett is wrong—that this is no more than a big joke, an obsession, for many people.
The plot is fairly simple. A young Nigerian, Furo Wariboko, who has been unemployed for a long time, wakes up one morning and discovers that he is white. Although he’s 33 years old (is that supposed to be revealing?), he still lives with his family because of his lack of a job. But this is the morning when he has a serious job interview. His mother has already left for work; his sister is still asleep, so Furo can leave the house without their awareness of his altered appearance. The country, according to Furo—who narrates much of the story—has a youth unemployment rate of fifty percent, not that atypical for African countries today. And although Furo has some advanced education, the lack of job prospects has made it impossible for him to move away from his family.
At the job interview because he arrives late, Furo should be at the back of the line of many people, but his whiteness results in his being considered before most of the other applicants and immediately offered the job at a rather enormous salary. That position is the Marketing Executive for a book-publishing company. Never mind that he knows zilch about marketing; never mind that he himself rarely reads. Barrett can’t resist poking fun at Nigerian book-reading patterns, mostly limited to self-help books. Titles like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, and Are You Ready to Succeed? are included in the company’s publications. If you spend much time in Lagos and other major African cities, you will encounter street-hawkers selling books of such ilk.
Not only does Furo get a job because of his white skin, but Nigerian women are also immediately attracted to him. One of them lets him move in with her and she discovers—after they have made love the first time—that although his skin is white, his buttocks are black. Figure that one out. All of the people he encounters are immediately attracted to him because he has a Nigerian accent, speaks Pidgin English, and has his country’s mannerisms—plus the supposed bonus of being white.
Intentionally, Furo has not returned home after he gets the job and the girl; he tries to sever all relationships with his family, including taking on a new persona and a new name (Frank Whyte). For a time he is fearful of visiting some of the dicer places in Lagos where he’s always been comfortable in the past. Then one of the people he meets tells him, “No white man has ever been lynched in Lagos.” Soon, other companies attempt to poach him, to hire him at an even larger salary—all because they love the idea of a white man who can speak the local dialect and act like a Nigerian. Finally, he’s offered still another job at an obscene salary, a fancy car, and such an expensive flat that he can’t resist the temptation. All of these shenanigans are a little like those of Jerzy Kosinksi’s Chauncey Gardiner, moving up, up, up in society because of an assumption the people around him have made of him that is not true.
Best of all—and this is why Blackass is worth reading and not tossing aside in spite of some of the slower passages—the novel has more than enough believable surprises in the last fourth of it that shift the narrative in a fascinating direction that the reader does not foresee at the beginning (in spite of adequate clues along the way). The ending is delicious, quite an accomplishment on Barrett’s part, demonstrating the writer’s skills at plotting and moving his satire into a more serious dimension. Thus, Blackass becomes a revealing commentary on the veneer that one typically regards as Nigerian society, without recognizing the bulwark that holds it all together.
Igoni Barrett’s Blackass
Graywolf Press, 262 pp., $16