- Identity Crisis
A. Igoni Barrett
262 Pages; Print, $16.00
Blackass, the debut novel of A. Igoni Barrett (Nigerian author of the short story collection Love is Power, or Something Like That ), charts the rise of Furo Wariboko, a young Nigerian who awakes one morning to discover that except for his rear-end, he’s turned into a white man. Yet, despite the superficial and obvious similarities to Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915), Barrett’s novel differs greatly. Whereas Kafka’s text is about existential alienation, Blackass is ultimately about how the color of one’s skin both connotes and denotes privilege.
That is to say, in Blackass, we see the main character change from Furo Wariboko, an empathetic individual slowly being ground down and consumed by Nigeria’s crony capitalism and economic immobility, into Frank White, someone well aware that his identity as a white man is more than a simple laissez-passer, it’s a literal signifier of access and entitlement. Such a transformation is more than—pardon the pun—skin deep, because Barrett highlights the psychological transformation that occurs within Furo/Frank as well. Frank’s white skin allows him to navigate levels of society and avenues of opportunity that were once previously unavailable to him, and in a phrase, he is offered sex, power, position, and upwardly mobility not because of his abilities, but because of his skin color, the situation demands it. Throughout the book, we see Furo slowly begin to attach flimsy rationales to his newfound sense of entitlement, resulting in a work that creatively illustrates the Hegelian maxim of how, because he needs his privilege to be recognized, the oppressor can end up just as psychologically damaged as the oppressed.
Still, Blackass is not the tale of one sole transformation, psychological or otherwise. This is a text full of doppelgangers, and Furo’s story is told to the reader by Igoni Barrett: another character who also undergoes a metamorphosis of sorts, but one that is a lot more recognizable to Western readers. Igoni transitions to woman throughout the course of the novel, and his/her fascination with Furo’s eventual transition into Frank is as both logical as it is understandable. It’s Igoni who chronicles the saga of Furo—as Furo’s transition to whiteness causes him to turn his back on both friends and his family—and Igoni who provides additional commentary—meta-commentary, really—when he states, “Long before Furo’s story became my own, I was already trying to say what I see now, that we are all constructed narratives.” Igoni’s passages are what gives the novel its intellectual heft, and what saves the work from being merely a satirical take on Nigeria’s contemporary socio-economic malaise. Through the character of Igoni, then, Barrett is able to shed light on Nigerian society in a way that doesn’t reek of pedantic or didactic social commentary, and show how the “constructed narratives” we create for ourselves can both equally empowering and destructive. And while Igoni encounters difficulty, too, his chance encounter and interaction with Furo has ramifications for them both. At the risk of spoiling the book, their re-encounter near the end of the novel reveals volumes about the pernicious and corrosive effects of privilege, as well as the politics of dominance and submission that underlie every racial and/or gendered encounter.
That said, there is also a third major character in the work, and that’s the country of Nigeria, especially the city of Lagos. Like Teju Cole’s New York in Open City (2011), or Karen Tei Yamashita’s San Francisco in I Hotel (2010), Barrett writes about a specific locus of contemporary life and uses it as fodder by which to make a larger statement on the human condition. In many respects, Barrett’s novel is a love letter to the city, despite and perhaps because of its dysfunction, for Barrett writes Lagos as a thriving metropolis almost always already on the verge of collapse. For example, look at the following passage, where he states:
Furo stepped out through the French windows...