Furo Warikbo, the protagonist in A. Igoni Barrett's debut novel, Blackass, is a normal young guy in Lagos, Nigeria—until one day, on the morning of a job interview, he wakes up to discover he's been transformed overnight. His black skin has somehow been turned white, with the exception of one thing: his black ass. The novel follows Furo's transition into his new identity, along with the challenges that arise from his past, intertwining issues of race, sexual identity, and the chance to look at society's racial bias from a new perspective.
Barrett, who is Nigerian, published his first collection of short stories in 2005. Though Blackass is his first novel, it certainly doesn't lack ambition. Barrett uses humor to bring up darkly serious themes, and his prose reflects on racial identity in Nigeria. I spoke with Barrett about the idea behindBlackass, his desire to change the narrative surrounding Nigerian culture, and the relationship between race, sexuality, and identity.
VICE: Blackass is pretty provocative. Where did the idea come from?
A. Igoni Barrett: I have a notebook where I write down ideas and [one idea] basically went like this: A young Nigerian man wakes up on the morning of his job interview to find out that he's white. I very quickly realized this was similar to Kafka's Metamorphosis. So after I had written about a paragraph, I went to re-read Metamorphosis, which had been a favorite of mine for about ten years. When I re-read it, I realized the similarities, but I also found myself kind of responding negatively to Gregor Samsa, the main character. I realized my character was going to be the opposite, and so it almost felt like a conversation—where Gregor Samsa remains at home, Furo does the opposite. And once he stepped out, he began to feel like a newer image of Samsa, in my mind at least. He was doing the opposite of everything Samsa did. He was running away from his family, he cut off ties, he was determined to succeed, and he was not going to be beaten down by life. That part of him I found admirable.
Especially because it was my first novel, I wanted it to be strange, to be new, to break new grounds. I wasn't interested in writing another Nigerian novel about war, another African novel about family or loving each other; I wanted something new and something I felt reflected the second generation of Nigerians, and so I kind of brought all of those wants into writing this book.
The book discusses identity in a couple different ways: Race inequality, racial identity, and then sexual identity, specifically within the trans community. How did all of that come about while writing?
While writing the book in 2012, the United States—a country that had elected its first black president, and the world applauded it for that move—started having these stories of unarmed black people getting shot. So once I realized the book had this racial thing embedded in it, I began to subconsciously respond to that narrative coming out of the States, also trying to juxtapose it against Nigeria. Nigeria is a country with nearly 200 million people, and most of them are black. In Nigeria, people are fond of saying that we don't have any racial issues, but Nigeria does have issues, and this story allowed me to explore that. I began to see that yes, the issue of race does not manifest in Nigeria the same way it does in the States or the way it does in parts of Europe, but it's still an element there. It's still present in the way people treat each other. And once I realized it was going to be about race, it became about identity.
Also around the time I was writing this book, Nigeria passed a law outlawing homosexual relations. I felt it was necessary to reflect that in the book.
Right, there's a trans character, who happens to share the same name as you.
This was a book dealing with identity, and I wanted to reflect sexual differences and people's choices. I've had people react strongly to the book, but [no one in Nigeria criticized] the transgender character in the novel. I've had people think it's weird, it's crazy, it's funny, but because it was so outlandish, they could empathize with the character without thinking it was a threat to their beliefs. But yeah, I've had people walk up to me and ask, "Where are your breasts?" [Laughs] And I had to tell them, "Actually, I am not the character in the book."
"Nigeria has over 300 indigenous languages, but the language of education and the language of business and government is English, which says something about how we see ourselves in the world."
Throughout the book you include different quotes from other writers. There's one quote, by Frantz Fanon, that really struck me: "For the black man there is only one destiny and it is white." What was the significance of you using that?
Frantz Fanon was this black man from the West Indies who lived in France. He wrote a book called Black Skin White Masks about the effect of racism upon the victim and how the victim adjusts to society's perceptions of them. For most people, that's a controversial statement, especially if you're black. That quote resonates elsewhere in the book, and in Nigeria in general. For example, in Nigeria today our official language is English. Nigeria has over 300 indigenous languages, but the language of education and the language of business and government is English, which says something about how we see ourselves in the world. So I felt that resonated with the Fanon quote—the world we engage with today is based on a Western model. In the end, the destiny of the black man so far has been to become white, and that will only balance out when it's become the destiny of the white man to become black. The only way the white man will want to become black is when blacks finally begin to own their own cultures. So that's why the quote resonated with me; I felt it was painful but honest.
For touching on such serious topics, the book is really funny. Was that a conscious choice?
Sometimes topics are so sensitive that it's difficult to speak about them seriously. You want to be serious, but you also have to find ways to deliver the pill with some honey, and I found that in this book, humor allowed me to do that. I was able to both be a comic, but at the same time, cynical. I was dealing with serious issues—in some cases, life-and-death issues—and it was very serious to me. But the only way I could deal with these issues without becoming too serious or becoming preachy and tearing out my hair in frustration was humor. I think for many reasons, in Nigeria especially, it made it acceptable to talk about these issues. And with this book, I felt I wasn't going to let any taboos or anything stop me from writing the book I wanted to write.
Furo, the main character, goes through this physical transformation from black to white, but his attitude begins to change as well.
Yes, it does.
So what were your ideas behind the shift in his perspective?
No matter what you write—fiction or whatever—in the end, you're probably writing about yourself. As I was trying to understand the main character's mindset, trying to empathize and experience what he was experiencing, I also began thinking about myself, and I realized the person I was five years ago isn't who I am now. We're so close to the narrative of our own lives that we don't quite see that change. As readers, and me as the writer, we are standing at a distance, and we can look and judge, we see those changes happening to him, and we see the ways in which he's learning from past experiences, from things that have been done to him and what he's done to others. He's learning how to adjust to the world and that needed to be reflected in the ways in which we grow. And so that was important for me to reflect the psychological changes that are coming upon him due to his society and how society sees him.
You published your first collection of short stories in 2005; now, ten years later, you've published this book. Has that made you think differently about being an author?
Definitely, a lot has changed. For one, I realize now I have begun to find my voice. I'm definitely a work in progress, but now I know where my strengths lie, and I know what my interests are and what I want to do with my writing. When I published my first stories, I was learning to be a writer—I was playing with sentences, and I was more interested in the poetry of writing than the effect of it. Now, I'm more aware of the way in which writing can affect an individual, can change a life. You could say I'm braver and more courageous about the topics I engage in but that also comes from confidence. I now know that this is going to be my life's work, so I would say what has changed is more self-awareness.
What do you want people to get out of the book?
That's a difficult question. [Laughs] While I was writing it, I was writing for Nigerians, so I think people [in other countries] will get different things from the book. I've found Nigerians will get different things from the book than British readers. But I tried to write a book that anyone, regardless of whatever society you are in, can get something out of—if it's to empathize with or understand Nigerians better, or if it's to understand yourself better. Or if it's some young Nigerian who's in the closet and thinks that nobody understands what he or she is going through, and someone reads the book and says, "Oh, that might be someone trying to reflect my preoccupations in a place in fiction." That's also something for someone to get out of it as well. There's the human story of this young man who's trying to deal with his situation that he perhaps doesn't fully understand, and he's just trying to deal with it in the best way that he knows how. There's a lot I want people to get out of it. It's difficult for me to narrow it down to one thing.
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Blackass: A Novel comes out today from Graywolf Press.