Blackass, by A. Igoni Barrett, was published in 2015.
The first sentence is “Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep.”
Furo Wariboko wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned white. (Or, as they say in Nigeria, “oyibo”.) He has no idea how or why this has happened. His mother is pounding on his bedroom door, reminding him that he’s scheduled for a job interview. Furo doesn’t dare open the door.
Furo needs money for bus fare. He knows his sister would be willing to loan him some money, but he can’t figure out how to ask her without her seeing him in his present condition. So he walks to the interview, forgetting to take his cell phone.
Lagos, Nigeria, is a city of about 20 million people. It’s not uncommon to see white businessmen driving through the more affluent parts of the city. It’s rare to see a white man – an oyibo – in Furo’s neighborhood, and you never, ever see an oyibo walking in Lagos. As he walks to his interview, people stop to stare or point at him.
The job Furo Wariboko has applied for is a sales position. There’s one opening, and at least forty applicants. Nigeria has a 50% unemployment rate. The interviewer is furious with Furo – this white applicant is obviously not Nigerian. This white applicant has presented him with a false resumé. A second interviewer takes over, and once it’s proven that Furo is, indeed, a Nigerian with white skin, Furo is offered a great job, with fantastic benefits. The job starts in about a week.
Everything is now different for Furo Wariboko. He has a steady job. He’s oyibo. (Actually, though, as the book title suggests, not all of Furo’s body has turned white.)
Furo doesn’t dare go home. He’s not sure he’s actually the same person anymore, so how could he ever convince his family that he’s the same son and brother who left for an interview that morning? And if they did believe him, could they handle all the medical investigations and the media frenzy?
Blackass is a story about race, racism, and privilege – in many surprising ways. (Furo finds that once he’s white, taxi drivers want to charge him four times the usual rate, because he looks like he has money.) It’s a story about personal identity.
Blackass is a story about Lagos, Nigeria. The city becomes a major character, with its speech patterns and street slang. It shows us its street food and shopping malls. It shows us nearly constant go-slows (traffic jams) and officials with varying degrees of corruption.
Blackass opens with a quote from Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Blackass is a story about transformations – a new skin, a new identity, a new life, and at least one unexpected transformation.
My one quibble with this novel is the sections in which an author named Igoni appears. He meets Furo briefly, and then the novel switches to the author’s point of view as he finds and contacts Furo’s sister, who is gaining Twitter fame as she looks for her missing brother. These sections abruptly change the tone of the story. It’s all Furo’s story, except when Igoni jumps in. (Note that this is the same name as the author of the book.)
But, aside from the author’s sections, I enjoyed this novel a lot. It was enigmatic and mesmerizing.
Why I chose this book:
As I thought about the many ethnicities of authors around the world, it occurred to me that I don’t read many books by authors from African countries, and that I didn’t know why. (The 2018 Reading Challenge is a nice education for me.) I did an internet search for “the best novels by African authors”. That’s how I found Blackass. It looked interesting and fun, and it was available from the library with only a short hold line.