In Franz Kafka’s classic novel The Metamorphosis, young Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to find himself turned into a giant cockroach—and his entire life is upended. Gregor’s family shuns him, he cannot get work, his life is threatened at every moment; he retreats into isolation and depression, unable to understand the violence and anger directed at him simply because of his appearance.
In his highly anticipated new novel, Blackass, Nigerian author A. Igoni Barrett pays homage to Kafka’s premise with the story of his hero, Furo Wariboko, who wakes up in Lagos, Nigeria, one day and finds himself turned into a white man—except for his rear end, which remains staunchly black. “He was lying nude in bed, and when he raised his head a fraction he could see his alabaster belly, and his pale legs beyond, covered with fuzz that glinted bronze in the cold daylight,” Barrett writes. But just in case this connection to Kafka’s novel is unclear, Barrett gifts us with a line from The Metamorphosis as the opening epigraph to Blackass.
For Gregor Samsa, waking up as a cockroach was the beginning of a terrible series of events that ruined his life. But for Furo Wariboko, waking up as a white man is the beginning of wonderful things that only keep getting better. The political implications, of course, are present. In Blackass, Barrett explores how much easier it is for Furo Wariboko to navigate life as a white man; the vastly increased respect and corresponding lack of violence directed toward Furo’s black body because that body is now white.
This experience of being treated less than human is one with which blacks in America—and in other parts of the world—are definitely familiar. Slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacist racial violence, voter suppression, institutional racism, racial profiling, police brutality, lower wages, stereotypes: This is black history and daily experience. But to be compared to a cockroach—the invading house pest that must be killed at all costs—puts it in stark, albeit necessary, imagery and language.
The wonder is that this novel has not been written before. It is a brilliant vantage point from which to take on racial commentary. It is a necessary conversation. It is timely.
Furo’s transformation is met with shock by the inhabitants of his longtime Egbeda neighborhood, but he quickly realizes that life comes with more advantages as a white man. From being given money by strangers to being pulled from a line of 40-plus applicants and being offered a job—Furo’s life has changed for the better.
This is the strength of the global reach of the white supremacist paradigm: Even in an African country with a black majority, the concept that lighter skin is better—and the privilege that accompanies whiteness—remains. Perhaps this is a relic of colonialism, perhaps this is a perpetuation of modern politics and popular culture. In any case, one cannot deny that the brisk trade in skin-lightening creams that runs through Nigeria, as well as other African and Asian countries, is only one manifestation of the obsession to gain lighter skin because one thinks it will create a better life.
Furo’s only problem with his new skin is that he feels he must spare his family the pain of his transformation and never see them again. “Better his family retain their image of him,” Furo thinks, finding refuge in an abandoned building, than for them to suffer the pain of seeing how he has changed. Outside his mother’s house, however, Furo has no idea how to take care of himself; luckily, Furo runs into a series of women who will take on this task for him, no questions asked.
For Furo, women are simply consumables: They exist only to offer Furo whatever resources they possess. Whether it be money, food, housing, clothing, nebulous sexual relationships or simply hailing a cab for him, women give without expectations or any return in kind from Furo. Homeless, penniless and friendless, Furo simply bumbles around Lagos, spinning through encounters with women who provide for his material needs. While this could be interpreted as an exploration of the exploitation of women, the construction of narrative sympathies toward Furo, rather than the female characters, as well as the lack of awareness by the characters, makes this a tenuous claim.
But where the book makes its biggest demand of the reader is in its use of the self-referential character of a writer named Igoni who pops into the narrative with a secret of his own. In the guise of the fictional Igoni, as a foil to Furo’s vampirelike machismo, Barrett makes an attempt to address the treatment of women in the novel; but these statements would read less as lip service if they carried equal weight to the rest of the novel—or, to borrow an old literary adage, if they were shown and not told.
Still, Blackass is a powerful social commentary on race, exploitation, greed and, albeit clumsily, gender, as well. In energetic, lively prose, Barrett builds to a conclusion that allows Furo both failure and success in redeeming himself.
However, it is in Barrett’s depiction of Lagos—with its deeply textured sights, sounds, tastes and smells that become as much of a character as any of the people in the novel—that the book sings most strongly. Barrett, who now lives in Nigeria, draws us into his world with the lush language, scintillating dialogue and vivid description that permeated his first two collections of short stories. One can almost taste the pounded yam and jollof rice. Here is an ambitious, sophisticated novel, careful in its construction and secure in its cleverness.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.