It is now a near-cliché, but it is the truth; African literature is undergoing a renaissance. The reader who loves fiction is enjoying an embarrassment of riches, thanks to a feisty book writing culture and the Internet and social media. Folks are writing everywhere and it is a good thing. There is the debate however about what constitutes African literature, if that animal exists, poverty porn, the West’s undue influence on who determines the trajectory of African literature, etc. What is clear is that a few African writers have been anointed by the West as the voices of Africa, whatever that means. They write books and they have strong opinions. They are powerful voices and they say interesting and sometimes important things. However to the extent that their works are generally packaged by Western editors for consumption in the West, it seems inappropriate to label them the sole voices of Africa, for they are not. They are at least not the only ones. Many important voices languish in Africa suffering from the lack of a writing and publishing infrastructure – and a paying reading public. This does not make their voices any less important. There is the Internet and social media. The vast majority of contemporary African literature is now being penned digitally. To ignore that sea of writing is to distort the history and trajectory of African literature.
The good news is that many writers are fighting back – and making a difference. One such writer is A. Igoni Barrett; he lives in Nigeria and has written volumes on the Internet and social media. I would actually make the case that he has done extremely important work on the Internet as a leader and a pioneer using that space to showcase his works and ideas and also advance the cause of African literature. Like every writer under the sun his only validation is through the publication of books. The inability of many African writers to get access to real publishers as opposed to the stapling guns that call themselves publishers in Africa has meant that the world has been denied the opportunity of enjoying real talent. Barrett is luckier than most of his compatriots having had his book Love is Power or Something Like published in the West (see my review here). He has garnered critical acclaim as many interviews of him on the Internet show (here, here and here). He has just written Blackass – a work of fiction that interrogates Nigeria through an unusual and thoroughly fascinating lens – fantasy. Blackass is a gorgeous book, I had trouble putting it down to attend to basic functions. It is the funniest, most engaging badass book I’ve read in years. You should read this book and enjoy freshly minted scintillating prose rioting with each other – it is a lush canvas of ideas, humor and vision. Barrett can write.
“It is now a near-cliché, but it is the truth; African literature is undergoing a renaissance.”
What is the book about? Well, a Nigerian, Furo Wariboko wakes up to find that he is no longer black, but white all over – except for his butt which stays butt-black. Yes, overnight Furo develops white skin, green eyes and red hair. Overnight he loses his true identity and disappears in full view from his friends and family. After recovering from the shock of stolen identity, he sets about creating a life as a white man – and ends up understanding a lot more the true reality of Nigeria. He is transported to a new class and realm as he is granted privilege and access simply by being white as Nigerians become obsequious and fawning and open all doors for him. Nigerians fall all over themselves to rubbish their county and ingratiate themselves to this new white man. Furo enjoys the unfettered access to any and every institution and perk (and women) for being white. It is not all roses though, there are thorns along the way and in a brilliant sentence Barrett talks back to the empire, turns the table on the other and offers a lesson on the (longing for) identity and belonging:
“And he learnt how it felt to be seen as a freak: exposed to wonder, invisible to comprehension.” (p. 11)
I love the way Barrett uses what I call reverse racism to point a light at Nigerians’ sense of self; Nigerians staring at the white man as the other. Barrett’s anthropological points hit home each time: A white man gets a Nigerian passport, no questions asked, for a modest “fee” of course. Nigerians are not invested in the nation space. Money speaks where corruption is a currency of transaction and compromises everyone. Things are expensive in Nigeria if you are oyinbo:
“A white man has no voice louder than the dollar sign branded on his forehead.” (p. 104)
The book forces the reader to wonder: Is this Barrett’s response to The Invisible Man? This is a refreshing, and new discussion on race and class as has never been done before; he is confronted with a caste system that now favors him. Blackness is a blemish.
“As Furo saw it, his black behind was a problem to be solved.”
And he resorted to whitening his butt with bleaching cream. He never ever wanted to go back to being black. Do you blame him? In “developed” countries people are routinely shot like game for the crime of being black.
Blackass is also about anthropology, a thoughtful look at gentrification, it is a passionate and compassionate treatment of a generation of young people that grew up in:
“… the ruins of Nigeria’s middle class. We were born into the military dictatorships of the 80’s and 90’s; we attended the cheaper private schools or the better public ones; we read the same Pacesetter novels and watched the same NTA shows; we lived in cities. Unlike the majority of Nigerians in any age bracket, we spoke English as a first (and sometimes only) language, and our inbred accents were two to three generations old. Because of our parents, who were educated and devoted and fortunate enough to hold on to their salaried positions through all those decades of marital austerity; our private dictators, who beat their children with the same whips they used on the poorer relatives they took in as house helpers; our role models, who were so convinced of ‘what was what’ that they affirmed a preference for butter over margarine even when they could only afford Blue Band for our school lunch-boxes; our protectors and providers, who were neither middle class nor deprived enough to cease the Christmastime pilgrimages to our family hometowns; our lifelong teachers, who instilled in us their deep-seated humiliation over the failures of Nigeria as well as their bitter nostalgia for the administrative competence of colonial rule.” (p. 162)
Some of it sounds autobiographical in this exquisite shot aimed at patriarchy:
“My sentiments about my father are less conflicted: he left when I was eight. My mother stayed to be condemned to failure in raising her son. Because the success of a man, our people say, is the father’s doing. You are your father’s son – you follow in your father’s footsteps. Manhood and its machismo are attributed to the seed, which then follows that the failure to make a man is the egg’s burden. Your papa born you well, they will sing to a man in praise, but when he disappoints so-and-so’s expectations of XY manliness, it becomes Nah your mama I blame. My say is this: when you live in a worldwide bullring, bullshit is what you’ll get. If they say I cannot be my mother’s son, then it must be that I’m her daughter.” (p. 163)
“This improbable tale makes for a thrilling ride for the reader’s senses. Barrett is a confident writer and it shows all over the book. Nigerian English is paraded on the catwalk and she sashays down the runway with pride and luscious attitude.” Barrett offers no apologies, no explanations, nothing. Read and do the research if you care, Barrett seems to be saying. Western reviewers won’t agree but in Blackass, Barrett has written perhaps the best book to come out of Nigeria in the past decade and cements his literary street cred as an incredibly important writer, one that has built up his reputation on his own terms – against all odds. Imagine a novel written by an African that does not pander to the West. Not once. It does not italicize egusi, does not explain it, basically, the author says, if you are curious about my culture, Google is your friend. Google it. Imagine a work of fiction by an African where the people actually have respectable conversations about each other, have sex and you actually wish you were the one having the sex. Imagine a book that you don’t want to put down, from start to finish, because you don’t want to miss anything. That would be Blackass. In Blackass, “yansh” is neither italicized nor footnoted with helpful explanations for non-Nigerians. Abomination. Insubordination. We should fire Igoni’s black arse from the ranks of African writers! Nonsense! [Urban Dictionary yansh: This is the buttocks, ass, bum of human being.] Barrett says: This is not merely the English language, this is OUR language, here where all words are equal. Subversive. “Yansh” and “bia-bia are now English words. Genius.
“This improbable tale makes for a thrilling ride for the reader’s senses. Barrett is a confident writer and it shows all over the book. Nigerian English is paraded on the catwalk and she sashays down the runway with pride and luscious attitude.” Barrett offers no apologies, no explanations, nothing. Read and do the research if you care, Barrett seems to be saying. Western reviewers won’t agree but in Blackass, Barrett has written perhaps the best book to come out of Nigeria in the past decade and cements his literary street cred as an incredibly important writer, one that has built up his reputation on his own terms – against all odds.”
It is as if Barrett shut his doors, disconnected from the Internet and the world and wrote the book of my dreams with his blood and passion. It gives the West the middle finger and struts its writer’s stuff sweetly and expertly. I don’t care what the West thinks, Blackass is fresh, contemporary writing without even trying; this is how fiction should be written in the 21st century. You read prose like this and your head spins with wonder and envy, you want to write like this:
“The rainstorm struck at five. From afar, the rain approached like a crashing airliner. At this sound, a rising whine that left the curtains curiously still, Furo hurried into his bedroom and stared from the window above the bed, which gave the clearest view of the sky. He smelled the raindrops before he saw them. A lash of thunder roused the wind, which rose from the dust and began to swing wildly at treetops and roof edges and flocks of plastic bags ballooning out to sea. Raindrops swirled like dancing schools of silver fish and scattered in all direction, splattering the earth and the shaded walls of houses. Furo sprinted around the apartment shutting windows.” (p. 113)
The book has no chapters, it has sections, solid blocks reeking with attitude, defiance and innovation. Blackass is a breath of fresh air. In the 21st century, thanks to the democratization of reading and writing by the advent of the Internet and social media, writers find that they have to be truly innovative to sustain the attention of readers. Sadly much of what has passed for innovation has been blatant gimmickry, with patronizing afterthoughts thrown into formats meant for prior centuries. As a result, the book as an influential medium has taken a hit as restless readers have voted with their feet and fled to the warm confines of social media. Barrett’s response to that flight is muscular, Blackass entertains and educates in great measure. All through, Barrett seems to owe no one any explanations; he doesn’t explain himself, he writes as if for himself alone. That takes guts, talent and skill.
In Blackass, Barrett’s prose is inspired and delightful and the dialogue is as it should be written – flowing endlessly like lovers in total sync with each other. The intensity of the prose is practiced but lush, prose poetry at its best. The book made me wistful for the dark beauty of Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. There are no gimmicks here, just energetic, beautiful writing. From the first sentence to the end, fresh sentences strut their stuff with attitude:
“Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep.”
The prose, beautiful and muscular builds whole cities and delivers memories of living ones to the reader. And Lagos comes alive:
“The roadway by which he strolled was jammed with traffic, cars crawled along at a pace that turned the drivers’ faces tight with frustration, okadas tore through gaps that even the bravest hawkers hesitated to enter, and petrol fumes from overheated engines thickened the air, Like oases on a desert caravan route, child vulcanizers and apprentice mechanics loitered in roadside lean-tos that offered scant shelter from today’s sunshine and tomorrow’s rainstorms. Exhausted vehicles dotted the roadside, some with bonnets opened to let out steam from gasping radiators. A riot of honking assailed the ears: short warning honks, long angry honks, continuous harrying honks, a language as universal as a scream. But in Lagos, overused. The clamour was deafening.” (p. 30)
“A sprawling coastal city that had no ferry system, no commuter trains, no underground tunnels or overhead tramlines, where hordes of people leaving work poured on to the roads at the same time as the freight trucks carting petroleum products and food produce and all manner of manufacture from all corners of Nigeria. The roads were overburdened and under-policed, and road-expansion projects were under way, the contracted engineers worked at a pace that betrayed their lack of confidence in the usefulness of their labour. They knew as well as the politicians that Lagos was exploding at a rate its road network could never keep up with”. (p. 124)
The prose reels on breathlessly spinning a narrative at once familiar and enchanting. I laughed at failure and remembered my people’s saying: It is calamity that makes one laugh. Blackass is a hilarious book, the zingers keep coming, page after page; he calls the mosquito “the unacknowledged national insect of Nigeria.” Blackass is well-researched and well-edited by editors sensitive to the context and the culture that inspired the book. This is the freshest and most relevant narrative on Nigeria by someone “on ground” in Nigeria in recent years. This is not Diaspora writing, this is writing by a warrior in the trenches at home. There is more where Barrett came from, by the way. The book houses the best use of dialogue I have read in ages. And it is funny. Hear two characters trash talking and you can taste the streets of Lagos. And the reader loses it and howls:
‘Dirty Yoruba rat’
‘Old Igbo mumu.’
‘Bastard son of kobo-kobo ashewo.’
‘Useless illiterate woman.’
In Blackass, each character is well-formed, not the one-dimensional stick figures or caricatures hurriedly brought to life for the entertainment of the West. With his supercilious eye, Barrett describes a new Nigeria where pretty much everything goes – if you have the money. He tastefully describes the mediocrity of a people trapped by rank consumerism. The sadness haunts as a mass of humanity begs for life daily. The sex when it happens is tender. This is not Achebe’s generation of writers. The sex here is good. And people here think and talk in real sentences. The Pidgin English is to die for. In a surprising twist Igoni makes an appearance in the book. And is also transformed – transgendered into a woman. Life as art. Life as fiction. Brilliant.
The book transported me to Nigeria in the way only social media does with its exquisite display of Nigerian English filled with delightful; “Nigerianisms”: “Is your neck paining you?” “I need to ease myself.” My favorite section is @_Igoni where Barrett’s sense of humor and facility with social media are displayed in full force. This is one funny book and you should read the tweets here. Using tweets by the tweep @pweetychic_tk, he demonstrates the power of social media in facilitating interactive raw and powerful dialogue. Even though the tweets looked flat on paper (I found myself trying to click and retweet them, they are not meant for paper, lol!) Barrett pulls this off, the resulting tweet-dialogue is the best and most hilarious I have ever read. Reading the tweets is worth the price of the book. Barrett is ahead of his time and the book is an inappropriate vehicle to house his vision. Imagine if the book was an online book with all those tweets live. I envision this book in the future being an online with live links and real tweets. That would be a treat.
“On the use of social media, Barrett is ahead of his time and the book is an inappropriate vehicle to house his vision.”
Barrett is a visionary with a deep knowledge of the social and cultural mores of his society. He sees a world gentrifying from a municipality of many to millions of municipalities of ME:
“It was his first time on the balcony, his first sighting of the backyard scenery, and his umpteenth experience of the particular disorder that attended everyman’s solutions to everyone’s problems. As he took in the skyline, his gaze was captured by the battalions of plastic tanks mounted on towers of rusted rigging, each tank a sole source of water in the compound where it was stationed. And the rears of the fortressed houses, their concrete fences crowned by glass shards and metal spikes and razor wire. Also vying for attention was the sound and the smoky fury of countless generators. The nerve-grinding roar of individual power generation was as much a consequence of every-man-for-himself government as the lynch mobs that meted out injustice in public spaces. Private provision of public services had turned everyone into judge and executioner and turned backyards into industrial wastelands. Every man the king of his house, every house a sovereign nation, and every nation its own provider of security, electricity, water, Lagos was a city of millions of warring nations.” (p. 212)
An attention to detail feeds Barrett’s supercilious eyes and he documents graft and lawlessness as ordinary citizens endure the excesses of law enforcement agents. Class, wealth and poverty clash and recede from confrontation; islands of ostentation in a vast sea of despair. No book is perfect but this is good enough for me. Towards the end, the book seems to falter, it is not clear to me that the transgendering of Igoni enhanced the narrative. The book as a medium of narration does an injustice to contemporary writers like Barrett who are used to a social media and digital mindset, reproducing tweets and messages just makes the book look flat in comparison to the lushness and call and response interaction of readers and writers on the Internet. It is also interesting to this reader that Nigerians tend to assert the best side of their humanity in the presence of the white man, he gets the best sex, the best meals and access to anywhere he wants. If Nigerians treated each other the way they treat the white man, Nigeria would be an awesome place to be in. Blackass is an improbable tale on many levels, but that is what it is, just like Nigeria – an improbable tale. Welcome to Nigeria, Frank Whyte! Frank Whyte? Yes, in the end, Furo Wariboko changes his name to, you guessed it, Frank Whyte.
I don’t blame him. Many Nigerians would die for his problem and privileges.
Blackass by Igoni Barrett will be published in Nigeria, later in 2015 by Farafina Books. It is out in the UK, published by Chatto & Windus