Thursday, October 20, 2016

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett

A. Igoni Barrett
2015, I read PDF review copy
304 pages, social satire, speculative

Many thanks to Kachifo Limited for providing a review copy of this novel. 

Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep. 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 pouring in through the open window…. His hands were not black but white… same as his legs, his belly, all of him.

Thus begins this Kafkaesque satire about race relations in Nigeria. Furo wakes on the morning of a big job interview to find that he has suddenly turned White – complete with red hair and blue eyes. Escaping from his house, he turns up at the job interview and, as a White man, finds that not only his job prospects, but every other aspect of his life has significantly improved.

Being White in a post-colonial society

Furo encounters all of the things that I, myself, have experienced or witnessed as a White person living in a post-colonial society (in my case India). Using the same qualifications that had lost him numerous opportunities in the past, as a White man he is immediately offered a good job. People trust him enough to give him money within two minutes of meeting him.

He also receives intense stares everywhere he goes:
Lone white face in a sea of black, Furo learned fast. To walk with his shoulders up and his steps steady. To keep his gaze lowered and his face blank. To ignore the fixed stares, the pointed whispers, the blatant curiosity. And he learnt how it felt to be seen as a freak: exposed to wonder, invisible to comprehension.
As a White man, Furo is expected to act a certain way; when he doesn’t fulfill people’s expectations they become surprised and start to question him. When he tries to eat in a roadside restaurant, for example, people stare and ask why he is there. To escape the stares, he goes into one of the city's fancy shopping malls (which he has never previously entered), and fakes casualness while drinking an incredibly expensive coffee. As a White person, he is not only expected to have a lot of money, but also to fit naturally into high society.

When you are treated in such a special way, it is tempting to take advantage of it for your own gain. Furo does just that, to the point of exploiting those around him. Leaving his family behind, he takes every opportunity he is offered, especially if it will allow him to move somewhere he can start his life afresh as a white man.

I am very impressed by the author’s observational skills. As someone who experiences these things on a day-to-day basis, I can say that he got the details of being a White person in a post-colonial society absolutely correct.

Fear of being found out

There is also another analogy here, and it revolves around Igoni, a character that Furo meets several times. During the course of the story, Igoni transitions from male to female. When Furo first meets him at the mall, Igoni is presenting as a man; when Furo next meets her, Igoni is presenting as a woman.

Furo has retained one feature that can reveal his non-Whiteness: his ass is still black. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, of course; it only comes up if he lets someone close enough to have sex. He spends much of his time attempting to hide this feature, such as by only having sex in the dark.

This is obviously a metaphor for being transgender, and is directly correlated with Igoni’s transition. Like Furo, the one feature that indicates who she previously was usually remains hidden, only to be revealed in a moment of intimacy. For both Furo and Igoni, the revelation could be dangerous, for both their place in society and possibly even their physical wellbeing [PDF].

As a novel

I loved the first part of this novel, when people were treating Furo like he was an alien because of the color of his skin. This was so close to my own experience that I kept exclaiming to my husband, “Everyone’s staring at him!” “Haha the security guard let him into the mall, no questions asked!”

However, later in the book I started to really dislike Furo’s character. He is a greedy, lying scoundrel in the end, letting the sudden power go to his head. There are many other ways to deal with this kind of special attention, so why did Furo have to take advantage of everyone’s hospitality? I guess the author wanted to make a point about how this power can be abused, but I did not enjoy reading about what a terrible person the main character turned out to be.

I recommend this book as a great satire about race relations in a post-colonial society – especially for people who have not experienced such obvious examples of White privilege.

Further Reading: 

"Being White in India - Privilege and Power" by Jessica Kumar
"On Being White in India" by Dave Masterson
"Tourism, White Privilege and Colonial Mentality in East Africa" by Samira Sawlani (Media Diversified)

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