literature

Review: Welcome To Lagos Launch

By Tobi

Image: Blayke Images via Bella Naija

Image: Blayke Images via Bella Naija

Faithful as a servant, I left my house clutching a copy of Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome To Lagos as tightly as Moses probably did his staff. Perhaps for nostalgia’s sake and just wanting to exchange stories about my city of birth, Lagos, or in anticipation of the music promised by the author on her Instagram page. Indeed came rain and snow on my two hour commute, I arrived The SouthBank Centre - one of London’s most eminent spaces for arts, culture and literature - expectant, however, looking like a washed puppy. 

Guests were hosted on the lower ground floor of the Royal Festival Hall with music by- and outfits of the band reminiscent of Lagos, and poetry that evoked a flutter of excitement. Chibundu, dressed in a yellow Ankara number, offered more than her bouncy ‘fro to envy, and thrilled the audience with her voice. Her personality? Stellar. From her musical performance to her reading and conversation with Ella Allfrey, the author maintained a rare authenticity and a very natural accent, which in my opinion, had the audience hooked.

Reading briefly from Welcome To Lagos, the audience was introduced to one of the seven main characters of the book - Ahmed Bakare. Ahmed, journalist and founder of the Nigerian Journal, arrives his parents’ house for his monthly visit, and is reminded with constant bickering from his mother and teasing from his father, of why he infrequently visits. In just a chapter, the author seemed to have succinctly and satirically encapsulated generational woes, (elitist) Nigerians’ obsession with weddings, materialism, a convoluted political system and tribalism. 

Chasing Rats Or The American Dream?

Following the conversation, the floor was open for questions, and all but one bordered on three prominent themes in the book - journalism, education and religion. On journalism, Chibundu, who is also a contributor to the Guardian, likened her venture into it to “film trick” - a term used by Nigerians to describe a somewhat unreal action. Her pieces, here and here, are opinion-based and often a creative reaction to global issues. As for how she balances life as a writer, journalist, and a PhD (what? yes!) candidate? Exclusivity.

She sets aside time to write, and time to focus on her Doctorate programme. Her philosophy, which she shared, mirrors a Yoruba adage that says “if you chase two rats at the same time, you will catch none.”  Thus, for her, developing a habit of devoting time to one thing at a time is more effective, and yields a better outcome. At this point, I however stood wondering “what if you thrive from chasing two rats at the same time?” On the brink of internalisation, the author, posing a relevant twist, interrupted my thoughts saying “or ask yourself, why am I chasing rats?”

Lagos, according to Chibundu, is “the best city in the world.” It is however not as dreamy as that sounds, nor is it anything like the American Dream. In Lagos, she says, the stakes of not making it are a lot higher than making it; “you have to take what you want from Lagos".  It is a complex megacity of constant hustle. For a member of a diaspora or a foreigner, an initial visit to Lagos would undoubtedly evoke an impulse to compare and contrast it with other developed cities, and further, condemn. To get the best of of Lagos, she advises to make it what you want.

Exploring Faith In Writing And Being

In response to a question on her involvement in educational reform in Nigeria, Chibundu averred using her writing as a form of contribution. One may ask, as I initially and hypocritically did, should she not be doing more? Writing, however, as I wrote in a piece, here, must not be underestimated as a powerful tool for bringing issues to the forefront. Through another main character, Chief Remi Sandayo - the Minister of Education on-the-run for embezzling 10 Million US dollars of public funds - and the adventures of Chike, Isoken and Fineboy, Welcome To Lagos reveals the dire state of schools and the political economy of education in Nigeria.

As to how much of an influence her faith has on her writing, the author identifies herself a Christian, and states that “[her] faith is very important to [her].” Though she claimed not knowing how to navigate incorporating faith in fictional writing, I think she did a good job in Welcome To Lagos. Throughout the book, religion is a prevalent theme. We see Christianity as Chike’s guide and cushion for the ‘streets’ of Lagos and life previously encountered in the Niger Delta; in the daily routine of Bible reading; as Funke’s - Chief Sandayo’s late wife - mantle of self-righteousness.

As the event drew to a close, a member of the audience asked about what the author’s confidence can be ascribed to. Chibundu, in response, burst into a classic Nigerian gospel song:

“People dey ask me say”

And the audience followed, singing, harmonising and clapping:

“Na wetin dey make me shine
I con dey tell them say, na Jesus dey make me shine
I dey shine
I dey shine
I dey shine
I dey shine
I dey shine shine shine
I con dey tell them say, na Jesus dey make me shine.”  

The song, sang in pidgin (creole language), attributes the writer’s confidence to her faith. 

Ending with even more music, the choir took us to Church! “Inspired” was the word that fell off the lips of people I was surrounded with as we shuffled and filed into a line to get our books signed. For me, more than the book and a well-fed nostalgia, I left feeling renewed in purpose and being; I left, phone in hand, texting a friend “Christ is truly her cornerstone.” It was certainly an evening to remember, and the reason I would be reading Welcome To Lagos along with TBBNQ in February.


Join us in February as we read Welcome To Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo and Everyday Is For The Thief by Teju Cole. Share your thoughts with us on twitter using the hashtag #TBBNQReads.

TBBNQ Reads: Blackass By A. Igoni Barrett

Image: The Book Banque

Image: The Book Banque

Blackass is a satirical novel set in contemporary Lagos, with a plot that, to some extent, mirrors that of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. In Metamorphosis, the main character, Gregor Samsa, transforms into a beetle overnight and his life seems to change for the worse – his relationship with his family becomes strained and he dies rather tragically. In the case of Blackass, the protagonist, Furo Wariboko (who later becomes Frank Whyte) transforms overnight from a black Nigerian man to a white man with red hair and green eyes.

Depending on the lens through which one may examine Furo’s newly possessed identity, it can be labelled an unfortunate or fortunate occasion for Furo. His transformation may be considered unfortunate in that he becomes an object that is gawked at and suspiciously adored by Lagosians who imagine him to be drowning in wealth due to his white skin. If you have ever been to Nigeria, you would know that perceived wealth is an unsent invitation for exploitation - be it white or black. Given this, it is not hard to imagine why his new identity could be viewed as unfortunate.

To Furo’s advantage, however, his new identity strings along fortune; in that his quality of life improves mainly through fruitful opportunities stemming from his newfound white privilege. Bizarrely, despite Furo’s sudden and peculiar transformation into a white man, his buttocks remain black as ever! It may be difficult to find an explanation for this – I have tried and failed – but it is certainly interesting and amusing that, alongside Furo’s strong Nigerian accent, Barrett chooses to make Furo’s black buttocks a lingering indication of his previous identity.

Like any normal person would, Furo panics when he wakes up in a totally different skin. However, being the same jobless man that he was the day before, he remains dedicated to his job hunt which he returns to hurriedly, mainly to prevent his family from witnessing his sudden identity change. As he begins to walk through the busy streets of Lagos, Furo instantly encounters treatment different to that which he received as a black, unemployed Nigerian man. Not only does his white skin bring him long stares, it also brings him jobs he never applied for and was simply unqualified for. In his newfound pale skin and highly profitable role as a marketing executive in a sales company, you can imagine how Furo’s confidence heightens!

His manipulative tendencies begin to unfold throughout his interactions with other characters such as Syreeta, Igoni, and Tosin. Through the depiction of Furo and Syreeta’s relationship, in particular, Barrett seems to reveal the ways in which human relationships can be exploitative and rife with uncertainty. This is seen as both Syreeta and Furo use each other as a means to their own selfish ends; ultimately leading to the unfortunate, but not particularly surprising, end of their relationship.

Throughout my reading of Blackass, I loved the way in which Barrett used strings of words to construct a world into which I entered with eagerness. Blackass can be considered a highly descriptive text but this, perhaps, can be argued as what makes the different characters of this novel come to life on the pages. Reading some passages, I felt as though I was in the same room as the characters, living through their experiences with them. To be able to animate fictional characters in a manner that resonates with the reader is utterly commendable.

Like most critical reviews of various works of art, the reviews of Blackass are mixed. Some critics have raised concerns over the structure of the novel, claiming that it is rather erratic and disjointed, as the chapters have only a slight relation to the previous or following chapters. While it is unclear as to why Barrett adopts this structure, one could, perhaps, take Barrett’s structuring of the novel to be indicative of identity change — a fundamental theme in this novel. Maybe the structure is erratic because it mirrors the dynamics of identity change — a non-straightforward and, sometimes, disorderly process.

Other critiques have often suggested that Barrett could have done more with the Kafkaesque plot and provided a much more suitable ending. To be fair, I personally struggled to come to terms with the way in which Blackass ends. I initially felt deflated and filled with so many questions. Instantly, I thought “is that it? I want more!” But on second thought, I wondered what exactly it was I wanted and I could not quite answer the question. I thus reminded myself that an uncomfortable and seemingly insufficient ending can sometimes be indicative of the writer triggering his/her readers to explore, in greater depths, their feelings and thoughts about the story being told. It could be that a longing for a more complete ending is to be channelled into greater inquisition and consciousness of the novel’s themes.

Although Barrett draws upon Kafkaesque elements in constructing his novel, Blackass remains very much his own work of art. Not only does he divert from Kafka’s plot of Metamorphosis in that Furo’s identity transformation is of a distinct nature to Gregor Samsa’s; he also unravels his Kafkaesque story in a unique setting – a West African city where there are still manifestations of racial struggles, such as black Africans treating white visitors/immigrants as more superior beings – a problematic act which stems from colonial histories.

Barrett, through his characterisation of Furo, may want his readers to acknowledge race relations and the implications of white privilege. As importantly, he may also want us to acknowledge gender identity and its complex dynamics through his characterisation of Igoni – a Nigerian transsexual writer who happens to be a fictional representation of Barrett. Blackass holds great significance as it not only illustrates the various hardships which Lagosians experience, but also demonstrates the fluidity of sexual orientation and gender identities using purely Nigerian characters like Igoni. This is remarkable as Nigerians do not always discuss issues pertaining to sexuality in a free and open manner. Thus, a novel like Barrett’s is required to help nurture further debates about the fluidity of sexuality and gender identities, especially amongst Nigerians.

Despite the humorous sections of Blackass, it remains a novel that ought to be taken seriously due to its exploration of identities and their complexities. Barrett’s Blackass is essentially a work of extraordinary beauty and pertinent relevance, as it is centred on race, love, human relationships, and most importantly, identity. As humans in a world characterised by rapid change and uncertainty, it seems fair to say that we will continue to come into contact with some of the issues which Blackass explores. Identity change is very much a human phenomenon, and as Barrett writes, “somewhere, in some way, it [is] always happening to someone.” Barrett thus offers to the world a work of art which can be turned to in attempts to refine our understanding(s) of ourselves and others, as well as ways of being in the world.

Purchase a copy of Blackass here or email us at info@thebookbanque.com to borrow a copy!

TBBNQ Wishlist/Giveaway: Books On Our List!

Ever heard of the saying that a woman can never have too many shoes? Well, the same thing applies to books! There is no such thing as too many books, and as so, our wish list keeps growing daily. From fiction to non-fiction to anthology to history to satire; old to new authors; Achebe to Selasi, we want them all. In the spirit of Christmas and in the hope that our true love might give us something, we compiled a TBBNQ Wishlist! Here, we discuss briefly the top three books - Longthroat Memoirs, Welcome To Lagos and Homegoing - on our list, and give you a chance to win any book on our list.