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.
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