Wednesday, September 14, 2016

303. Black Ass by A. Igoni Barrett

"Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep." With this foreboding line Igoni Barrett ushers the reader into the complex and funny world of Furo Wariboko who woke up one morning to find himself transformed into a Caucasian with a black-patched bottom, green eyes and red hair. However, this furious instantaneous genetic mutation did not affect his speech and so Furo looks like a foreigner but speaks like a Nigerian. How will Furo, a young graduate born and bred in a low-income suburb of Lagos and attending his first interview on the first day of this startling transmogrification, navigate the dangerous curves and turns of this identity quagmire? How will he convince people of his Nigerian identiy, when his looks rejects his name and his documents reject his looks? How will he face his family and tell them that he is the Furo they knew the night before? How will they reconcile the two Furos into his new physiologically transmogrified body?

Black Ass (2015) is a social experiment in identity, specifically what defines identity. It examines such factors as the role of skin complexion and language in establishing or conferring and confirming identity. Assesses whether identity is conferred and confirmed by public documents or by the agreement of the majority. It also examines the classical relationships between Africans and Caucasians. Finally, through an eponymous character, Black Ass scratches the surface of gender identity.

Igoni Barrett in this novel shows that one can live within two identities - one that his features confirm and the other conferred by official documents. This is different from dual citizenship where there are documents to confer both and, in some cases, physical features to confirm both. No one who saw Furo Wariboko, after his change, agreed that he was a Nigerian. Even when they heard him speak like a Nigerian, they were ready to agree that he had done well to learn the language and, perhaps, had lived among them for a long time. Thus, in the identity-confirmation tug-of-war  genetic characteristics outweigh acquired characteristics. However, for those willing to work with him and suspend the belief that Wariboko is European at least as long as this suspension of the visual confirmation of identity works to their benefit, for such individuals as Arinze, proof of identity by official documents was enough. Consequently, the majority may disagree with one's identity but the mere possession of an official document is enough to confer a new identity and override the genetic confirmation. Hence by obtaining a Nigerian passport, Furo Wariboko became Nigerian, at least to the people who matter. Though this was not to destroy, in any way, the manner in which the majority of the people related to him.

In discussing the relationship between blacks and whites, or of how Africans relate to Whites on the former's land, Igoni Barrett shows that such a relationship has many faces. One aspect of this relationship, which is sometimes the predominant one and usually shown by the middle class, is when the African is quick to offer help or favour to a Caucasian with no ulterior motive. In this kind of relationship, the African sees the Caucasian as a weakling who has not the capacity to survive in Africa's tedious, hectic, and multifariously demanding conditions. In fact, the African is quick to sympathise with the Caucasian when he sees him struggling underneath the unforgiving African Sun. It is this kind of relationship that got Furo, who after sneaking away from home in his new skin, more favours than he would have otherwise received had he been in his old black skin. For instance, on his way to the interview when he realised he was running late, he was able to rely on his street-smartness to get a lady to offer him money for transportation by lying about his broken down car. Ordinarily, this same tale would not have elicited any sympathy had he been black as the lady would have considered it a lie. She would chew on the 'car' bit for a long time not that she does not believe a Nigerian can own such a car, in fact she has seen a lot to know its possibility; however, she will not be able to see how this Nigerian will own a car and not have the means to seek help from friends and family when that car is broken down. This might be interpreted in many ways: Inferiority bestowed on the Nigerian; or even the illogical trust the African have for the Caucasian, but not for his fellow African. However, this could also mean the African trust the resourcefulness of the African to get out of predicaments without help; hence seeking help in such a low-difficulty level predicament, when all features point to a born and bred Nigerian, will be considered to be an anomaly that can only arouse suspicion.

Another example of this relationship was when Furo at the job interview, which was hardly an interview for him, was offered a position higher than what he had applied for when the owner realise how easy and beneficial it would be to capitalise on Furo's appearance and characteristics: a Whiteman with Nigerian attitude. Though this particular favour was not without a future reward, the offer itself would not have been provided had he not looked Caucasian. Another clearer example of this relationship was when Furo went to a buka to eat. The food seller had given her more food than he had purchased and later he had run away with the money. However, she was quick to forego this theft when Furo, inadvertently, visited her again. Yet this same food seller had fought her fellow Nigerian, the melee which created an avenue for Furo to escape with the money in the first place. Finally, Furo was to be rescued from the street by Syreeta who will willingly provide Furo with food, shelter and sex. Will Syreeta have offered these multiple benefits had Furo been in his black skin?

Another aspect of the relationship is when the help or favour is offered but with the intention of future or immediate gain. Here, the African offer his or her service with the intention of extracting some form of payment, usually not required, not direct, most often a surcharge. Furo encountered a lot of such instances as a Caucasian. For instance, even though Syreeta might have initially used Furo to get back at his Big Man, and Furo had also given her a limit on his stay at her residence, later we were to see what was in it for Syreeta. The more obvious examples were the service providers who cajole and wheedle and through perfected shenanigans extort money from their clients. An example is the taxi drivers whose fares for Caucasians, and foreigners in general, were about four times the normal charge; government officials who take advantage of their position to exact their pound of flesh from foreigners when they see them hovering indecisively on the borders of the law such as the LASTMA who accosted them for making the wrong turning; and those who will give appellations, will boot-lick, and will offer all obsequiousness necessary to extract a Naira from the pocket. Unfortunately, the latter (making a Naira from the next pocket) is not directed only at foreigners but is intensified towards them as they are seen to be very sympathetic and generous. Thus, people expected him to tip more and to complain less when been cheated.

As further proof for this kind of relationship towards Caucasians, whilst working for Arinze, Furo was to receive several offers from their clients who saw the unique advantage of having Furo work for them, again it was his European looks and Nigerian attitude these folks wanted. This sort of relationship was usually exhibited by the low-income and the upper middle income individuals who run their own businesses and are quick to spot an opportunity.

Sometimes the expression of these relationships are gendered. For instance, all of Syreeta's close friends were married to European immigrants and so she saw Furo as the best way of improving her social status since her economic status had already been taken care of by her Oga (Big Man). Later, it became somewhat clear that she had offered to help Furo, after Igoni had rejected to do so, because of her subtle need for mixed-race children, since such children are already guaranteed perks that would remain dreams for poor Black Nigerians. Or even perhaps she genuinely loved him and would have left her Oga, which was a possibility. However, most of the needs of his male beneficent-seekers were of ways to upgrade their economic status, like Victor Ikhide, a guy he met in the queue during the interview who wanted to befriend him so he can help him, if possible, visit his brother abroad. This latter behaviour by most Africans who, subliminally, confer superior status to Caucasians and inferior status to Africans, was all too common in the novel. For example when together with his boss they went to meet a client, Furo was perceived to be the boss, for the daughter of the client could not envision an African employing an European. After all have they not been saving us ever since they discovered us?

An extension of this superiority-inferiority dichotomy was expressed in the way people stared at Furo especially when they found him in places economically designated for locals. The people struggled to comprehend how a member of the 'makers of civilisation' tribe, the people who make and own Things could walk and live among the poor, talk like them, and himself suffer like those for whom poverty seemed to be a bona fide property. Sometimes in an attempt to feign disinterest, they pretend they have not seen him at all. And when they probe and find out that beneath the white skin and beyond the green eyes lies a man who was completely Nigerian, they buckle.

Though this is the first African novel I have read that touches on the aspect of gender identity dealing with transsexualism, it did not go far for me. First we meet Igoni as a man when Furo sought help from him, then as a woman. Later we are to learn that he is undergoing a transformation and that that transformation might have stalled
It is easier to be than to become. [301]
For though Igoni had developed breasts, her other male features still exists. Barrett only scratched the surface of Igoni's story. Perhaps the results of using the first-person narrative style when he talked about Igoni, so that she/he revealed what she/he wants to share. It was not clear how his/her family accepted the transformation; how he/she worked around the issue in his/her work among others. Igoni Barrett threw away the chance to set tongues wagging and minds thinking. Yet, it is entirely possible that this was not Barrett's intention. He just wanted to write a story and it happened that one of the characters was a transsexual just as Furo was straight. Sometimes readers expect too much - a writer must just write and be his own voice and not the voice of any group or ideology.

Besides this, there are two other issues that got me scratching my head. Furo's behaviour to his colleagues (especially Tosin, to whom he was warming) when he was ready to move on to a more lucrative job was incomprehensible and difficult to reconcile with his previous actions. Yes, he took advantage of people, but his condition called for desperate survival measures and there was no overt indication from his past to suggest that he can act in such manner. In addition, his relationship with Igoni was sudden. There was almost no preceding events (apart from the two introductory occasions they met). How this developed was not clear. It was as if the author just wanted the two to meet for something to occur to resolve the plot. The meeting could have been prevented though in the end one will understand why Barrett wanted it to happen; even then it could have been non-sexual, but does it matter? This created a feeling of a rush towards the end.

The second issue is that one kept expecting something momentous from Furo's mysterious sister. She was described as an intelligent but self-serving and intriguing young girl. Set-up like this, the reader's expectations were raised: would she wreak the final ruin on the Wariboko family? The reader is given a snippet into this mystery, which reflected the craze for internet attention among today's young people (the millennials), when she used the search for her brother to attain Twitter celebrity status, gaining followers here and there. But then again, one expected more, especially when she was bubbly and careless with risks.

Reading Black Ass as a metaphor, Furo could be taken for the white man who descended onto the continent, took advantage of its resources - natural and human - it provided, used them mercilessly and discarded them.

However, I enjoyed the ending. Barrett leaves the reader thinking and reconstructing his own ending. It is always interesting when the author include the reader in the story. This is a funny and complex book that will get the reading community talking. This is the kind of books we should be writing and reading. They are bold, they attempt to do what is not common. They are not just narrating a reality, they create realities and, take it or leave it, they don't care about your capacity to accept it or not. This is worth the read.

1 comment:

  1. I seriously look forward to read something from Igoni Barret, I haven't read anything yet. he seems to be quite promising.

    Thanks for the review.

    ReplyDelete

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