In A. Igoni Barrett’s debut novel, the main character, 33-year-old Lagosian Furo Wariboko, wakes up one ordinary morning and … is white. Later in the novel, we meet a writer named Igoni who changes into a woman. But these transformations are not straightforward ones. Despite his white skin, green eyes and red hair, Furo’s eponymous ass remains “robustly black”; despite her big boobs and womanly curves, Igoni, now known as Morpheus, still retains her/his penis.
This is not the first time Barrett has toyed with the themes of psychological and physical transformation. In the title story of his collection Love is Power or Something Like That, a policeman is a loving father and husband at home, but changes into a cruel and imperious brute the moment he puts on his uniform. Here, as in Blackass, outward alteration triggers a psychological change.
The first effect of Furo’s transmogrification is on Furo himself. He is understandably disoriented and confused. He sneaks out of his home without letting his family see him, but more disorientation awaits him outside. A white man walking is not a common sight on working-class Lagos streets. Children want to touch his skin; adults shout out to him “Oyibo”, meaning white man.
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.
This immediately brings to mind James Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village”, about his 1951 visit to the remote Swiss village of Leukerbad, in which he describes how frightening being a visible “other” can be. Yet Furo is not a stranger. “I am Nigerian,” he insists to people who marvel at his Nigerian name and Nigerian accent.
The second effect of the transformation is not so bad, Furo soon finds out. After the stares and the whispers and the snide comments, the mild-mannered and insignificant Furo finds that he compels attention and respect, because he is white. At a job interview he is directed to the head of the queue, and not only does he get the job, he is offered a more senior position, with a company car and a driver, even though he never completed his degree. “You’ll be my point man, my big gun, the person I send out to bring in important clients,” the director tells him.
Random women step forward on the streets to help him get a taxi, because the drivers always jerk up their fare at the sight of a white passenger.
He is offered a room by a beautiful woman in the posh neighbourhood of Victoria Island, where white people are not such a strange sight. A kept woman herself, Sareeta makes Furo her kept man. She feeds him, sleeps with him, buys clothes for him, all for the privilege of showing him off to her friends, most of whom are married to white men.
Here the novel, which began as a bold riff on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, begins to turn into a comedy of manners – which in itself, if sustained, wouldn’t have been a bad thing. Igoni Barrett’s greatest asset is his ability to satirise the ridiculous extents people, especially Lagosians, go to in order to appear important. His characters’ every foible is captured and amplified for effect. But his handling of plot is not so masterly; the introduction of Morpheus is one too many transformations. A whole section of the novel, in which Furo’s sister uses Twitter to publicise her search for her missing brother, is written in tweets: it’s clever, but at the end feels pointless and too long. The collision of Furo’s two worlds doesn’t happen until the very end of the novel, and then as a plot device. Furo, who has changed his name to Frank White, is now a bit shallow. The cocktail of Kafka and comedy is slightly off here; something not helped by the preponderance of cliches in the prose. As Wole Soyinka once said about another African writer’s referencing of Kafka: “I prefer my Kafka straight.”