In Blackass, Through Absurdity Exists Honest Realism

by Lauren LeBlanc

I’ve retreated to nonfiction and global literature to avoid the fate of leaving half-read books around my apartment. The title alone told me that Blackass was going to be irreverent and the fact that it was a satire sold me on the novel. This was a book that wasn’t going to be sanctimonious, but it would be serious. One of the the joys of reading world literature is that beyond the convention and obsessions of our own culture, we tap into a new perspective. Through it, we are exposed to different challenges that help us reframe the way in which we engage with our everyday frictions and larger societal issues. By erasing our ability to cozily make ourselves at home in the familiar postures and shorthand of a novel, are we opening ourselves up to the possibility of more incisive, thoughtful connections in the world?

In Blackass, no character is free from the engagement of escaping their prescribed lives. Some characters have more surreal exit strategies than others. On the morning of a crucial job interview, Furo Wariboko wakes up to find that he is no longer a black Nigerian. He’s confronted with a white body that alienates himself from himself, his family, and pretty much everyone he encounters. No one knows what to make of an oyibo, Nigerian slang for a white person, who speaks and acts with the fluency of a native black Nigerian.

Furo chafed under his father’s passive, unsuccessful career. His mother’s hard-earned success kept the family afloat and provided her two children with their education. Not only emasculated by living at home as an unemployed man in his thirties, Furo finds that he must turn to his savvy younger sister even for help with social media. He’s adrift and in search of an anchor. There is nothing cozy about the inertia he’s experiencing.

The condition of his status quo vanishes overnight. The morning that he wakes up as a white man, Furo flees his home, leaving behind his phone and all possessions to in order to sneak out, unnoticed. Even if he had managed to remember his wallet, he didn’t have any money and had planned to borrow some from his family in order to make it to the interview. Without thinking twice, he knows that he can’t expect his family to believe this white man is their Furo.

Despite these challenges, Furo still manages to charm his way into cash and a ride. And in spite of the stress of scrambling to make it to said interview, he was offered a different, better job with higher pay, a laptop, and company car. Within twenty-four hours of living as a white man, a series of absurd encounters leaves Furo with money in his pocket, a lucrative job, a new roof over his head, and, along with that new bed, an attractive, ambitious girlfriend. Why look back?

Unlike Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Furo embraces his metamorphosis.

Meanwhile, Furo’s family struggles to make sense of his disappearance. As his parents mourn, his sister draws on her fluency in social media to cope. Through Twitter, her initial cries for help morph into the tweets of an outspoken self-marketer. Mastering the art of googling search engine optimization tips, she revels in her new followers, engages in Twitter feuds, and develops a new, assertive persona. While Furo could not be two people at once, his sister taps into the means of juggling various personalities. Barrett recognizes that what society can’t handle in person, it somehow accepts through the conduit of the internet. Twitter’s platform allows Tekena/@pweetychic_tk to make herself so visible that she attracts the attention of another transitional figure — Igoni, an author who meets Furo on the first day of his new life.

Complicating Barrett’s identity puzzle further, Igoni, who shares his name with the author but also refers to himself as Morpheus, transitions from living life a man to an existence as a woman. It’s through this new identity that she reaches out to Tekana/@pweetychic_tk over Twitter. Fascinated by a brief encounter with Furo, Igoni/Morpheus wants to follow the progress of a fellow traveler, treading between worlds.

While both Furo and Igoni transition into their new selves with incredible ease, the reader has to flip back to see when the switch occurs for Igoni/Morpheus. Her change is just that slippery. It feels problematic, even in a deliberately Kafkaesque novel, to move from one race or gender to another, but through this seamless transition, Barrett exposes the way in which life truly can be radically different in another skin.

Larger questions loom regarding the complications of adapting a different race or gender. How do we come to know our true selves? Would life be so different if we could simply swap out specific circumstances such as gender, race, class, religion, ethnicity, nationality? Is this the appeal of the internet: it’s ability to offer amnesty to those in need of community? What does it take for us to shake off the confines of various prescribed conditions? And in the end, where do we feel most “at home?”

In spite of the advantages he enjoys as a white man, Furo faces the skepticism of Nigerians who distrust the very details of his background. Through their inability to believe he is indeed a Nigerian, the ways in which one’s race determines one’s neighborhood, education, vernacular language, name, ethnicity, and sense of comfort with one’s self become excruciatingly clear. One begins to wonder: Is this a nightmare or a satirical look at the barriers built by racial difference?

Barrett’s fascination with social media begs another question: Can social media work to break through these barriers? Through Twitter, despite the fact that, throughout the course of the novel, she remains a Nigerian black woman, Tekana/@pweetychic_tk quickly acquires a powerful sense of agency. Through the experience of Furo’s new girlfriend Syreeta, the reader is keenly aware of the challenges inherent in being an independent woman in Lagos. Syreeta has a university education, but she is a kept woman relying upon a sugar daddy for her car, apartment, and income. Tekana/@pweetychic_tk represents a more mobile, fearless younger generation, eager to adapt and navigate independence on her own terms.

Absurdity provides Barrett with the ability to tease out these fraught issues across a tangled and loaded landscape. My frustration with the humorless novels I’d been reading may not be that their seriousness lacks amusement. Rather than accepting realism in fiction as a means of empathizing with the world, I’ve been aching for the higher stakes and more rigorous engagement with social issues that find a more fertile home in satirical, surreal fiction.

Barrett’s frenetic plot and pacing takes his characters to uncomfortable places that seem unbelievable and yet, in the moment of this novel, feel entirely plausible. When faced with the question of abandoning his personal history and family for his new life, Furo makes what seems like a shocking decision. For better or worse, his call speaks to the world we live in. Sometimes it’s only through the looking glass that we can honestly see the true extent of the damage inflicted by the world we live in.

Click here to read an excerpt from Blackass as part of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. Also, click here to read about A. Igoni Barrett’s writing life in Nigeria, part of Electric Literature’s series, The Writing Life Around the World.