My Lagos Story: A Q&A with A. Igoni Barrett

Article by keaton

Satire is not the same as comedy. While satirical works can often be humorous, they are never played simply for laughs. Satire points out the absurdities in societal habits and perspectives by letting their bias come to the forefront. Critically engaged with the world, satire aims to incite us (as humans) to do better, to change—think of Voltaire’s CANDIDE, Brecht’s MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, Kafka’s THE METAMORPHOSIS, or the recent NBCC Award-winning THE SELLOUT by Paul Beatty.

Joining the fray is A. Igoni Barrett’s debut novel BLACKASS. Vividly capturing the chaotic crush of Nigeria’s (and Africa’s) most populous city, Lagos, Barrett weaves an absurd tale that explores troubling notions of race, identity, postcolonialism, ethics, and the individual desire to succeed at any cost. The protagonist and vehicle for this exploration is a young, unemployed man named Furo Wariboko. He is like many of the millions of inhabitants of Lagos, except for one day he awakes to find his skin has turned white. Not albino. He is now a lone white man living in the most densely populated urban area on the continent of Africa. Suddenly estranged from everything he’s ever known (including himself), Wariboko’s life will never be the same. Will he ever truly be able to escape his past? BLACKASS is a probing, thought-provoking novel at the vanguard of contemporary Nigerian literature. It is not to be missed.

I had a chance to ask Barrett some questions via e-mail.

Brazos Bookstore: While BLACKASS is in part a take on Kafka’s METAMORPHOSIS, it is nevertheless its own unique creation. What was the kernel of inspiration for you in writing this novel beyond the Kafka connection?

A. Igoni Barrett: There were two wide-ranging ideas rattling around in my mind at the time of conceiving this novel: the question of identity and our society’s impact on how we answer that question. The physical appearance of my main character seemed a novel way to engage those themes in a Nigerian context. I only made the connection to Kafka afterwards.

BB: One of the main aspects of BLACKASS that bowled me over was the evocative sense of place you achieve in your descriptions of Lagos. The city really becomes its own character. How important is that sense of place to you as an author?

Blackass: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555977337
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 7-10 Days due to Covid-19 shipping delays.
Published: Graywolf Press - March 1st, 2016

AIB: Most of my earlier fiction is set in Poteko, an imaginary place influenced as much by Lagos as by Port Harcourt, Ibadan, Abuja, Warri, all of the Nigerian communities I had spent my life collecting impressions from. But from the start I thought of BLACKASS as my Lagos story—a book written for Lagos, about Lagos, and, in a sense, by Lagos. Almost from the first moment of my adult engagement with the city, I had been struck by my mixed emotions towards it, emotions so intense that over the years I’ve caught myself using the term ‘hate-love’ to express my reaction to Lagos society. In this book, I wanted to peel back the layers of my contradictory response, as much for the sake of the story as for myself. I’ve come to see that sense of place is crucial to me in fiction, both as a writer and as a reader.

BB: BLACKASS has a plot that is odd, outlandish, and imbued with no small amount of humor. Still, the narrative posits quite serious questions of social importance, especially in regards to the legacy of colonialism. Why did you choose satire to approach these topics?

AIB: As anyone who has ever seen a performance by the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen knows, humor allows the artist to adopt outlandish guises and verbalize the most outrageous ideas. We forgive Cohen because we recognize the sensitivity it takes to capture the nuances of his role-playing, and we understand the seriousness, indeed the socio-political depth, of his purpose. In my case, I didn’t decide ab initio to write a satirical novel—it just turned out that way because, I suspect, whenever the unstoppable force of humor meets the immovable object of social commentary, what you’re left with is satire. As for how the concepts of race and whiteness are perceived in Nigeria at large, I really can’t give more insight than I’ve attempted in my novel. Generations of Nigerian writers would be needed to exhaust that lode.

BB: I am always intrigued when novelists insert themselves into their works of fiction, and you do appear in various guises in BLACKASS. Why did you make this aesthetic decision? Did you always know you’d have a character part to play in the narrative, or is it something that developed over the course of writing?

AIB: It was an impulsive choice that grew to feel integral. I’ve subsequently ruminated on that decision long enough to expound theories about its function within the novel’s narrative, but I’d rather let each reader decide for themselves what the point of that puzzle is.

Keaton Patterson is the book buyer at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, TX. He earned his M.A. in Literature from UH-Clear Lake.

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