Kafka in Lagos and Other Nigerian Fantasies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because even sci-fi needs to modernize.
By Tobias Carroll
What happens when you update a classic story by a century, shifting continents along the way? Furo Wariboko, the Nigerian everyman at the center of A. Igoni Barrett’s first novel, Blackass, is plunged into such a situation when he awakes, Gregor Samsa–style, to find he has changed dramatically overnight. In Furo’s case, he has not transformed into an insect but into a white man.
Like any great piece of supernatural literature, Blackass uses our present condition to propose a thought experiment: What if we shifted race? Kafkaesque, sure, but the novel also brings to mind sci-fi master Ursula K. LeGuin’s playing with gender. And Barrett has been rewarded for his efforts. His previous book, Love Is Power, or Something Like That, received accolades from NPR and one of its stories won a BBC award. Blackass has drawn approving reviews from the Financial Times and The Boston Globe, among others.
Speaking from his home in Lagos, Nigeria, Barrett, 36, says he’s been “trying to escape” his home city for years. But the city and his nation have undoubtedly influenced him. The combination of a playful genre and a postcolonial heritage yield something appealing (see Rushdie if you have any doubts that Western readers lap up this permutation): a “useful structure for commenting on the ways systems of knowledge and belief cross and clash, sometimes violently, as in colonialism,” says writer and critic Sofia Samatar, whose A Stranger in Olondria won the 2014 World Fantasy Award for best novel.
“Vultures, hyenas, Lagos taxi drivers, in rising order of cunning, greed, half-heartedness, Furo was convinced after forty minutes of standing by the roadside opposite the passport office. And when his legs grew tired, he walked some distance away to a new spot along the road, but that didn’t help, every taxi that pulled up — ordinary yellow, special red, metro black, or unpainted kabu-kabu — sped away empty, the drivers unwilling to reduce their inflated prices. Furo knew why, as did everyone who witnessed his heated haggling. A white man in Lagos has no voice louder than the dollar sign branded on to his forehead.” — excerpted from Blackass (Graywolf Press, 2016)
That commentary: Furo’s transformation both isolates him and makes him uniquely qualified to profit in a nation with an increasing amount of foreign investment. As writer and critic Bethanne Patrick put it, magical realism “is used less like clay to be fired in a final form and more like putty that can be stretched and changed according to an author’s needs.” All the while, Furo’s sister searches for her lost brother. She is assisted by a writer named Igoni, a metafictional touch that takes a turn for the surreal as the novel reaches its conclusion.
Barrett says the family elements were crucial: He rereads The Metamorphosis every year, and is fascinated by the way Gregor “allowed his family to break him.” Barrett sought to invert this dynamic, creating instead a family in which love and forgiveness were paramount. But as his protagonist entered the wider world, Barrett found the focus of the novel shifting. “I began to realize that there were other things that the book wanted to be about,” he says. “There was a struggle — was it going to be about family, or was it going to be about society?” Society prevails, often: While writing Blackass, Barrett began following news from the U.S. about race and racial unrest (Ferguson, Baltimore, etc). It unsettled him and, we imagine, pervaded his psyche. He eventually had to abandon social media to get the work done.
In Barrett’s family, books were always around: His father is the poet Lindsay Barrett (also known as Eseoghene), his mother an English teacher. He grew up in Port Harcourt, and moved west to Ibadan in the early aughts to continue his education. It was there he encountered the two books that would change his life: Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull. “It felt like I was listening to the best friend I never knew I had,” Barrett says. He resolved to become a writer. “Basically, the Internet was my M.F.A. program,” he says. Barrett’s father published his first collection of short stories, From Caves of Rotten Teeth. Barrett was proud, but realized he needed to do more.
Barrett’s breakthrough began in 2010, when he was the recipient of a Chinua Achebe Center fellowship, which required him to submit some of his writing to the center’s director, Binyavanga Wainaina, author of the acclaimed 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place. This would, in turn, prompt Wainaina to introduce Barrett to his agent and to his American publisher, Graywolf Press, which published Love Is Power and Blackass.
Barrett is succeeding at a time when Nigerian publishing is experiencing a boom. This time, says Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, co-founder and director of Cassava Republic Press, writers don’t have to leave the country to enjoy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie–level acclaim. (Though it probably helps if you’d like to be sampled on a Beyoncé album.) Ironically, Barrett’s readers abroad have begun to outnumber those at home. In some ways, it makes sense: This is a writer who came to the written word through a Colombian and a German. And now, perhaps, an American will come to his or her voice through an Internet-trained writer in Nigeria.