Somewhere out there, Rachel Dolezal is reading Igoni Barrett’s debut novel, Blackass, thinking “why do black people get to have all the fun?”. Although, one might suppose Ms Dolezal wouldn’t be much impressed with the direction of Furo Wariboko’s transition. After all, for decades, Ms Dolezal made this transition into a white woman daily in her alone, quiet moments, and occasionally to old friends and close family. To the rest of the world, and for all intents and purposes, she was a black woman. What Ms Dolezal might envy in Furo is the permanent state of his transition. A complete transformation into the coveted, the desired. But one would also wonder if Furo really wants to be a white man. (Just as it boggles the giblets of damn near any black person why someone white would volunteer themselves to experience first-hand the violence doled out by whiteness that black people experience on the daily, both overtly and covertly.)
Oh sure there are the obvious benefits: the coushy job for which Furo - apart from having the semblance of a white man - is nowhere near qualified for because, you see, Furo made things to his modules in university that made his degree to be done only just (which, if Nigerian Twitter is to be believed - and yes, yes it is - is less than abject failure in the eyes of Nigerian parents and the wider community). Also, he has never even read any of the books he’s supposed to be marketing - wholesale - to accomplished Lagosian businessmen. Then there is Syreeta - a woman who is so far above Furo’s paygrade (even after being employed at a much higher position than he initially applied for - coz, white), that she ends up bankrolling their situationship thanks to the unknowing assistance of her blesser - a Grade A blesser at that, who is basically footing the bill for the flat that makes their lovenest in an upmarket surburb of Lagos (as well as Furo’s new work clothes). These are the benefits that come with the privilege of whiteness, to which Furo adopts a dala what you must approach to life coz now suddenly his (white) balls have descended and feels himself to be a man. Just now this guy was hiding in his room from his mother, afraid of her reaction to his sudden and extreme luminosity.
Even with these benefits from it, whiteness is still a curious thing in a city like Lagos with its population of anywhere between 8 million (according to the official 2006 census) and 21 million (a 2015 unofficial estimate) of mostly black people. Perhaps in all the continent, only in South Africa is it commonplace to encounter ypipo without wondering where they’re from, why they’re here and when they’re leaving. In fact, it has often been said by Africans from places not within the imaginary boundaries of South Africa, that one scarcely considers oneself black until one finds oneself immersed in the inescapable whiteness of South Africa.
‘“You this olofofo woman, I been think set you get sense, … You never see oyibo before?’”
But the black of Nigeria’s Lagos is that of black people whose determined blackness has caused them to universally and quite successfully break the Queen’s English. And then to put it together again in lyrical pidgin, resplendent with idioms that cause the hearts of every African logophile to sing. A syntax and a lexicon all of its own, which Barrett uses with delicious liberal relish in the dialogue of his most obstinate characters. For a lot of it, unless you are familiar with the bending of the over 500 Nigerian tongues from which the algorithm that forms Nigerian speech is derived, you will lose some of the meaning but the gist is carried in the music of the performance. Barrett puts you there without overwhelming you with a back story. After all, it’s not his fault you haven’t bothered to brush up on your Igbo/Yoruba history - didn’t everyone get warned about starving Biafran children whenever you didn't want to finish your supper?
“‘Dirty Yoruba rat!’”
“‘Old Igbo mumu.’”
“‘Bastard son of kobo-kobo ashewo!’”
“‘Useless illiterate woman.’”
Africa is full of pidgins, creoles and languages that have evolved from conflict and collaboration with the project of colonisation, from Swahilli in the East to Fanakalo and Afrikaans in the South - all languages that evolved out of servitude to empire. In Nigeria, it seems, it is not common to find an oyibo speaking this pidgin as fluently as Furo does, which not unexpectedly, raises eyebrows.
“‘Abeg, no vex, but you be albino?’”
In a moment of brazen risk taking, the author devises a way of inserting himself into the story. It’s a little jarring. It fits awkwardly and is managed by the author in a manner reminiscent of a Nollywood film plot - convenient and outrageously improbable. It’s a kind of subversive meta-pidgin of storytelling - where the conventional rules that inform acceptance of writing/film from the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom are twisted and bludgeoned the same way the Nigerian pidgin does the same to the language of the realm. It’s an experiment that doesn’t quite go as planned and the recovery is rather clumsy. For instance, there’s the denouement, a chapter titled “METAMORPHOSES” where the parallel between being transgendered and being transracial is made which derives directly from this point of self-insertion. It’s the novel’s lowest point for reasons that would detract greatly from the review of what is an otherwise triumph of decolonising the African novel.