A young Nigerian man wakes up on the morning of his job interview to discover that he’s white. A. Igoni Barrett wrote that sentence into his pocket notebook in 2011, and found it after finishing his collection of short stories, Love Is Power, Or Something Like That, and deciding to attempt his first novel.
“When I sat down to write about it, I realized pretty quickly how similar it was to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Barrett said by phone. A native and resident of Nigeria, he’s on a U.S. tour for the novel, Blackass, which was published in Britain in June and released in the U.S. last week by Graywolf Press.
Upon discovering his transformation, Furo Wariboko flees his apartment to avoid his family. He’s a disappointment, living at home unemployed; his mother, when she wishes him good luck through a locked bedroom door, tells him not to worry “too much” if he doesn’t get the job.
En route, people treat him radically different — few have seen a white man, an oyibo. At the interview, he’s given an opportunity and salary that far exceed those for which he’s applied. Struggling to explain his thick Nigerian accent and name, he is quick to claim and defend them … at first. But Furo begins to adopt a new attitude and ultimately changes his name to Frank Whyte to make it “easier for customers to pronounce.”
“This was a character who wanted to succeed, by all means, and that’s where he differs from Gregor Samsa, of Kafka’s novel,” Barrett said. “Kafka’s character had changed into an insect but still wanted to be human, wanted to be loved by the family, and in the end was destroyed by that need to be accepted as a human despite appearing to people as an insect. And in my character’s case, he took advantage of his situation … he accepted it and began to act, and began to become what society saw him as.”
Much of the book came to Barrett in the writing process, such as Furo’s backside remaining black — which allowed him to explore serious topics while being humorous.
“Members of society want to see themselves reflected in the images of those societies, and yet when you live in a society that doesn’t, that somehow renders you invisible, that never represents you or represents you in stereotypical fashions, at some point you either rebel against that image and say, show the complexity of our situation, you know, show the complexity of the minorities within societies; or there are other people, unfortunately the majority, who try to fit in to society’s images of what is good, or what is important.
“And so you have people lightening their skin, straightening their hair, wearing wigs and wearing human hair even, to look like something else. I wanted to explore identity, and the freedom with which we can decide to be something else. … I was not so much interested in the science of this, but rather the psychological transformation, and the decisions we take that change us, slowly, but ineluctably, until we become something almost unrecognizable from our past.”
IF YOU GO
A. Igoni Barrett: 7:30 p.m. March 19, free, Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 Ninth Ave.
Photo by Victor Ehikhamenor
The bilingual reading series and open mike Voz Sin Tinta, which is sponsored by San Francisco’s Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguía, celebrates its third anniversary along with Women’s History Month with a special showcase of Las Lunas Locas, a women’s writing collective from Los Angeles (6:30 p.m. Thursday, March, 10, Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St., S.F., free).
The Other Fabulous Reading Series pairs poets Tongo Eisen-Martin (“Someone’s Dead Already”) and Wendy Trevino (“128-131”) (7:30 p.m. Friday, March 11, the Long Haul Infoshop, 3124 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, free).
Writers With Drinks features Joyce Maynard, Helene Wecker, Noah Smith, Peter Tieryas and Charlotte Shane (7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 12, the Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St., $5-20).
The first installment of a new reading series, “The Rainbow Body,” featuring Cassandra Troyan, Paul Ebenkamp and Alana Siegel. Attendees are asked to wear their brightest clothing and accessories (8 p.m. Saturday, March 12, 1628 Woolsey St., Apartment C, Berkeley, free).
Litquake’s annual daylong Palo Alto festival features a keynote talk by Joyce Carol Oates, along with readings by the likes of Yangsze Choo, Daniel Handler, Bich Minh Nguyen and Kevin Sessums, along with themed salons, literary workshops for children, and a teen space with young adult authors (3 p.m. Sunday, March 13, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto, free).