Thursday, August 25, 2016

Blackass: Identity, Prejudice & Discrimination in Contemporary Literature

Furo Wariboko, a 33-year-old, unemployed Nigerian man, wakes up on the morning of his job interview day to find that he has experienced a physical metamorphosis: he is an oyibo, a white man. Shocked and worried what his family will think, he sneaks away from home without their noticing and starts his efforts to efface his former identity. This starts off the journey motif of the narrative which ends up being characterised by satire once the reader discovers that a small matter has been left unresolved: Furo’s ass has remained irresolutely black and it defies all efforts to be whitened!
However, Blackass is more than just a physical transformation of Furo’s physique. It is a story about contemporary Nigeria, the terrain of the city of Lagos and the numerous challenges facing the job seekers in a society increasingly faced by socio-political and economic problems. Furo’s desertion of his family marks an interesting twist of his life as he seeks to reconstruct his identity as a white man. Indeed he discovers that although being a white man has its own share of problems like fellow Lagosians seeking to exploit every opportunity to make money out of him: A white man in Lagos has no voice louder than the dollar sign branded onto his forehead, he also finds it easy to land job opportunities.
It seems that Africans in a 21st century are still plagued by the ghost of racism and its attendant discriminative values. In his first job interview, Furo is immediately given the job just because he is white even though he comes across as inexperienced and unprepared for the job. The upturn of things is that he discovers his voice and determines to carve an identity for himself. Thus begins the process of metamorphosing from Furo Wariboko to Frank Whyte. Although at the beginning of the novel Furo comes across as shy, easily intimidated, withdrawn and unsure of his footing, the change of his skin colour accords him a different perspective towards life.
Furo becomes a more decisive man who can exploit others economically, sexually and personally. His relationship with Syreeta is symbiotic because she seeks to get even with her philandering male friend who has a family and keeps her for his selfish sexual exploits. For his part, Furo benefits from this arrangement because he gets free shelter, food clothing and other benefits which he would never have dreamt about if he were still a black Nigerian. Even though things appear better for him, the reader soon discovers the shallowness of human beings when Furo begins his job, orders the driver around and avoids getting too close with fellow Nigerians.
The language of the novel is humorous even as Barrett pokes fun of Furo’s useless attempts to bleach his ass. It becomes a symbol of his essence, his being, his identity. The stubbornness with which it sticks (no pun intended) with him is a lesson to humankind that we cannot wish away our identity, our history or our origin so to speak. Furo comes to the realisation that to be is easier than to become. In addition, this is a narrative about gender issues as the writer incorporates the aspect of transgender into the twist of the plot. In fact, this is one of the occasions through which the writer teases Furo for his shallowness when he appears surprised by Igoni’s transformation yet he himself has undergone a similar experience. The first time Furo meets Igoni he is a male writer but the next time they meet she comes across as a woman to whom Furo is attracted only to find that she has a penis.  
One can also arguably say that the text concerns itself with questions of masculinity. Furo’s father is cast as a disillusioned man broken by a corrupt system when his efforts to establish a chicken business fails. Having been socialised into a tradition that expects him to “behave like a man”, Furo’s father would rather pretend that all is well even when he knows that he is incapable of providing for his family and that his wife would have to shoulder the burden of doing so. It is no wonder that Furo’s sister is moulded after her mother, strong-willed and determined as opposed to Furo who appears to have been emasculated by the father’s inability to live up to societal expectations of his manliness.
The writer also experiments with social media in this story when he infuses the story line with twitter messages. Tekena, Furo’s sister uses social media to ventilate about her fears concerning her brother’s disappearance. Although it is not the best of my reads this year, I like the text for letting the reader think through unanswered questions like what would happen when Furo eventually confronts his family with an altered skin colour. Some of us might find the text’s confrontation with questions of identity shallow, others might even find the story a bit flat but each one of us will have to read and judge for themselves.

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