Transformation of Bodies

Reviewing A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass

by Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

No one asks to be born, to be black or white or any colour in between, and yet the identity a person is born into becomes the hardest to explain to the world. (126)

When thinking about the black body in African fiction, I initially gravitated towards reflecting on the reproductive female body and the conflation of womanhood with motherhood. But I wanted to go beyond reproduction to illustrate the other ways in which the body can be discussed in African literature. I was fascinated by the surreal transformation of bodies in Blackass, a novel by Nigerian writer, A. Igoni Barrett, that is set in contemporary Lagos.

There are two types of transformation of bodies in Blackass. The main character, Furo Wariboko, finds himself transformed from a thirty-three year old black man into a red-haired, green-eyed, pale-skinned white (Nigerian) man who eventually becomes known as Frank Whyte (he chooses this name while watching “a music channel showing a 2pac and Biggie video” — most likely their posthumous track Runnin’ (Dying to Live) — and Hip-hop heads might recall that B.I.G referred to himself as “the black Frank White”, a name he in turn took from cult-classic gangster film, The King of New York (1990). The second metamorphosis is the transformation of the male writer, Igoni, into a woman, also named Igoni, a transformation that occurs after Igoni meets Furo.

A man fell asleep black and woke up white, thus the opening paragraph:

Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep. He was lying nude in bed, and when he raised his head a fraction, he could see his alabaster belly, and his pale legs beyond, covered with fuzz that glinted bronze in the cold daylight pouring in through the open window. He sat up with a sudden motion that swilled the panic in his stomach and spilled his hands into his lap. He stared at his hands, the pink life-lines in his palms, the shellfished-coloured cuticles, the network of blue veins that ran from knuckle to wrist, more veins than he had ever noticed before. His hands were not black but white … same as his legs, his belly, all of him. (3)

A black man with a degree in Lagos today has to contend with the likelihood of being unemployed. A welter of graduates try to eke out a living in a country where around 1.8 million young people are said to enter the labour market every year  (National Bureau of Statistics Nigeria, 2011:7), all of them competing for extremely limited job opportunities. Furo represents a certain kind of young black male today in Nigeria — unemployed and educated. Such a young black man might be single and living at home with his family. We do not have his full personal history, and so he becomes an everyman exemplar. The glimpses into his past are those that we get from his sister’s online persona later in the novel when she takes to social media to search for him while he is simultaneously deleting his online presence, erasing all traces of his former self, and reimagining then rewriting his past.

A white man in Lagos might have to confront stares as becomes a sort of invisible man who is seen by everyone but recognised for who he is by no one:

[…] people whom he had lived beside for many years, joked with, been rude to, borrowed money from – and yet no one had recognised him (10).

He might also have a certain level of privilege: he might join the long queue of unemployed Nigerian applicants for that oversubscribed, low-paying, entry-level job, only to hurdle it and be offered a higher, senior management position within the same company. Being white could signify a change in location, from a less affluent middle-class part of Lagos to the more posh Island — the haunt of the returnees, the expatriates, the foreigners, and wealthy Lagosians. It also means the benefit of a lot of other people’s assumptions: wealth (when it does not exist), power (when it is lacking), and status (when it is non-existent). On the flipside, white bodies need not necessarily represent privilege, they can also be marginalised. They do not quite fit in the contemporary landscape of Lagos where whiteness is not always a benign novelty: whiteness could mean being thought of as naive or lacking in street smarts, which means being charged higher fares for a taxi ride or being conned outright repeatedly.

Furo, as a white man, has access to things he would not have as a black man. He is able to find a home on the ‘Island’ with the young Syreetta, who becomes his ‘sugar mama’. The transactional relationship that occurs between Furo and Syreeta is supported by Syreeta’s own relationship with her wealthy Nigerian sugar daddy (“Tuesday [is] Bola’s day”). In this relationship, we are introduced to another difference between the black and white male body. Where young women often have to sell their bodies to make a living (“And you’re a white man. You don’t have to fuck anyone for favours,” Syreeta says to Furo when he insinuates that she is a kept woman), and a wealthy black man can fund Syreeta’s lifestyle, but the white body is more desirable as it puts her in possession of powerful status symbols and possibilities —  a white lover and a mixed-race child — which can give her greater personal agency and access to a higher standard of living. The black male body, even when wealthier, has less cachet.

Blackass tells us that race matters in Nigeria, but offers a different perspective from what we’re accustomed to reading in African literature (critic Aaron Bady notes that Blackass is “a photo negative” of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah).  Being a white Nigerian man may open doors, but it brings with it new challenges, even with its opportunities, and it’s their entangled specificity that constitutes what it means to be white and Nigerian. Furo did not choose to become white, he woke up that way. He is forced to navigate society with his new identity but this navigation is only coherent, even possible, because he was recently black and is assuredly Lagosian. (His driver says about Furo/Frank’s moodiness that “[t]he dude dey vex like full Nigerian.” — not the first time that a Nigerian points out Frank’s authentic Naija-ness.) His transformation is thus less a metamorphosis than an amalgamation. Yet, while he initially struggles with his transformation, never once does Furo desires a return to his former self:

And in this state of naked grace —stripped of the past, curious about the present, hopeful about the future — he strode to the tall mirror over the vanity table and stared into the face of his new self. A face whose features had altered less in dimension than character, and whose relation to the selfie in the newspaper was as close and yet as far apart as the resemblance between adolescence and adulthood. His face had sloughed off immaturity. Then again, the unexpectedness of his skin shade, eye colour, and hair texture was the octopus ink that would confuse his hunters, as even he wouldn’t have recognised himself in a photo of his new face, and so neither would his parents nor anyone who based their looking on his old image. He knew at last that he had nothing to fear. He was a different person, and right here, right now, right in his face, he looked nothing like the former Furo. (178-9)

He literalises Frantz Fanon’s declaration in Black Skin, White Masks (1967), that, “For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white” (10). However, Barrett suggests that blackness is essential and indelible. In Furo’s case, he still has his black arse which he tries to eliminate through the use of  Syreeta’s skin-lightening creams. It says a lot about the burden of blackness that Furo would abandon his family, his friends, and the person he was for thirty-three years for the guaranteed wealth and status that comes with him being white.

But in this war of the selves, I had switched sides. Despite the snake of the maleness that still tethered me to the past, I was more than man, interrupted. (191)

The male writer, Igoni, first meets Furo while he is still in his early days as a white man, at a cafe in “The Palms, the largest mall in Lagos.” Igoni is fascinated by this white Nigerian man and decides to learn his story. He uses Twitter, through which he discovers Furo’s sister, Tekena (@pweetychic_tk), whom he befriends. However, with time Igoni too undergoes his own identity change into a woman. Although she jokes that Tekena should “call me Morpheus.” (In the film, The Matrix (1999), Morpheus, a black man, is a hacker who has spent his whole life searching for “the One” who turns out to be a white man who is able to remake the world as he sees fit.) Weeks later, Furo sees Igoni again, but this time as a different person.

Furo remembered. He remembered Igoni. He remembered their meeting at The Palms, and their chat in the café, and the favour he had asked that Igoni refused … And this woman, this Igoni, wasn’t that man. Not any more. Furo felt like laughing and crying. It had happened to Igoni, too. (261)

Furo is also curious as to what “blackassness was hidden underneath her skirt”, curious to know if, like him, she is not totally transformed. Igoni desired the transformation or had at least thought about it: she notes that she too deleted her Facebook account “after I started receiving homophobic messages over my personal essay on wanting to be a girl” (89).

Similar to Furo’s transformation, this change is unexplained and we do not know why it has happened. Unlike Furo, Igoni seems less surprised by his metamorphosis:

I was more relieved than surprised by this happenstance. The seeds had always been there, embedded in the parched earth of my subconscious. I had heard their muted rattling in the remembered moments of my sleeping life; I had seen their shadowy branches overhanging the narrow road that wound into my future … Long before Furo’s story became my own, I was already trying to say what I see now, that we are all constructed narratives (95-6).

This question of male-to-female identity is, for Igoni, a new story she tells about herself in order to become an authentic character in it. Furo’s story illumines and clarifies her own, making it legible by its contrasts and similarities to hers. In discovering how this man, forced into a new story reconstituted himself within it, she is able to make what was unconscious conscious and exercise powerful agency. Igoni, having known the relatively privileged position of masculinity for much of her life, chooses to enter into womanhood in a world where women — who didn’t chose to be women but found themselves born as such and perhaps, had they known what horrors, degradations, and tragedies awaiting them might have chosen to be born otherwise — so often find their agency suppressed in sex, daily life, work, travel, and so on. But why the decision to transform from man into woman? Igoni hints at the philosophical aspect and ineffable potential of femininity: “Pity the man who never becomes the woman he could be,” she thinks. In his idealised androgyne, Barrett recalls James Joyce’s Ulysses in which “Bloom is a finished example of the new womanly man,” of whom Joyce scholar Declan Kiberd writes in the introduction to the Penguin edition that “he [Joyce] was left to conclude that at the root of many men’s inability to live in serenity with a woman was a prior inability to harmonize male and female elements in themselves. In Ulysses, the mature artist set forth Leopold Bloom as the androgynous man of the future.”

Furo’s  external transformation is racial but his internal one is that of a masculinity that would obviate that of his father, whom he perceives as a failure. (Again, Ulysses asks the question both Furo and Igoni wrestle with: “‘Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?’ […] A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil.”) Whiteness allows Furo to move himself psychically away from the broken black masculinity to which he was doomed by his father, and this emancipatory reworking of his masculinity is about access to power and possibility while for Igoni, the transformation is towards the maternal, into the feminine.

He [Igoni’s father] left when I was eight. My mother stayed to be condemned to failure in raising her son. Because the success of a man, our people say, is the father’s doing. You are your father’s son – you follow in your father’s footsteps. Manhood and its machismo are attributed to the seed, which then follows that the failure to make a man is the egg’s burden. ‘Your papa born you well’, they will sing to a man in praise, but when he disappoints so-and-so’s expectations of XY manliness, it becomes ‘Nah your mama I blame’. My say is this: when you live in a worldwide bullring, bullshit is what you’ll get. If they say I cannot be my mother’s son, then it must be that I’m her daughter. (186)

When Igoni meets Tekena in person to watch a movie, Igoni experiences unwanted sexual attention from a man at the cinema. The man sees Igoni, not as a person, but as an object he can ogle and touch without her consent. Igoni recoils from this experience:

We were waiting in line to buy our tickets at the box office when a man walked up to us. I had seen him coming, and I suspected he was trouble, though I’d thought his trouble was my companion’s to rebuff. I was wrong. It was me his potbelly was jiggling towards [] I was already irritated by the way he smirked at me, and I was tense on account of how close he was standing, but when he said, ‘I like your hair o,’ raising his hands at the same time to stroke my locks, the violence of my shudder shocked me as well (188-9).

Tekena defends Igoni, who is unable to do so herself as she is still coming to terms with a feeling that may be new to her. Tekena has most likely experienced this kind of unwanted attention on more than one occasion as a woman. Igoni observes:

Womanhood comes with its peculiar burden, among them the constant reminder of a subordinate status whose dominant symptom was uninvited sexual attention from men. I hadn’t foreseen this fact of my new identity. Bus conductors whistled at me on the street; drivers pulled over to offer me rides to bars; and when I went shopping for my new wardrobe in Yaba market, the touts grabbed at my hands and laughed off my protests. All manner and ages of male called me fine girl, sweet lips, correct pawpaw, big bakassi … A woman is not expected to live alone, to walk alone in peace, or to want to be alone. (190)

In the final part of the novel, Frank, coerces Syreeta into having an abortion then abandons her. He thinks, “Syreeta had him trapped. She might have planned this, or maybe she didn’t and the pregnancy just happened, but either way, she had him where she wanted him,” and conveniently forgets that when their affair began, she wanted him to use a condom and he begged her not to claiming, in those words far too many men have deployed in similar circumstances and with identical results, that, “I want to feel you.” He then spends two nights with Igoni before he leaves Lagos forever. A level of intimacy and trust is shared between these two people that have been transformed and who see each other as they are now (white Frank and female Igoni) and not who they were (two black men). Frank however is more interested in one thing and one thing only, what really is underneath Igoni’s skirt:

At sunrise, I discovered his blackass. And when he awoke, after he called me back to bed and slipped his hand between my legs, he, too, found my secret. It’s easier to be than to become. Frank should have known that. (301)

Furo’s fascination with Igoni’s genitals on one hand falls under a typical trope in transgender storytelling: the demand to “show me your genitals”. Yet, at the same time, Furo’s self-centredness and insecurity throughout Blackass makes his fixation on what is underneath Igoni’s skirt unsurprising. Indeed, Igoni notices, “his lack of understanding for our shared fate […] and his unchanging selfishness” (301-2).

Igoni’s transformation works an important theme in contemporary African literature, that of transgendered identity, the T in LGBT that often gets left out. This exclusion could be due to the larger invisibility of trans people in the LGBT discourse where gender identity is often not discussed alongside sexual orientation, a lack of understanding of the diversity of identities that fall under the broad category of transgender, as well as the fear which tends to come with a lack of understanding of non-conforming gender identity. Thus, this inclusion of a second transformation in Blackass in itself can be seen as progressive, especially as trans people are still misunderstood and disproportionately subjected to violence in many societies,  especially African ones. However, Furo, who knew who Igoni was before she became a woman, does not fear her. It is interesting also to note that in an interview with Vice, Barrett says:

I’ve had people react strongly to the book, but [no one in Nigeria criticised] the transgender character in the novel. I’ve had people think it’s weird, it’s crazy, it’s funny, but because it was so outlandish, they could empathise with the character without thinking it was a threat to their beliefs.

That a trans woman is written into a Nigerian story without it being seen as threatening from the perspective of (Nigerian) readers could also be seen as progress. Yet, this could have more to do with the way the character is written. Blackass is, after all, about transformations whose conditions of emergence are left unquestioned. A first transformation is introduced in the shape of Furo/Frank, that can already be said to be outrageous or even impossible; as such, the reader is spared from thinking of Igoni’s transformation as anything outside of the fiction of this fantasy. It is perhaps easy for it to remain as something that is only possible in this strange book that Barrett has written about a black (Nigerian) man who becomes a white (Nigerian) man.

What does trans literature currently look like in African literature? There are, of course, gay, lesbian and bi-sexual narratives in African fiction – I once wrote about mainly lesbian and gay literature in Africa, and there is a list of ten fascinating gay, lesbian or bisexual characters in African literature, but what about the “T”? Transgender literature has traditionally fallen into two categories: memoir and theory. A non-fiction work such as Trans: transgender life stories from South Africa (2009) includes more than twenty stories from the trans community in south Africa.  There are also narratives from the Proudly African and Transgender Exhibition, where ten transgender activists wrote a short story on being transgender. What about fiction? I must admit I am only aware of Diriye Osman’s short story collection, Fairytales for Lost Children, which includes a story about a trans woman nurse in a psychiatric ward. Yet, I cannot help thinking that the African speculative fiction genre must have trans characters even though I may not be aware of many of them. Blackass  provokes us to be attentive to the presence and absence of these characters and narratives in African literature.

Blackass makes it possible to think about black and white bodies, male and female bodies in ways that make them less threatening, due in large part to its humour which makes the tensions of race and gender into a way of playing with who and what we are. This also allows for a look at bodies beyond that of biology, reproduction, or health, and beyond the constricting narrative of human rights. This enables a closer look at identities (racialised, seuxalised and gendered) as  different narrative forms which we can read and write in a multitude of ways in order to shape and reshape our lives and pasts to find pleasure and freedom in living.