A. Igoni Barrett is winner of the BBC World Service 2005 short story competition (worth a read) and author of two volumes of short stories. This, his first novel, is an original satire on power and identity in Lagos, Nigeria.
Furo Wariboko, Nigerian, born in Port Harcourt, raised in Lagos, wakes up one morning in his room in his mother’s house to discover he has turned white overnight. Later he will discover that one vital part of him has remained black (hence the title).
What follows is a hilarious dissection of skin colour and its consequences, from superficial reactions to his whiteness (how come you speak Nigerian?) to deeper social issues: a new girlfriend and the job offer which ends a good ten years of unemployment promptly materialise. Fearing the reaction of his family, Furo also goes awol and changes his name for good measure. Eventually he begins to masquerade as an American as people refuse to believe he is actually Nigerian.
“He had always thought that white people had it easier, in this country anyway, where it seemed that everyone treated them as special, but after everything that he had gone through since yesterday, he wasn’t so sure any more. Everything conspired to make him stand out. This whiteness that separated him from everyone he knew. His nose smarting from the sun. His hands covered with reddened spots, as if mosquito bites were something serious. People pointing at him, staring all the time, shouting ‘oyibo at every corner.”
So we’re talking about race, but through a buffer of comedy: judicious references to Furo’s black buttocks keep things firmly anchored in the ridiculous. It’s also accessible to international readers. Context is neatly balanced, providing enough to understand what’s going on without interrupting the flow of the story. Snippets of Nigerian pidgin are neatly inserted: just enough to make it realistic, not so many that it becomes incomprehensible. When Furo’s new girlfriend takes him to buy clothes, the shop owner is delighted that he speaks Nigerian.
“…Yelloman pounded him on the back in approval, then slashed the price of the leather slippers they were haggling over… ’You be my personal person,’ Yelloman said as he walked them to the sliding glass door. ‘My gism number dey for the nylon. Call me anytime you wan’ drink beer.’ “
Furo himself is a complex character. Playful, opportunistic, a bit of a user; he manages to exploit his new situation to the full but misses his mummy dreadfully. The author himself also makes an appearance, getting involved in the story after a chance meeting with Furo in a shopping mall (incidentally also providing an excuse for a foray into the Lagos Twitter scene). He later pigeonholes himself along with Furo’s sister as ‘a recognisable Nigerian type’
“She was after all a recognisable Nigerian type, not much different from me in background and social standing. We were both members of that caste of young adults who grew up in the ruins of Nigeria’s middle class. We were born into the military dictatorships of the 80s and 90s; we attended the cheaper private schools or the better public ones; we read the same Pacesetter novels and watched the same NTA shows; we lived in cities…”
The result is a confident, original and occasionally laugh-out-loud-funny novel which may have an agenda but is certainly not hijacked by it.
Any Cop?: Funny but not too funny, serious but not too serious, clever but not too clever.