A. Igoni Barrett on Nigeria, Language, and Striving for the Universal
Writing the Streets of Lagos, the City That Tells Itself
The following conversation took place on March 23, 2016 as part of Mic’s Q&A series, Pass the Mic.
Jamilah King: I’m a staff writer at Mic and my work focuses on race and culture, and I’m honored to be here with Igoni Barrett. He is an award-winning Nigerian author and the author of Blackass, the book we’re going to talk about tonight. He also has written a short story collection called Love is Power, or Something Like That. He’s been awarded the Norman Mailer Center Fellowship and the Bellagio Center Fellowship. Blackass is the story of a black Nigerian man, [Furo], who wakes up one morning and he’s white. He’s white everywhere except for… his black ass. And so, the book is really about him navigating society as a white man in Nigeria.
Let’s talk about Furo’s Lagos. The city becomes a character in and of itself; he has a very complicated relationship with this city that has beaten him down and has also given him hope. What’s your relationship like with Lagos?
A. Igoni Barett: It’s a contradictory one. I moved to Lagos—I mean I visited Lagos at several points in my life—but I moved to Lagos to take a job in 2007. And from my first day in Lagos, I was trying to escape it. I was trying to get out. It was this loud, dirty, but at the same time exciting, colorful city. You know, you have all of this noise in every way, and I found it distracting. I also found it saddening because Lagos feels like a microcosm of Nigeria. And so you have the many different ethnic groups and peoples in Nigeria represented in Lagos. But then you also see the failures of Nigeria, the successes of Nigeria, and also the ways in which people are beaten down by a society that is still trying to decide what it’s going to be.
So for me as a writer Lagos felt—it was so much of a story that I almost couldn’t write it. When your everyday life in Lagos is in so many ways fictional, at some point you begin to ask, what’s the point of writing stories? I needed a quiet place to write, so for the first two years of my life in Lagos I couldn’t write. I eventually had to give up my job; the idea was to save some money and move to some quiet village and find a tree house and then write about Lagos. But then I couldn’t escape Lagos because in my time there I found a community of writers in Lagos; there were bookshops, there were bars where we hung out. So I basically had made friends that I had to leave behind and in this place I was trying to escape. I kept planning to leave but just kept postponing it until at some point the quiet place I found for myself was one little room in a part of Lagos that is off the beaten track, and that’s where I was finally able to write. And so I’m still there now, still trying to escape it.
For me as a writer Lagos felt—it was so much of a story that I almost couldn’t write it. When your everyday life in Lagos is in so many ways fictional, at some point you begin to ask, what’s the point of writing stories?
JK: So, you’re in Lagos: how did you get the idea for this story?
AIB: The idea came out of nowhere in 2011. I wasn’t in Lagos when the idea came; I was in Abuja, and this is not related in any way to the idea, but I feel I need to explain how it came. There was a demonstration, some riots, in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, about fuel, about petrol. The Nigerian government had decided to remove the subsidies from petrol, and the Nigerians went to the streets to say, “No, there’s so much corruption, there are so many other things, at least leave us our subsidies, let’s get fuel for cheap.” I fear mobs; you can’t control them and they can turn in any direction at any point. But they are also exciting in a sense for a writer, for an artist, to study how people, how things work, how things change quickly, and how people interact in this violence. And when I say violence, it may not be physically violent, but they’re violent spaces, so they are interesting places for an artist to observe. I would go to these demonstrations and stand as far away from the crowd as I could and observe. And at some point I got bored. I was talking with a friend, and out of nowhere a sentence pops into my head: “A young Nigerian man wakes up on the morning of a job interview to discover that he’s white.” And I had now idea where that came from. I put it in my pocket notebook and went to have a beer.
I forgot about it until 2012 when I finished the book I was working on at the time, a collection of short stories, and decided it was time to work on a novel. It was time to see if I could write a novel and if I would enjoy the process, so I went to this notebook and started going through ideas I had put in over the years. One by one I struck out the ideas I found because I was too broad with this, or this was expected of me, and I didn’t want to do anything that was expected of me. I wanted to do something novel, something new, and then I got to the final idea which was this sentence, which also felt different from everything I’ve written before, and I wasn’t really sure it would work. But then thinking about it I decided, you know, this came out of nowhere, and I’d like to explore what that sentence was trying to say to me. This is a good place to start a work of fiction from. So I sat down to write, but then once I sat down I immediately realized that this story was in a sense The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. So at that point I went to read The Metamorphosis and had a reaction to The Metamorphosis that I hadn’t had before, which was that in a sense I kept thinking, while you know the character became an insect in The Metamorphosis–
JK: Just for folks who don’t know what The Metamorphosis is–
AIB: Yeah, so The Metamorphosis is about a young man in Prague who wakes up one morning to discover that he is a giant bug, and then he spends his time trying to be loved by his parents, to win his parents love, and trying to fulfill his responsibilities. I kept thinking, why wouldn’t this character explore—many of us have watched
JK: Did you like the process? It was your first novel…
AIB: It was a learning process. I did; I enjoyed it. I realized that this was the first novel, and I knew, from the experience of writing short stories from more than ten years, I knew that the first few—well, in my experience, the first short stories I had written had been crap. I had to learn to put this aside and keep writing, and that’s how I learned to write fiction. So now I had these tools, but then I was going through different genres, different forms of fiction and felt, well, I might not—a novel may not teach me how to write a sentence, but I felt there might be something here. I thought, what if I were to dedicate, you know, years of my life, to write one story: the novel is the form. Then I got to enjoy that process; at least I learned something from it. So I did enjoy writing it, and loved writing it, but I also was able to engage what I felt in that sentence that occurred to me in 2011.
JK: So when Furo wakes up [in Blackass] and he’s white, he doesn’t even entertain the idea of staying home. He leaves. He leaves to find his fortune, to find stability, why was that important for you to do? Why couldn’t he stay home?
AIB: Because he was the opposite of Gregor Samsa [Laughs].
JK: But I feel like there’s something else there—
AIB: There is something else there. You have to keep in mind that there are people like this. I mean, even taken from my life, from my own personal experience. My father is Jamaican, and he left home when he was 20. Left Jamaica and moved to England. In 1967 he went on his way to Ghana for a play— to direct a play—and stopped in Nigeria to visit, to see what this huge country was like, and he never left. He’s been in Nigeria 50 years. Never went back to Jamaica to see his father, never was in touch. I’ve been to Jamaica in the past two years, and so I connected with the Jamaican side of the family. He’s never been. He didn’t even go back for his father’s funeral, and yet he loved him. And so there are people who seem to be—in a sense are running after something, and that gives them this strength to cut off ties. They feel that familial attachments sometimes hold them back.
And that’s part of what Furo was thinking about, looking for reasons to cut those ties and move on with the world. This is a guy who left University and had been looking for a job: he is 33 years old, he’s living with his parents, he’s jealous of his sister’s successes, he feels his mother expects a lot of him and he’s not fulfilling it. He’s at a point in his life where he’s really frustrated, and then this thing happens to him, and he goes out because he really has to go for a job interview, and gets the job. And he’s beginning to think “I will run with this.” “This has happened to me, I ended up in Nigeria and maybe I’ll stay there for fifty years.” In his case, “I ended up white, maybe I will remain white.” And I wanted to explore that mindset of the leavers, of the ones who don’t stay.
There are people who seem to be running after something, and that gives them this strength to cut off ties. They feel that familial attachments sometimes hold them back.
JK: Your father is Jamaican, but he’s also a pretty famous Jamaican writer, Lindsey Barrett. Did that make it harder or easier for you to become a writer, the fact that your father was a writer?
AIB: I usually say he had no influence on me becoming a writer because my father left when I was ten. My parents had broken when I was ten. And I remember, it did in a sense, make it hard to become a writer because when I was about 20, I began writing in secret. My mother discovered I was writing, and I remember having this big fight with my mom where she said “You’re trying to be like your father. You’re a science student, you study agriculture, why are you writing? What are you doing? Writers are poor, writers are broke, do you want to be irresponsible like your father?” So I had to convince her that this was about me, it wasn’t about Lindsey Barrett. In that sense it made it harder.
But then, it also helped because I had no community of people to show my work to. I was a bookworm in many ways, and I was a writer, but in secret. And so at some point I had to confirm that I wasn’t fooling myself. That there was a career in it for me, you know, that I had some talent. After that big fight with my mother, she tried to kick me out of the house. And I left; I left school and went to look for my father and found him for the first time since I was ten. I met my father the first time since I was ten when I was 21, 11 years later. I showed him my work and he said, “Keep at it, you have talent. You’re young; now let’s find out if you have the passion.” That helped. That also was the beginning of reforming my relationship with my father, so in that sense it helped. Writing helped me patch up my relationship with my dad, and he was also the first person who told me, “There is some hope for you.”
JK: I read somewhere that you were actually more influenced by your mom reading popular Nigerian literature. This novel is at once grappling with really tough topics like race and colonialism but then also, it’s funny. Why was it important for you to keep it sort of light?
AIB: Maybe I should go back to my mother’s influence. As a youngster, I remember how I began reading. I started reading very young. I have written an essay about this, where—for some reason this remains in my head as a traumatic experience—I tried to catch my mother’s attention, I was probably four or five, and she ignored me because she was reading this book, and she was so captivated by it that she kept laughing. I was getting worked up trying to say, “Pay attention to me!” At some point I started thinking, What’s in this bundle of paper that’s stealing my mother? And then I went to my father to ask him to teach me how to read. And he was happy, he said, “Oh yeah, so our son is already interested.” It wasn’t a pleasant experience learning how to read, but then I did—quickly. And immediately I headed straight for my mother’s romance novels. I needed to know what was in these books.
So my childhood books were romance novels—popular fiction, detective novels, Raymond Chandler, Harold Robbins. By the time I was 10, 11, I could tell where the stories were going and they’d gotten kind of boring. And so I moved on and started looking for stronger things to read. One of the books I remember reading at 11—I was in class and instead of listening to the teacher I was reading a book under the desk—was Alex Haley’s Roots. From there it seemed a natural path to writing. There are three times in my life I tried to become a writer: Once when I was 12 or so, I read a book that inspired me so much I tried to write. I gave that up, and at 14 I went through the same process. And then at 21, I read another book that inspired me so much I knew that I had to go learn how to write.
So now to bring this to your question about Blackass. With my other books—my first book was considered by readers unnecessarily complex. And maybe it was. I was playing with words; I was unfurling my wings as a writer. I was using everything; I was using the dictionary! It was less about the story than the style. And the style—there wasn’t much style. With my second book, I was finding my voice. I was also trying to tell stories, trying to create a universe that I knew I would always return to. The style came out of what my preoccupations were in writing that book.
By the time I set out to write this novel, I had realized that now I am a Nigerian writer who lives in Nigeria. My second book had been published in the UK, Nigeria, France, and the U.S. Based on attention and reviews, I immediately found myself in this odd position of being this Nigerian, living in Nigeria, who is read by more Americans than Nigerians. Because I knew then that apparently my readership was more outside Nigeria than within Nigeria. And I felt uncomfortable because I know that, for example, with writer like Junot Diaz, he’s read by Americans. So even if you have the white readership overseas, he knows that his country people, his country folk, read him. I felt in a way ignored by the society I was writing about. And so with Blackass, in a sense, I was trying to modify this. I was trying to find the style to tell this story about Nigeria that would appeal to Nigerians. But then I was also experimenting. I was trying to come up with a style that would bring my interests—my formal interests, because I don’t read much popular fiction these days—in popular literature, my gratefulness for popular fiction, together with my career in serious fiction. So for me this was an experiment in style—in finding the language, finding the right language to engage a topic that was very Nigerian.
JK: I noticed in the book you write a lot in informal Nigerian. There are over 150 languages in Nigeria. Why was it important for you to play around with language in that way? Was it part of making it more accessible to folks, or making it more interesting to folks in Nigeria?
IB: No, it was much more important than that I feel. This is a story—I’ve been touring the States for about a month, and all the stories I repeat so often that they sound boring for me but they might sound exciting to you. Now, language. In writing this book, I wrote on a laptop. On that laptop, I wrote in Microsoft Word. And you have a dictionary in Microsoft Word that sometimes corrects words you don’t want it to correct. But then, it gives you options, and in those options you’ll find Australian English, you’ll find Jamaican English, you’ll find Indian English, you’ll find, of course, American English, UK English…you don’t find Nigerian English.
Now, Nigeria is a country where actually there are 300 indigenous languages. But then it’s a country that educates its young people in English. It’s a country whose government is run in English. Our civil service is in English. Our businesses are in English. Our constitution was written in English, and then translated into not many other languages—three other languages, indigenous languages. So our constitution basically exists in English. We have Nigerians like me who speak only Nigerian English. And yet at every point in my life, I’ve found myself having to defend Nigerian English: to my school teachers who will say don’t speak the vernacular, speak Queen’s English, to Nigerians who will say why are you writing in English, write in your mother tongue, that’s not our language. And yet, you went to school in English, your whole life has been in this language that you refuse to own.
For me, I felt that I needed to own Nigerian English. But then Nigerian English is unique, and nobody speaks English the way Nigerians do. That is how we speak. When we refuse to own the ways in which we’ve influenced English, that seems to me some schizophrenic situation. You know, you speak in this language, you send your children to school in this language, you listen to your president in this language, and yet you turn around and say, it’s not my language. So in a sense I was reflecting sounds, the same way I was describing the sins of Lagos streets, I was also putting down the language that you hear in Lagos. It was important for me to capture that in a way that Nigerians can recognize themselves in the book, or the way they sound in the book. I feel, in many ways, it is a very Nigerian book and you cannot write about a place without working the language.
When we refuse to own the ways in which we’ve influenced English, that seems to me some schizophrenic situation. You know, you speak in this language, you send your children to school in this language, you listen to your president in this language, and yet you turn around and say, it’s not my language.
Questions from the audience
Q1: As I get further into the book, I’m wondering why didn’t you change his accent?
AIB: It’s important to change accents, I’ve been trying to change mine [Laughs].
Q: But no, you changed his skin! He could have woken up with a British accent.
AIB: That was a first and short response. The truth is, why does he have to change his accent? It’s the way everybody speaks. When you come with an American accent in Nigeria, it’s difficult to understand you. When you’re an American, who comes to Nigeria to work, you’re called an expatriate. When you’re a Nigerian who comes to the States to work, you’re called a migrant. You’re the same thing. But the language used to describe you is different. Usually you find, not among all Nigerians, but you find that there’s a pressure on you as a Nigerian in a foreign country to take on the accent. So you find Nigerians modifying their accents to fit in with the larger society and to become less visible. Whereas the Brit never changes his accent in Nigerian. Never adapts a Nigerian accent. The American doesn’t, never does. And so, it says something about how strongly we hold our way of being, our way of thinking.
In a sense, with this character, he might at some point change his accent, I don’t know. But at this point, he was just trying—and this book takes place over the course of a month, so it’s too short for someone’s accent to change—he was just reacting and responding to the way society saw him. And he had an advantage, there was an advantage he enjoyed in being the white man who spoke like a Nigerian. There was really no pressure on him to change because he was unique. He was doubly unique: he was white, and then he was a white man with a Nigerian accent. And a Nigerian name. My god! He was one in town, as we say. So, really, within the ambit of this book, there was no pressure on him to change his accent. But then maybe if he comes to the States. Who knows, he might adopt a Scottish accent.
JK: Blackass Two, in stores soon. (laughs)
Q2: I was wondering if you could speak to how you identify as a writer, if there’s any particular national identity or tradition that you find yourself writing in, or if it’s just sort of, I write what I want to write.
AIB: I like to think I’m writing against tradition. I like to think I’m breaking new ground. But there are certain writers who made me. Who made me write. Beause like I said, I never did a writing workshop. I never did an MFA. When I very first started literature, I was a science student. I was at university studying agriculture, getting ready to become a farmer. But then I decided to become a writer because I’d read all my life, and I’d always wanted—I always felt I had something to say. And at some point I realized that, well, it’s not just going to fall into my lap. You know, I had to find the voice, and I was prepared to do hard work. In that sense, and I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I feel like a self-made Nigerian writer. And sometimes I say I became a writer in spite of Nigeria, because even my mother didn’t want me to become a writer, and definitely my teachers didn’t advise me to become a writer. So in that sense, I feel like I’ve earned the right to write what I want to write.
But then in another sense I was made by books. I was influenced by mostly dead white men. I read Thomas Mann. I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was a huge influence on my decision to become a writer, not so much in the magical realism genre. I can just keep naming them. And of course there were the twin pillars, the twin towers of Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. But I never started writing in university. I didn’t have to read Kierkegaard and enter through the form of theory. For me, it’s about writing from the gut, it’s what works on the page and what catches a reader’s attention and what gets the point across. That’s why my style, in many ways, changes depending on the book and the story. I’m always finding the style that’s best to tell a particular story. I’m not saying I always get it, but at least I’m trying. So I do feel like I’m making up my own tradition, but that’s not entirely true.
When you’re an American, who comes to Nigeria to work, you’re called an expatriate. When you’re a Nigerian who comes to the States to work, you’re called a migrant. You’re the same thing. But the language used to describe you is different.
Q3: Congratulations, I can’t wait to read the book. I was struck by what you were saying, that you wanted to write a book that Nigerian audiences would be interested in, and I was thinking about that as a motivation that’s almost impossible to satisfy. Because some people write for themselves, right, and then the audience comes. But to get the audience as your goal..
AIB: Yeah, it’s difficult. But then there’s the contradiction, and I’m full of contradictions. Every time I have to respond to the direct question, “Who is your audience?” I always beat around the bush. I refuse to be pinned down. And I always say that I write for myself, first of all, because there’s no way of giving five years of my life to something if I don’t enjoy doing it, if it’s not for myself. First and foremost, it’s for myself. And to understand my world. That’s why I’m writing. But then, I’m also writing to be read, because I’m not a diarist. I’m a novelist, and I want to get paid. [Laughs] Oh yeah. But I want to be read, and I want to affect society in the way that fiction can. So I’m also writing for people.
But now, I live in Nigeria, and that’s a society I understand. That’s a society that intrigues me, and a society that has enough problems to keep me writing for the rest of my life. So I’m writing for that society. But then I also think I’m writing for humanity, because, like I said, I came to writing through reading. I read War and Peace by Tolstoy, and he was writing for Russian society in an era where Nigeria didn’t even exist; he was not writing for some 14 year old Nigerian kid. And yet I picked up that book and could become a Russian for the time it took me to read it. So my answer about an audience is that I write for the Nigerian in all of us. I want to be read, and I want to find a way to capture Nigeria’s attention, but at the same time, I will not sell out, and I will not write a book I don’t enjoy. There has to be that balancing act between drawing the reader in and changing them with what I like, whatever it is I think I have to say.
Q4: Going off that question, I find that interesting because I’m also Nigerian, but I find myself always having to defend my Nigerian-ness, because I didn’t grow up in Nigeria. So when you say, “I write for Nigerians,” I’m interested in what your idea of a Nigerian is, because I’m so interested and excited to read your book, but I’m not necessarily what you would think of as a typical Nigerian…
AIB: Actually, when I say Nigerian, there are many types of Nigerians. I guess usually when I say the average Nigerian, I mean the urban Nigerian. And I’m thinking of my own average, because if I grew up in Kontagora, some small town in northern Nigeria, then my idea of an average Nigerian would be different. I’m thinking of the urban, high school, Tales by the Moonlight watching, grew up watching SuperTed—there are certain shared experiences in what my average is. So that’s what I’m thinking about, the Nigerian who can engage fiction on the level that I can, or the level I was trained to by schools. But then I’m also thinking of a new Nigerian, because I live in Nigeria, and yet I have to defend my Nigerian-ness. Because every time I mention my surname, people ask me, how can you be Nigerian, where does that name come from? And so I say, My father is Jamaican, but he’s lived in Nigeria for 50 years, and he carries a Nigerian passport. After everything I’ve said, they say, You are Jamaican. [Laughs] And so I wind up in a heated argument and say, Okay, what languages do you speak? So, I have had to defend even my Nigerian-ness. But there are many Nigerians in this same situation, whose fathers are Nigerian, mothers Senagalese. Mothers Ugandan, fathers Nigerian. Who have lived outside Nigeria for many years and then come back. Or who are Syrian. We have Syrian families who have been in Nigeria for 50 years. Who are Nigerian, who grew up in Hausa, who speak indigenous languages, and yet are still viewed as not being Nigerian.
This book is about identity. And it’s about not making assumptions based on, in this case, skin color, but in other places in the book, on how you speak. There are new ways of being Nigerian, and if you live in the states and you spend all your time on Nigerian Twitter, then you’re probably more Nigerian than I am. And you know what’s going on. So there are many ways of being Nigerian. I’m just trying to expand those borders and say that you should consider—that Nigerians should consider this.
But then, it’s also about many ways of being human in the world. Something I’ve gotten from Americans is the ways in which [Blackass] feels like a book that—it feels like it ties in with their experience as Americans. And some of the reviews have assumed I was writing about America because it’s about race. It’s about all of us, because Nigeria is a part of this world, and we are all in this shit together. So yes, it is about us, but then it is also about a particular society. It’s not even Nigerian society, but Lagos society that I focus on, and then try to reach for the universal through that.