The Politics of Language: An Interview with A. Igoni Barrett
Harvard Book Store's New Voices in Fiction series, presented with GrubStreet, invites hotly anticipated debut novelists to talk about their work and their writing process. Next Tuesday, March 1st, we're welcoming debut novelist A. Igoni Barrett. His novel, Blackass, follows Furo Wariboko, a young Nigerian who awakes the morning before a job interview to discover that he's been transformed into a white man. The Guardian calls it a "memorable, richly allusive story,” and Pa Ikhide lauds Barrett as "a visionary with a deep knowledge of the social and cultural mores of his society."
I caught up with Igoni in advance of his appearance at Harvard Book Store to talk Kafka, imagined audiences, and the politics of language.
In your debut novel, Blackass, your protagonist, a black Nigerian, wakes up one day as a white man. What attracted you to this take on The Metamorphosis?
Several things. I love Kafka. When I first read The Metamorphosis, it opened my eyes to the ways my writing could expand. It gave me new ideas about how to write, and that’s been a part of me for years. By the time I finished my story collection, I thought it was time to attempt a novel. So when I started thinking about The Metamorphosis, which is not quite a novel and not quite a short story, but which is more powerful than so many novels that I’ve read, I wondered if I could take the gravity of this shorter work and adapt it to a more novelistic form. I wanted to see if I could write a novel that still packs the punch of a short story.
But then I also came across a sentence in my notebook that I had written about five years prior. The sentence read, “A young man wakes up on the morning of his job interview, and he’s white.” When I wrote the idea, I hadn’t read Kafka for a long time, and it seemed to come to me independently. I never thought I’d write this story, and I‘d crossed out most of the ideas on the page it was written on. When I found it again, everything came together. I went back and read The Metamorphosis. I saw how close the ideas were. I saw what a lovely story it was. And since this was my first novel attempt, I thought The Metamorphosis would be a good place to depart from.
Finally, I wrote this novel expecting it to fail. It felt so different for me—it didn’t feel like my style. I assumed this would be my practice novel, since I’d never attempted one. I didn’t think I’d be too disappointed when it failed. And since it was going to fail anyway, I decided I might as well enjoy writing it. I was kind of surprised when I reached the end of the first draft and realized that the book might work.
I’ve tried, since first reading The Metamorphosis, to imagine an alternate narrative in which Gregor Samsa makes it out of the apartment. Your protagonist, Furo Wariboko, does. He’s determined to persevere in spite of his transformation. The circumstances are comedic at times, and there are elements of social critique, but I wonder if you agree with those reviewers who have labeled the book a satire. Did you set out to write a satire?
No, I didn’t. What was at the front of my mind was a human story. That’s usually what I’m attracted to. That’s what I loved in The Metamorphosis—it wasn’t a satire in any way. Coming from short stories, where you focus on the minutia of life, and you try to humanize characters and empathize with them in a short space, that’s what I wanted to bring into the novel. When I first read The Metamorphosis I was fourteen, and I loved the story, and it felt so new to me, but I remember thinking, What’s wrong with this Gregor Samsa? Why doesn’t he challenge his parents? I know he’s an insect, but he should stand up for himself!
Over time, that leaked into the background of Furo Wariboko’s story. I wanted him to stand up for himself. It’s a modern tale, and it’s also about unemployment and that spirit that young people call resilience. And the people of Lagos are resilient; they’ll do anything to survive. This being a Lagos story, I knew Furo would have to reflect that. I realized very quickly that he wasn’t going to be living in his room. The Metamorphosis figured into the background of the book, but from Furo’s first decision to leave his parents’ home without telling anybody, it branched off into a different story, and that allowed me to explore other elements of Lagos society.
Do you write for a specific audience? For Lagos or an imagined international audience? Or perhaps just to satisfy your own curiosities?
It’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve given different responses in the past, depending on how the question is put to me. I’ll try to give one that feels honest to me at this time. When you sit down and face a blank screen, you have to write for yourself. If a story doesn’t move you, how can you write it? I guess there are some popular fiction writers who can knock out a page using a formula, but I’m not that sort of writer. I have to be enthralled by the spirit. If it doesn’t interest me, I cannot continue. So in that sense, I was writing this novel for myself.
But you are also writing to be read. You are writing—or, I’m writing—to affect people’s minds. To win people’s hearts. So yes, I had an audience in mind.
I live in Nigeria and was schooled in Nigeria, so in many ways, I am writing for Nigerians. But I love Mark Twain, I love Nabokov, I love Dostoyevsky. And I’m sure when Mark Twain sat down to write Huckleberry Finn, he wasn’t thinking about some guy in Lagos who would one day fall in love with his novel. He was writing for his time and audience, but he was also writing for the world, for the human imagination. This is my idea of what writing is. I am writing about the issues that surround me, for my time, but I am also writing beyond my time and beyond my society.
In a Granta interview you gave a few years ago, when asked if you see yourself as part of a generation of world-class Nigerian writers, you said that it was too soon to think of yourself in such deterministic ways. With the release of your debut novel, has your answer changed?
It’s easier to talk about generations when there are not that many writers to talk about. In Nigeria, right now, we say there are three generations. Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka—the grand old men of Nigerian legend—are the first. The second generation spans the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Then the third generation includes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and, to an extent, Teju Cole. But is it age or style or place that puts you in a generation? Do we talk about Franzen and Junot Diaz as being of the same generation because they are writing during the same time?
As a writer, I want to think I’m unique, but then I have my ego involved.
There is definitely a wave of young writers writing in Nigeria and publishing internationally, and that feels like something new. But I still don’t know what generation to call that.
Maybe a better question is, do you feel your work is in conversation with other writers?
It’s a good question. Right now, in Nigerian writing, we defend the way we speak; we defend Nigerian English. This is something that happened in the 19th century in the States, when Americans came up with their dictionaries and decided to spell certain words differently. At the time, this new English was something to be defended. Now the world is basically speaking American English. It doesn’t need to be defended. You have American English, and British English is something else, then there’s Australian English, and Canadian English.
But then you have Nigerian English. If you open a Microsoft Word document, and open the dictionary, you won’t see an option for Nigerian English. This is a country of nearly 200 million people, whose official language is English, and we don’t even own it.
Many writers of my time are beginning to respond to that. There are certain ideas and certain complexities and nuances that are lost in translation when we don’t find unique ways of reflecting the way we think and speak. We’re working the language to try to achieve that. In many ways, as much as we are doing this for ourselves, and a Nigerian audience, we are also doing this for the world because we are adding to the wider English language as we’re also defining who we are.
That’s the politics of language, and that’s one way that I am having a conversation with the writers of my time.
But when I was writing the book, I was thinking more about Kafka and Elizabeth Bishop and that generation, because those are the books I was reading.
What are you reading now?
I just finished reading Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard. I’ve been trying to get to it for years, and I just finished it yesterday. This was the first Nigerian book published in English, and it was published in 1952. I also recently read Junot Diaz’s Drown. I always wondered why he was such a name in the States. I wonder no more.
You published two collections before Blackass. Did your process change, moving from stories into the novel?
Nothing changed much in the sense of the process: I get up and write whenever I feel like. It’s just that it took me longer to write the collection than the novel. I decided to dedicate months to the novel, knowing it would take longer than any one story. It took eight months to finish the first draft, then another two years of revising. It took me eight years to finish the collection.
In the U.S., there’s a sense of prestige associated with the novel more so than the collection, even pre-publication. If you tell someone, I’ve completed a collection of stories, they’ll say, Yeah, but are you working on a novel? Do you find this to be the case in Nigeria? Did you notice a difference in response between publishing the novel and publishing the collections?
There is even more of a difference in Nigeria and the U.K. than in the U.S., I think. For example, I got more attention for my collection in the States than I did in Nigeria or the U.K. They come to fiction through the novel form. And I found that those who go to short fiction for reading pleasure, rather than for learning how to write, are writers. When I put the novel out, I received much more attention in Nigeria and the U.K. than I did for the collections. That said, writing is writing, and I’ve been writing a long time, so this is just another book for me.
On the other hand, there’s the relief of knowing that I can write a novel. At one point, I did wonder if I would become the Alice Monroe of Nigeria.
An argument could be made—and has been made—that the short story is inherently the more artistic form. Did you feel you had to sacrifice anything to the novel form, having had so much success with your stories?
I had to sacrifice some things. I wouldn’t say I sacrificed artistic integrity. At least, I didn’t mean to do that, if I did; I tried to stay as honest as possible. The truth is, with the short story you have a wider array of segments and characters to deal with. I was more comfortable writing the short story collection because I’m an impatient person, and the collection allowed me to use my impatience. If I was writing one story and got stuck, got tired of it, I could move on to another and come back later. With the novel, you have to become a patient person. You have to stick with the same characters for years. In that sense, I found it harder to stick with the novel.
There are advantages, though, with writing a novel, because with the collection, you are starting over and over again. In a good short story, you are putting as much effort, as much imagination, into finding where the heart of the story is as in a novel, and you might spend just as much time writing one story, building different characters and desires. I had nine stories in my collection, so I had to go into nine different sets of lives each time. It took me eight years to get it out.
Where as the novel, it was one set of characters, and once I had the general idea of what the novel was, it took me two years of just tinkering with it, and living with it, to get it ready to go out into the world.
Now that you’ve experienced putting together a collection and a novel, do you feel more drawn to one over the other for your next project?
I’m still trying to figure that out. I get a different sense of completion from writing short stories than I do from writing the novel. In many ways I feel these are two different disciplines, the short story and the novel.
I thought I would go back to short stories. I thought I’d write a few short stories and see if that leads to another collection. I’ve found that since writing the novel, a part of me wants to write another novel. A different kind of novel. So I guess I’m still juggling ideas.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
A. Igoni Barrett was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria in 1979. He is the author of Blackass, as well as a winner of the 2005 BBC World Service short story competition, the recipient of a Chinua Achebe Center Fellowship, a Norman Mailer Center Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Residency. His short stories have twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in Nigeria.
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Jonathan Escoffery’s writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Paris Review, AGNI, ZYZZYVA, Pleiades, Salt Hill, The Caribbean Writer, Creative Nonfiction, Solstice Literary Magazine, Pangyrus, and elsewhere. His most recent honors include the 2020 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) fellowship, the 2020 National Magazine Award for Fiction from the American Society of Magazine Editors, a 2020 Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico grant, and a 2019 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellowship. He has received awards and honors from The Best American Short Stories anthology, Prairie Schooner, Passages North, the Somerville Arts Council, The Writers' Room of Boston, Kimbilio Fiction, the Anderson Center, Wellspring House, and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Jonathan earned his MFA in Fiction from the University of Minnesota where he was a DOVE Fellow, a COSP Fellow, and the Fiction Editor at Dislocate magazine. He attends the University of Southern California’s Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature Program as a Provost Fellow. For a full listing of his publications and projects, please visit jonathanescoffery.comSee other articles by Jonathan Escoffery