First, that title. Following on the heels of his 2013 short story collection “Love is a Power, or Something Like That,” Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett went a very different direction when naming his first novel, “Blackass.”
Always the name of one of the book’s sections, Barrett used it as a working title, assuming he would find something else later. “But when I got to the end, I just couldn’t,” he said. “I spent about a month trying out other titles, but this one just stuck. I dedicated the book to my father, and he begged me not to use that title,” he added, laughing.
Its meaning is quite literal. In the book, Barrett’s protagonist, a young Nigerian wakes up the morning of a big job interview to discover that he’s turned white. Red hair, green eyes, pale skin — everywhere but his bottom. What follows is a satire about race and racism in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.
Inspiration came from many places, Barrett said. The idea of a black man turned white was in a notebook he kept while working on his story collection. “It somehow caught my attention and kept it,” he said. At the same time, race in the United States was on the world’s radar following the events in Ferguson, Mo. Barrett came across a Kickstarter campaign for African Americans to go to Nigeria. “And that sparked a thought in my head,” Barrett said. “I thought, ‘Well, how do we view race in Nigeria?’ I wanted to direct that gaze inward.”
At the same time, Barrett said, he was aware of the echoes of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and, on another level, of Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Just as Joyce’s Dublin becomes almost a character in his masterwork, so too did Barrett want to capture his own city of Lagos, where the book has attracted much attention. “It has sparked a discussion,” Barrett said. “That’s what I wanted.”
Barrett will read 7 p.m. Tuesday at Harvard Book Store.