A. Igoni Barrett is an icon for young black writers looking to find their own voice. With his new novel his crusade is to raise up popular fiction.
Having spent eight months in near solitude crafting his debut novel, Blackass, A. Igoni Barrett bashfully emanates the romantic image of the recluse who shuns societal pleasures to produce a masterpiece. It is something that most writers, established and budding, can only dream about, but at 36 the prize-winning Nigerian author already has a decade of publishing under his belt and an international reputation for his short story collections, From Caves of Rotten Teeth and Love is Power, or Something Like That.
Hungry for more, his readers pounced on news of the forthcoming novel. When Blackass was released in the UK in July, Nigerian fans were already ordering it online, ahead of the Nigeria release in October. It will be published in the US in March.
With Lagos as its setting, the novel follows the hapless Furo Wariboko, who goes to sleep as a black Nigerian, but wakes up as a white man. Barrett brings a comic approach to this tale of two cities: one Lagos for the majority of Nigerians, and another for the more privileged.
"I wanted a style where even a Nigerian who has never read literary fiction but maybe loves Mills & Boon or loves John Grisham can enter the book and get something out of it," he says, sitting forward with excitement and gesticulating. "It was in a sense my most populous book I have written so far. I'm not sure if I'd do that again." He's now laughing as he reclines back into his seat. "But that was the idea."
He may be seen as a writer's writer, but Mills & Boon is where it all started for the precocious infant Barrett. As a three- or four-year-old, he confides, it wasn't picture books that piqued his curiosity to read, or even his father – renowned Jamaican writer Lindsay Barrett. It was his mother's coveted romantic paper-backs. At that point he asked his father to teach him how to read. "By the time I was 10, I could write a Mills & Boon book from my head. I needed something more challenging and so I moved to [Alex Haley's African- American saga] Roots," he says.
After that there was no looking back and the young Barrett would spend all available time reading. Lorna Doone and Lady Chatterley's Lover were some of his earlier reads; Portnoy's Complaint and Kafka would come later. Using books as a sounding board for his own ideas about the world, he developed a grow- ing compulsion to write: "As I read there were things I disagreed with and things I absolutely agreed with, and so at a point I felt those needed to be expressed."
Gap on the shelves
Never forgetting where his interest in reading first came from, Barrett believes that popular fiction has its importance in society: "There is a huge gap in Nigerian publishing in popular literature. You go to airports anywhere in the world and you will see popular writers like John Grisham and Danielle Steel," he says, pointing out that the Nigerian equivalents hardly exist among the self-help books and Christian literature that monopolise popular publishing.
"Not all books are meant to elucidate on a life is- sue or be about great writ- ing," he explains. "Sometimes people just want to be entertained. And yet we don't have enough of that. If a reader is curious enough, they will eventually move on from popular fiction into something else. Or they will still read popular fiction but would also want something else
that will bring some nuance to their reading of popular fiction."
And so it is that with Blackass Barrett hopes to entertain readers while still passing on subliminal messages that encourage questions about leadership and ownership, so building stronger individuals and, by extension, stronger societies.
As the story opens, Furo Wariboko is, in many ways, the average Lagosian. He lives in a no-frills neighbourhood, similar to the author, who lives on the mainland, over the bridge and miles away from the bright lights of the island.
As a young recent graduate, Wariboko is struggling to find work – a problem for many Nigerian youths – and his roots are not in Lagos. "In many ways we are all Lagosians who live here, but when it comes to existential questions then we are told we are not. I am not even someone who called myself a Lagosian because really, I don't like Lagos. I'd rather live in a treehouse somewhere. But for a writer, this is where it's at."
Barrett was born and raised in Port Harcourt, the state capital of the oil-rich Rivers State in south-east Nigeria. He didn't move to Lagos until he was in his twenties. Despite his love-hate relationship with the city, before he knew who the character was he knew that this was going to be his "Lagos book".
"Apart from Lagos there is hardly any other place where that mix of people of different cultures is so vibrant. As an artist I am drawn to that," he says.
The phoenix rises
Though he had long been a keen reader, Barrett's writing was more secret. While studying for a degree in agriculture – he first hoped he'd be a farmer – he wrote short stories and joined online writing platforms to have his work critiqued by fellow writers as far away as Australia. This was, he says, his own sort of rigorous creative writing programme. His cover was blown when, in 2005, he won the BBC World Service short story competition with his story 'The Phoenix', which was broadcast across the globe.
He presses on the need for discipline and professionalism in a writer's approach to their work, while noting that some talent is also non-negotiable. "The writers I admire the most were all self-made writers," he says. "Faulkner, Garcia Marquez or Achebe, [they] felt strongly enough about what they had to say that they found the tools and figured out how to say it. The process of learning how to write on your own is important to your voice as a writer. It's like building muscles."
Known to some in the industry as a "literary activist", in 2006 Barrett co-founded Blackbiro, an online literary platform to provide an outlet for new writers to have their work published by editors who understand their use of language. In his early days of being published – mostly outside of Nigeria – he says he found himself "fighting, defending my use of language, defending my characters, defending my characters' names."
It was through his work at Blackbiro that the publishing house Farafina Books approached him to become an editor. He spent two years there, during which time he was writing Love is Power, or Something Like That. All the while he was also organising book tours and monthly 'book jams' that brought together writers, novelists and literature enthusiasts for discussions and readings. He stepped down from that in 2011, but a revival in a new venue could possibly be on the cards in the coming year.
With a full-time job and extra- curricular literary event organising on his plate at the same time, it took him five years to finish the collection of stories in Love is Power, which was published in 2013. He was able to finish the final stretch thanks to an invitation from Binyavanga Wainaina to take up a fellowship in Nairobi offered by the Chinua Achebe Center. The last story in the book is set in that city.
With the work he's done – and hopes to continue doing – in trying to broaden the discussion about Nigerian literature, Barrett knows that there is still some way to go. He was unsuccessful in taking his book tours and readings to universities, which he says are intent on their Soyinka-Achebe dichotomy. He says he is keen to encourage critical conversations among writers of all generations.
"I love Wole Soyinka's work and I love the position he holds in this space, but at the same time I have seen too many African writers not question and not challenge, they just worship," he says.
Barrett presses on the importance of publishing where he lives so that a conversation can be had about what he is writing. "If I hadn't found a publisher in Nigeria, I would have published myself in this country or bought copies and sold them myself."
He also strives to reach a wider readership and insists that his work should be read in Francophone Africa. His deal with Editions Zulma will ensure this hap- pens with the release of Love is Power in French in late September 2016.
But he won't just keep writing for the sake of writing. "When the job is done it is done," he says bluntly. "Once I get to the point where I feel I have said all I have to say, that's that." Readers can only hope that day is in the distant future as Barrett undoubtedly has more to share.
"There are a certain number of books in me. When the passion is not there I will not be the same writer. Until then," he pauses, perhaps thinking back to his agricultural student days, "make hay while the sun shines." ●