Lagos, Nigeria is my favorite character in Blackass (Graywolf Press, 2016) by A. Igoni Barrett. The book explores the cultural, social and physical landscape of Nigeria’s largest city, rather Africa’s largest city. I found myself referring to maps and looking up foods like egusi soup and eba. Lagos plays host to an ever-rising population, as evident in the city’s impossibly congested roads; traffic feels like a living, breathing character in and of itself. Cars crawl forward as engines rev, horns blare, smoke spews, temperatures rise, and radios roar, a hazy stasis endured by drivers hour after hour, day after day. The wealthy corners of Lagos are Ikoyi, Victoria Island and the Lekki Peninsula, where one is likely to find an oyibo, a white person, which is the bizarre fate of our protagonist.
This is a story of a black man who wakes up “alabaster”, of Furo Wariboko who becomes Frank Whyte. On the morning of his Kafka-like metamorphosis, Furo leaves home for a job interview, never to return, choosing instead to forge a new life as a newly minted oyibo. Blackass reflects a world that is far from colorblind, in fact it is a world obsessed with race. All that Furo experiences – job offers, bureaucracy, women, meals, conversations – centers on his newfound whiteness. Of course, a white man named Furo Wariboko wandering Nigeria is sure to inspire an exaggerated response. But rather than a distortion of how we observe race, the book reads more like a parable of its pervasiveness:
“No one asks to be born, to be black or white or any colour in between, and yet the identity a person is born into becomes the hardest to explain to the world” (111).
The book is light, often funny, while addressing issues of race, class, and Nigeria, even social media: “To make money off selling us to ourselves, that’s the business model of social media” (80). The story is free to explore the far reaches of such issues due to its outlandish setup. I am far too unfamiliar with the works of contemporary African authors, but after the reverie of Blackass, I plan to change that.
I’ve begun to hear a murmur of impatience for the arrival of spring, still a month away, which I remain surprisingly patient for. When days effortlessly transform into weeks and then months, very little patience is required to pass a season. Spring has already dropped breadcrumbs, like the blindingly bright yellow fields that dot Highway 12, the containers of sown seeds in neighboring yards, and the light cotton dresses that reemerge from the depths of my closet.
February left a false impression when it introduced itself as winter amid dark clouds and rain. By the end of the first week, clouds broke to set loose an all too eager sun that has been shining ever since. The change was unexpected, my least favorite kind. After struggling to settle into the new home in the middle of winter, I had finally reached the end of a learning curve and was beginning to relish the season’s rituals; pulling on thick socks to guard against the icy kitchen floor, keeping spare jackets and scarves in the backseat of my car, collecting firewood, tending a fire, visiting deserted beaches, and driving with the heater on and windows cracked open.
The sun now pours itself into every room, urging me outside. I sometimes give in but I just as often decline, as the sun makes its way to me anyway, eager for attention. My desk sits alongside the window and warm air drifts in, knocking the vertical blinds against each other like modest wind chimes. Once spring arrives, I envision keeping open all blinds and windows, even the front and back doors, to erase any distinction between inside and out. But I feel perfectly fine waiting. Who knows, perhaps there is a rain spell waiting in the wings, there is a glimpse of one even now. Winter, take your time.
The trouble I have with coming-of-age stories is that I prefer to linger in the past and shy away from the present. To stay within the past is to observe a life before its turning point, before the possibilities that initially appear infinite abruptly narrow to one. In Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson (Harper, 2016), chapters alternate between past and present, so each time I arrived at a present chapter, I hastily skipped ahead to remain in the past: in the 1970s, in Mira’s youth, in the esoteric world of New York City ballet. But the present continuously resurfaced to rudely interrupt the past. Sensing such inevitability, I soon only allowed myself a peek before dutifully flipping back to the present.
Mira Able is a quiet 11-year-old whose devotion to ballet demands the utmost obsession. The book brims with knowledge of ballet, citing famous figures, prestigious schools, Edgar Degas, and the physical toll: “Her bones will knit together in new ways. Her hands will grow strong, her fingers blunt, and her feet rough and calloused as tree bark.” As Mira ascends through the ranks, she forms a relationship with Maurice DuPont, a strange, wealthy balletomane who renames her Mirabelle, and then Bella. He becomes her mentor, saying such fanciful things as, “If the dark is coming, make it your friend” and “She is not beautiful but she moves towards beauty.” Halfway through the book, it is obvious that Mira’s relationship with this older man will determine how the story unfolds, a rather uncomfortable setup. Why does the man hold so much sway? Presently, Mira is a professor of dance who goes by Kate Randell, and the author perfectly paces the stories of both past and present until they converge, revealing the much dreaded turning point.
Obsession is tireless and exhilarating, and ballet puts obsession on full display. How bizarre that ballet is some kind of girlhood rite-of-passage, when what it demands and celebrates is so specific and often unattainable, “some old dead guy’s idea of beauty.” But of course it is more than that. The strive for perfection, for mastery, is nothing short of inspiring. The author does an exquisite job of merging ballet’s many faces into one, a portrait of great beauty and greater sacrifice. Or is it the other way around?
February, what a delight. After the never-ending holiday season, followed by the long stretch of January – an intimidating month, one that highlights our inadequacies and demands resolutions – I welcome short and sweet February.
I bid final farewell to the apartment in Berkeley, handing off its keys to the property manager after a two minute walk-through. The original owner was a spectacular chain smoker who cited the apartment’s proximity to Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto as one of its winning attributes, a place we understandably failed to dine at over the course of three years. As shiny new apartments sprung up tall around us, in time the largest real estate firm in the area took over our tired building, as is the trend in these shapeshifting neighborhoods. Finally standing bare and empty, the apartment never felt so small. In fact, it seemed to shrink with each visit since we began moving out in early December, as if distance inspires a fresh understanding of dimensions. The apartment indeed felt small while we lived there, its close quarters made obvious whenever a friend visited or a neighbor’s cat slipped in, easily overwhelming the space. But its familiarity bred comfort, and that comfort distracted from the smallness of 500 square feet. I suspect that comfort is what also led us to prolong the move like we did, to flip back between two chapters for just a bit longer. After the walk-through, I left Berkeley quickly only to take the long way home, driving Highway 37 through the southern tips of Sonoma and Napa. It felt like moving on, like settling in. A couple days later, I searched for the apartment’s listing on Craigslist and there it was, the rent almost double what we paid. So it goes.
Of the books I plan to read this month, I eagerly begin with Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson, a coming-of-age that unfolds within the obsessive world of 1970s New York City ballet. The subject provokes awe, the tone is reverent, and I anticipate the book to be a fixture of this first weekend in February. Then there is All Stories Are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer, a favorite new author whose first book I adored; I remember lines in An Uncommon Education like, “she passed in a full sail of silence” and “living within shouting distance of each other.” Her second book centers on a group of survivors in San Francisco, the city in ruins after it is struck by two earthquakes within one hour. It is a scenario that feels scarily inevitable, and a reminder that we merely tiptoe around nature, a character of extremes that operates of its own accord. I am also very curious about Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett. February is a short one, but what is fleeting has left a permanent mark before.