In Chinelo Okparanta’s new novel, a young white man is disgusted by his bigoted, small-town parents. Some of his reactions are typical: He disavows their views and moves to New York City. Others, though, are decidedly strange: He starts calling himself G-Dawg, joins a self-help group for white people ashamed of their race — and begins to identify as a Black man from Africa.
Yes, Okparanta knows the premise might cause offense.
When she began working on a novel about well-meaning white people who are blind to their own bigotry, Okparanta, who is Nigerian American, realized the topic was explosive. She was, after all, wading into a fraught debate about racism and identity politics at a moment when those issues were supercharged by George Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed. So she resorted to satire.
Humor was the “safety measure I put in place so I didn’t have to endure accusations of trying to write whiteness,” she said. “I’m not attempting to write whiteness in any real way. I am writing about the pain that has been endured by being on the other side of whiteness.”
The resulting book, “Harry Sylvester Bird,” published this week by Mariner Books, is bleak and biting, but often disarmingly funny — one of a handful of new and forthcoming novels that use satire and surrealism to pick apart common assumptions about racial and cultural identity, and explore what it means to transgress those socially drawn boundaries.
Several of these new novels skewer the more subtle forms of bias that arise from racial blind spots and ignorance, or from a misguided desire to emulate or appropriate another culture.
Mithu Sanyal’s new novel, “Indentitti,” out this month, satirizes debates about race and identity politics in academia. The plot centers on a South Asian doctoral student who is unmoored when she learns that her mentor — a prominent South Asian post-colonial and race studies professor — is not Indian, but white. In her forthcoming novel “Yellowface,” R.F. Kuang lampoons the lack of diversity in the publishing industry with a twisted story about a white writer who steals an unpublished novel written by a recently deceased Asian American author and tries to pass it off as her own book.
In his new novel, “The Last White Man,” out on Aug. 2 from Riverhead Books, Mohsin Hamid uses a surreal premise to examine racial identity as a socially constructed fiction. Set in an unnamed country, it tells the story of a white man who wakes up one morning with dark skin, a mysterious condition that spreads throughout his town and forces people to confront their latent biases.
Hamid, who was born in Pakistan, came up with the premise more than 20 years ago, when he found himself being seen with suspicion for having “a Muslim name and brown skin” after the Sept. 11 attacks. He returned to the story during the pandemic, and found that approaching it through the lens of fantasy gave him more freedom to examine the artificial fault lines around race.
“Because I think that race is this imaginary thing,” he said in an interview, “if we start to intervene at the level of us imagining in the first place, there might be insights worth having.”
Black novelists have long used surrealism, farce and satire to tackle taboos around race.
In 1931, the Black journalist and writer George S. Schuyler published an arch critique of white supremacy called “Black No More,” which features an ambitious Black man who undergoes a medical procedure to turn his skin white, but then finds whiteness alienating. In the decades since, Ishmael Reed, Charles Wright, Percival Everett, Mat Johnson and Paul Beatty have used comic surrealism to engage with subjects like slavery, lynchings and hate crimes, as well as the failures of the civil rights movement.
Humor and fantasy can act as a buffer of sorts when writing about issues that would otherwise be too painful, like police violence against Black people and colorism, said Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. His forthcoming novel, “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” takes place in an alternate America where the for-profit prison system allows convicts to compete for their freedom in a gladiator-style, battle-to-the-death reality show.
“By having that sort of surrealist, satirical conceit, it allows me to make a space where I have a lot of control and can still engage the same subject,” he said.
The new crop of satires about race also reflects an ongoing debate about cultural appropriation and the conflicts over whether and how novelists should write across racial and cultural boundaries.
Okparanta said she wanted to explore racism from an unfamiliar vantage point.
“As a Black person who has endured a lot of racism and microaggression, I wanted to understand how a well-meaning white person might still hurt you,” she said.
She first came up with the premise of “Harry Sylvester Bird” in 2016, when she was teaching creative writing at Columbia University and held a seminar on the ethics of writing fiction about other races and cultures. Okparanta, who moved from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, to Boston at age 10, had recently published her debut novel, “Under the Udala Trees,” a lesbian coming-of-age story set in 1960s Nigeria during the country’s civil war.
As students debated novels like William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Okparanta was struck by how polarizing the issue was.
“It got heated,” she said, “because there was the question of power: Who has the power to do it, and what does it mean if you use that power in a way that is not accurately representative of the culture that you are depicting?”
A couple of years later, Okparanta was living in Lewisburg, a small town in Pennsylvania, where she often felt out of place as a Black woman and an African immigrant. She found herself thinking about her old idea, and began wondering what it would look like for a Black writer to create a white character who is unaware of his own racial blind spots — an idea that felt even more potent in 2020, with rising political polarization and social unrest.
“Harry Sylvester Bird” opens in Tanzania, when a teenage Harry, on a safari vacation with his boorish parents, is horrified by how they treat the African guides and staff. Back in Pennsylvania, he decides he no longer wants to be white and starts identifying as a Black man, and later moves to New York for college, where he begins the next phase of his metamorphosis. He attends meetings of Transracial-Anon, a therapy group for white people seeking “racial reassignment,” which will eventually culminate in modifications to members’ hair and skin.
As Harry’s story unfolds, Okparanta paints a portrait of an alternate America with unsettling parallels to our own, a country divided by growing extremism and nationalism, and reeling from the pandemic and from the rise of a hard-right white supremacist political movement called the Purists. His desire to shed his whiteness and be “an ally” sets him apart from the blatant bigotry and hatred of the emboldened white nationalists, yet Harry still makes unwittingly offensive comments about Black people. He fetishizes Black skin, and at one point, he marvels to his Nigerian girlfriend about “how people in Africa can be so happy with so little.”
Okparanta said she wanted to make Harry exaggerated, but not so cartoonish or unsympathetic that readers would dismiss his plight as farcical.
Even with the buffer of humor, Okparanta says she’s braced for a backlash from readers and critics who might misread her purpose, or feel the novel fails as satire. Early reactions have been somewhat mixed. Kirkus Reviews called it “a tart, questioning exploration of how deep racism runs,” while a blistering review in The New York Times argued that the novel “lacks the thrilling surrealism that animates successful racial caricature.”
The novelist Tayari Jones, who praised the novel in a blurb for using humor as a “weapon, a tool and a salve,” said Okparanta’s satire succeeded because she approached the characters and subject with irreverence but also empathy.
“She is not a white man having a racial crisis, but she’s an astute observer of a society having a racial crisis,” she said. “She knows what it feels like to be an African person subjected to the Western gaze.”
Okparanta said she wouldn’t be surprised if some readers feel her satire goes too far. After all, she noted, when Voltaire published “Candide,” a coming-of-age adventure story that doubled as a vicious critique of the European power structures, “the French nobility did not enjoy it.”
“Being that it is a satire, it will be understood and digested differently by different people in society,” Okparanta said. “Some groups might see the humor more readily than other groups.”