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Nigerian Writer, Emmanuel Iduma on the Dance between Photographs and Text

Emmanuel Iduma’s first novel, Farad (later re-published as The Sound of Things to Come), was published in 2012. His second book, A Stranger’s Pose (October 2018), a nonfiction, was listed by Anderson Tepper as one of ‘Fall’s Best Foreign Books from Around the World’, in Vanity Fair.

Teju Cole, who wrote the foreword for A Stranger’s Pose, describes it as “dream of a perfect book, a ballad with all the lyrics remembered,” while author Chris Abani affirmed that “this book is beautiful”.

Iduma is the editor and co-founder of the literary journal, Saraba Mag. Last year, he was the associate curator for the Nigerian Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. He holds an MFA in art criticism and writing from the School of Visual Arts, New York, where he is a faculty member now.

In this interview, he speaks to TheCable Lifestyle about his book, photography and literature.

A Stranger’s Pose is such a gorgeous book, almost poetic in its narration and very evocative. It is quite difficult to define this book. Yes, it is nonfiction. A travelogue. A memoir. But it is so much more. How would you explain your book?

This is a book about experience or what is recorded after a number of travel experiences. So if it is possible to define experience as a genre, then that is one explanation for the kind of book I have written. I told a friend that I was surprised to see that it was referred to as a book of essays, or a book of travel essays. Yet I don’t want to make demands on how it may be classified. However broadly a reader articulates the experience of reading the book, however, my travel experience interacts with what the reader feels, or thinks about—works for me.

What made you decide to document your travels across Africa?

The first draft of the book was written as my thesis at the School of Visual Arts, in the course of my time as a student of the MFA program in Art Criticism and Writing—this was around the time I had completed my third road trip with Invisible Borders. My first impulse was to respond to a question of form. How do I revisit travel experiences I have already written about? How do I append to existing writing?

And then, as I proceeded in the writing—between 2014 and 2016—I wanted to come to terms with bigger, inevitable questions: that of movement, home, grief, absence, and desire. Although structured in part as an impressionistic interpretation of how I travelled with a group and by myself, hence a journey “across,” it can also be read as a journey within.

I like to think of A Stranger’s Pose as a collection of short profiles on random people, strangers whose lives and stories I may never have heard of if not for your book. Perhaps, it would be more apt to describe it as a book of encounters, vignettes of fleeting stories.

What made you decide to write about the people you encountered on your journey rather than just the places you visited?

Yes, I chose to work with the stories of people I met, and yes it is a book of encounters. But the distinction between place and people is not possible in a strict sense—a person can embody the spirit of a place. One way to understand this intricacy comes from a statement by Édouard Glissant in a conversation with Philippe Artières: “…between the self and the landscape, there is an extensive series of barriers.” Could I write about a moment of encounter in such a way that bridges those barriers? What does a moment say about the specific individuality of a person, in a given place and at a given time?

One of the constant issues in your book is the challenge of travelling across Africa. There is a part where you detail the difficulty in obtaining a visa to Morocco and the challenges faced by intra-African migrants. In your experience what is the major challenge African migrants and travellers face when travelling within Africa?

I’ll like to paraphrase something I heard Chantal Mouffe say in a symposium: political problems are not theoretical problems, but practical ones. And I think the difficulties of travelling within Africa, at least in a logistical sense, can be solved by policymakers. There is a way to ensure citizens of African countries enjoy freedom of movement as a basic right. But is there a way to secure the border in a manner that doesn’t exclude but invites? That’s where the challenge lies.

Home is a difficult thing to define and it’s an issue you grapple with throughout the book. There are also hints of melancholy and loneliness. As a Nigerian writer, living and working abroad, how would you describe home and loneliness, and what does it mean to you?

After a recent bereavement, it occurred to me that my sorrow was being blunted by distance, even obscured—that if I had been in Nigeria I wouldn’t feel as lonely, or alienated. So the question of home is real and acute. I grapple with it in the book, as I have grappled with it all my life. Yet, there are two incontrovertible truths: Afikpo is my ancestral hometown, where my parents were born and raised, and at this moment my entire nuclear family lives in Nigeria. I sensed early on that my difficulty in defining home in a clear sense came from the fact that as a family we had moved around a number of times. Even if home can be understood in a conceptual, metaphorical, or spiritual sense, it always demands an interrogation of physical spaces.

Photography plays an important role in your storytelling and, as an art writer, you’ve written extensively about pictures. How did you curate photography meant for this book and, ultimately, what do you hope to achieve with the photos in the book?

I began to complement the text with photographs as soon as it was clear that I was working with irresolution as a strategy. The stories are recounted in fragments, in flashes, never with aim to trace an arc that pivots towards an “end.” I was studying the ways photographs had been introduced into literary texts—as in Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief, John Berger’s A Fortunate Man, and The Seventh Man, Carole Maso’s The Art Lover, Anne Michaels’ Railtracks, Dasa Drndic’s Trieste, and so forth. What seemed poignant in each case was that the photographs worked to complement the text in ways that, even if not illustrative, were evocative. I considered pictures by photographers who I had either collaborated with in the past or whose work seemed to convey the mood of the book. Without doubt, it was a curatorial endeavour, to place the photos in a non-literal relationship with the text. More than that, I hoped the dance between both mediums would produce a shared, third space, to illuminate ideas and feelings for the reader.

Finally, your blog, A Sum of Encounters, might as well be an important resource for Nigerian art history. You’ve profiled several Nigerian artists. What is the goal of the blog?

The blog is hopefully part of a longer-term publication project, in which I consider the lives and work of Nigerian artists, as a small contribution to art criticism. The project is an attempt to address the civilization that has formed me—a Nigerian one, in particular. The work of art criticism, for me, is one of placing images within the cultural milieu from which they emerge.

There’s also the tangential way in which it is related to A Stranger’s Pose, and that is simply in relation to the notion of “encounters.” In this project I am practising narrative as a method for criticism; how the story of an encounter opens into the analysis of an artwork. Trust is implicit, and everything proceeds from the generosity of spirit: I am fortunate to gain access to the lives of the artists I write about. The feedback I have gotten makes me realize that they are not merely interested in the interpretation of their work, but in our exchange of stories and ideas. I hope I can prove myself as deserving of what I’ve been given.

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