[Conversation Issue] ‘There is nothing I loathe more than the idea that a piece of writing is “experimental”’—Emmanuel Iduma in conversation with Lidudumalingani

As part of our January Conversation Issue, Emmanuel Iduma, author of A Stranger’s Pose, in conversation with writer and photographer Lidudumalingani.

A Stranger’s Pose
Emmanuel Iduma
Cassava Republic Press, 2018

Lidudumalingani for The JRB: I want to congratulate you on a beautiful book, not only in its overall design but also in the meticulous way the sentences are weaved together; for its considered balance of restraint and reveal. Chris Abani says it on the sleeve: ‘Only one word can hold it all, beautiful. This book is beautiful.’

There is a seamless aesthetic to your book that caught my attention in ways that other books have not. At the ends, the front and the back, the cover folds into itself and has the feeling that it carries on, stretching inward and then beyond. I found the numbering of chapters definite and perfect. I like how the first paragraph sits on the page, drawing out a shape, carving a language of design. And so I want us to begin here, talking about the book as a product, as an object to hold, to stare at and admire after reading. What kind of thinking went into figuring out the textures, layers, patterns, collages, colours and so on?

Emmanuel Iduma: I am grateful for your keen reading. When the editing was nearly complete, I had to figure out how the images could interact with the text: what images to insert as a spread, on a single page, or what would occupy only half the page. I moved the text to InDesign, to work out that chemistry. I’ve been using design software for nearly ten years, producing mostly minimalist book or magazine designs. Fonts matter to me; I’m perhaps too punctilious about them, double-checking how the italics appear, what weight is small enough not to overburden the eye, and large enough to appear elegant. However, the final form of the book, its flaps and paper texture, is squarely as a result of the genius of [Cassava Republic Press publishing director] Bibi Bakare-Yusuf and her team.

Chris Abani’s book The Face: Cartography of the Void is foundational to some of my ideas about beauty. He expounds on the Yoruba word ‘Iwalewa’, and the Ehugbo word ‘Nganga’, speaking of essential beauty, beauty as proportionality, character, grace, poise and elegance—’To see beauty is to be beauty’, he writes. I occasionally put the book in conversation with Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, where she makes the claim, right at the beginning, that ‘Beauty brings copies of itself into being.’ And so, I hope A Stranger’s Pose is considered beautiful because it can inspire beauty. If the words rest on the page in a manner that compels the reader to think of strangers as less random or foreign, and if the photograph of two hands has been placed so delicately that a viewer feels the urgency to hold someone in gentle embrace, my work will have been done.

The JRB: Tell me about the photograph used on the cover of the book and whether that choice was philosophical or emotional. Tell me, too, if there were other options for the cover that you considered and what, if anything, made you ultimately decide against them.

Emmanuel Iduma: The cover photograph is by Dawit L Petros, who I once travelled with, and who remains my intellectual companion. There weren’t many choices, in fact, as I knew almost from the start that his work was kin to mine. I had written about some photographs by Petros in the book—for instance, my essay ‘Here Comes a Stranger’ was published in the catalogue for his solo show at the Kansas City Art Institute. It was a matter of which of his images conveyed, in some immediate sense, the mood of the book. For sure, the cover had to work on an aesthetic level. I knew that Dawit was unwavering in his commitment to beauty, and formally wrought photographs: he once said to me, ‘I don’t want to cede the question of form.’ By the time my publishers and I finalised the cover image the book was no longer being written. But, given my friendship and collaboration with Dawit, I was fortunate to have cleared the ground, so to speak, for the dance between cover and book, medium and message.

As you see in the book, many of his photographs have mirrors in them. What are these mirrors? Who are these men who hold them against their faces? How do the images bear the potential for exchange? In that essay I wrote on his work, I refer to an Adrienne Rich quote: ‘What does it mean to say I have survived until you take the mirrors and turn them outward and read your own face in their outraged light?’

The JRB: In that essay on Petros, you write ‘There are men in the photograph who are pictured as solitary in the crowd.’ I could not read this sentence without thinking of your travels to the different cities you write about in A Stranger’s Pose. There are parallels between your work and his. There are ways, physical and theoretical, in which your works interconnects. That is clear in the book too, in the way the photographs are laid out, in conversation with the text. I love that the there is a conversation with the photographs themselves.

Emmanuel Iduma: Absolutely. It’s squarely a question of solidarity for me.

The JRB: Teju Cole’s Foreword is incredibly beautiful and complete. How did Cole’s introducing the work happen? And when it arrived in your inbox what did you make of it?

Emmanuel Iduma: He had known about the book for a while. When the piece arrived I recognised that, indeed, he understood my process and peregrinations—how else could the book be read except as a ballad, a song, with all its lyrics remembered? Wow. I keeled over in gratitude. And why? His writing has mattered to me since 2008, when I encountered Every Day is for the Thief in the university bookshop in Ile-Ife. A novel with photographs? I was drawn immediately to his constellational thinking, and I sensed our affinity. There is much I can say about what that Foreword evoked in me, but to put it simply it is one of the most important considerations of my work, and I return to it from time to time. I am buoyed by such generosity.

The JRB: I rewrite beginnings until there is no other way left to write them. And then I rewrite them again a few times, and then I stop. There is a perfection to the beginning of this book that is carefully measured. The length and subject of the first paragraph is perfect. A gram of every ingredient: style, tone, subject, politics, emotion. It is short, like an entryway into other worlds, cosmologies, timeframes, emotions. What went into writing that beginning and did you know at the time that it was going to be the beginning?

Emmanuel Iduma: I’ve just turned to my notes from four years ago, and I see that much of what I wrote as the first chapter has remained the same, minus some little grammar things. In that initial rendering, the first and second chapters are only separated by a paragraph break. I can see how, if they had remained so, the precision I sought for the beginning might have eluded the reader.

Since I made a number of detours before I arrived at that chapter—at one point writing a lengthy ficto-critical account of the travels, inventing a character named ‘Emmanuel’ being interviewed about the trips—the choice of fragments by then seemed not just inevitable, but profoundly suited to the entire project. The second chapter, you’ll remember, speaks of images and gestures returning to me in great detail. This was a conceit. I mean, to be sincere, there is no way a ‘gesture’ can return in ‘great detail’. Once I wrote those first two chapters, I felt something precious about form had become clear to me: A form that limns the outline of experience.

The JRB: The book jumps between places, it abandons them and returns to them, returning more than once to others. It moves between different timeframes that are not clearly marked, and so there is a constant merging of time. There are overlaps of travels. It is a bold book in that sense: it gives so much to the reader but it also demands all of it back. Reading it now, thinking of people reading it across the world, are you happy with the arrangement of chapters? And how did you come to arrange them?

Emmanuel Iduma: It took a number of drafts, and experiments with point of view, to become satisfied with the sequence. I am satisfied by the final arrangement of the chapters. There are several mellow reverberations that perhaps only I can point to (I’ve made a promise to one of my dearest friends to annotate the book with all the instances where I fictionalised an experience). But I do hope that readers become interested in finding through-lines, parallels, and instances of mimesis. One great way to read the book was suggested by David Levi Strauss, my teacher, in his blurb. He made a connection between how the book begins and how it ends—an impulse felt by a stranger driving into a city and a glance by a stranger walking past a grave.

I organised the narratives in the book around four prompts: meditations on photography, on movement and estrangement, on home, and on desire. Four chapters in sequence could shuffle between either of those prompts, or several chapters in a row could explore one. I was testing ‘the fitness of my instincts’ as an editor of my own work, which is something Yvonne Rainer once said about choreography.

The JRB: What are your views on genre? Are lines for you clear between what is fiction and non-fiction?

Emmanuel Iduma: My views are being worked out. I want to delineate genres more encompassing than ‘fiction and nonfiction’. I am being pulled, I feel, in two directions. Towards criticism and towards narrative, both at once. The former isn’t just non-fiction, or ‘creative non-fiction’, because while writing, for instance, about the work of Phoebe Boswell, Sokari Ekine or Ibrahim Mahama, I know there is some connection between what I write and how their work will be received. In a broad sense, it demands academic rigour.

And yet, I’m all in for what Barthes says in The Preparation of the Novel: ‘Better the illusions of subjectivity than the impostures of objectivity.’ I must not work with theory as complete in and of itself, but as tentative. I’m sure I’m not misremembering this: during her talk at the European Graduate School early last year, Margarethe von Trotta quoted a statement Hannah Arendt made in an interview she granted later in her life: ‘I would like to say that everything I did, and everything I wrote, all that is tentative.’ I turn to narrative to explore the tentative, or the unresolved. Sometimes the story is story in name only, and the character is a placeholder for an idea yet to be fully worked out. I can live with that.

It is thus not a question of the lines between the genres, but the process undertaken while stepping across them. I am no longer as eager to write an essay that can be read as a story—this was the neurosis of my twenties, which I’m leaving behind. Let the story be a story, the essay an essay, the novel a novel. If I do my work well enough each will succeed on its own terms. There is nothing I loathe more than the idea that a piece of writing is ‘experimental’.

The JRB: The perfect pronunciation of the word «flâneur» forces the mouth into varying shapes and then as it exits contorts itself into a single elegant shape. I want to call you that, in the way you negotiated your presence in the different cities that you visited. I also want to stretch the idea as you invoke these cities with your pen: there is a sense that, be it arrogance or defiance, you have assumed that readers are familiar with the places mentioned; if not, they can find out. And as such you spend no time elaborating on places, in the way that travelogues tend to do, locating, positioning, explaining, recommending. In doing this, you present the reader with a universe in which the everyday unfolds, and in that everyday, present and past politics exist. Why did you make this decision and did you think of the reader when making it?

Emmanuel Iduma: I believe in vast readership. But there are variations in this readership—it was Ivan Vladislavić who helped me understand, in an interview he granted to The White Review, that while writing the contract is entirely between the text and the writer, almost as if the text is a kind of reader. As such, I was hoping to access a wider intelligence that worked on its own terms. My feeling was informed by what might be a cliché, that people are in place as place is in people, and that if you described people as best as you can, you can be true to place. And you’re right: my concern wasn’t about place in the strict sense of physicality or geography, but the everyday.

But before I understood how I was working within the everyday, I sensed that the book was one in which the relationship with place was of an inner traversal. The contours and ridges bulged in more emotional terms. One might call this an emotional cartography. I thought that one way to write about African life would be to put the everyday in central focus, especially given the tainted history of travel writing. I had to arrive at the politics of the book in an oblique manner.

The JRB: At what age was your first trip out of Nigeria, and where did you go? What did you find and what were you carrying when you returned home?

Emmanuel Iduma: It wasn’t until I was twenty-two, on my first road trip with Invisible Borders. We drove into Chad through the northeastern Nigerian border. I write about this in one of the earliest chapters of the book, in relation to language—‘The first word I regard is marché.’ But the sense of foreignness, which was without doubt acute on that trip, I had always sensed in myself while living in Nigeria. It was a foreignness of being Igbo in Yorubaland, or in Central Nigeria; or the foreignness, while in my ancestral hometown, of being a poor speaker of our dialect. Return to Nigeria, after that first trip, meant a broadened understanding of place. For the first time I could think of otherness outside of ethnicity.

The JRB: The book is anchored by photographs, and images have a particular way of arranging and evoking memories. You also employ dreams to stretch, I felt, the extent to which memories can be unreliable and also what we think of genre. Can you tell me first how you decided on the images in the book and their arrangement, and then about the role dreams play in the book?

Emmanuel Iduma: My hope was to work within dream as genre, which has a long literary history—think of Michel Leiris’s Nights as Day, Days as Night. The real intent, however, was to make a mash-up of dreams and photography, to see if what is evoked in photography is similar to what happens in dreams. If I could do this, I imagined, I could achieve a destabilisation of memory; I could trouble the concept of indexicality. It is not just that occurrences in dreams aren’t linear, but what happens in them seems utterly believable, despite their absurdity.

Arranging the images took place in two stages: during the writing, and in the course of editing. While writing I needed images that could spur recollection, or inspire narrative. While editing, after much of the writing had been completed, I needed images that served to compliment or evoke. By the latter stage, I was navigating through a repertoire of images I had written about, been the subject of, or had access to given my friendship with the photographers. The freedom I had in making the final selection, even if constrained by the issue of copyright, makes me feel indebted to the photographers. I mean, it’s a matter of trust. I was asking to repurpose their photographs outside of the context in which they were made.

The JRB: Technically and aesthetically, there are different photographs in this book. The chapter on the photograph of the triplets is brilliant because it is about a lot more than just the photograph. But let us restrict the conversation to technique. Some of the photographs are scanned, with the edges cut off, clear frames fading into nothing. There are different shot sizes. There are wide frames. There are portraits. There are portraits shot from the back of the subject. There are street photographs. How do these all come together for you? Do they? Do they have to?

Emmanuel Iduma: The reach of the photographs is cumulative, an accretion of the book’s emotional charge. These traditions of photography you mention, and the technical details of the photographs, mattered first in relation to my work as a writer. I should point out that my interest in the medium is sustained more through study than practice, a novelist’s sensibility rather than a visual artist’s. I do not intend, at least in the near future, to speak of myself as a photographer. But I want to contemplate the promise of photo-embedded literature. I don’t think that obsession has been resolved in A Stranger’s Pose. And so, at the risk of becoming self-indulgent, I’ll like to try it again in another book.

When I think further about it, considering the work of writers I feel kin to in this regard, I see that the book embraces a range of traditions. Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid treats photographs in a similar way to novels by WG Sebald and Daša Drndić and Carole Maso’s The Art Lover, but differently from Teju Cole’s Blind Spot and Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. The former books are more inclined to documentary, and the latter to, simply put, the artistic. John Berger and Jean Mohr’s A Fortunate Man and A Seventh Man are somewhere in-between, swerving between documentary and art, making photographs and text almost exist in a continuum, as though interchangeable.

So, yes, they do come together. They speak to something surpassing genre. The point of the book is to consider experience as more fundamental than any one artistic medium can express, which is possible by working through as many mediums as possible. A multi-hyphenate form.

The JRB: ‘Every nerve in his body seems to respond to light and movement,’ you write, about Malick Sidibé going blind, suggesting that he will, even after complete blindness, continue to make photographs. That sentence interests me. One, because I want to know what you think of African photography today, leaning towards that sentence, but also towards what Sidibé says about ‘leaning in and observing closely’—is this happening in the images you see being made now? Second, what do you make of the writing about and on African photography, both on the continent and outside of it?

Emmanuel Iduma: My practice as a critic is a matter of deep subjectivity, to train a microscopic eye on images I cannot turn away from. In this sense, I find it difficult to make grand declarations about African photography. Chiefly because I suspect that there are a number of mini-histories of the medium I am ignorant about, and even histories within those mini-histories. I stay with idiosyncrasy, with poetics. I write about photographers whose sensibilities seem to intersect with mine, or whose work opens the world. As far as photography criticism on the continent goes, I am constantly in search of writing informed by this impulse.

That caveat aside, I see more mastery of technique than of anything else. The images you see on Instagram, for instance, or celebrated in popular magazines and newspapers, compel attention. We might look at them for a long time, even when we do not think they can say something peculiar about the human condition. I do not begrudge this; a photograph can succeed squarely on the basis of beauty and composition, even if it bears no ‘message’. And when you speak about a continent like Africa, always being misrepresented, African photographers can begin their long-term work with expressiveness and freedom—to explore style, technique, and so on—before taking on the responsibility to depict human dignity in complex, non-sensational ways.

The JRB: There are chapters in this book that capture many universes and many different times, yet they are about a singular thing. A lover whose book you do not return, a rental manager who dismisses you for not being fluent in French, reconciling the trajectory of your own life with that of a childhood friend whom you meet after ten years. I am interested in how you get to that kind of writing. Writing that excludes everything else and yet captures all of it. How many drafts do you write until you achieve it? Is there a routine to it? Do you gather the words and then toss them in the air and see which ones stick together?

Emmanuel Iduma: I cannot remember any time in my life, since I was about six, when I haven’t been thinking of writing something, or writing something. I feel extremely fortunate about this. The prescience I had as a teenager—that I would study law and not practice it—is quite uncommon. But that prescience comes with responsibility: to maintain a writing practice that evolves in tandem with the shifts in how I perceive the world. I say that to point out the fact of my devotion. It is essential that I keep going, trafficking through genres.

The actual writing, in terms of ritual, is intense and laborious, sometimes up to four essays in a given month. There are good and bad days while I’m working on something. On good days I write an average of a hundred words an hour, and my staying power is just shy of three hours. Three hundred words on the most promising day. Small by small. Medium might be message, but medium is unsparing. When the going is good I feel like I am descending. No, that’s the wrong image. While the hours accumulate I do not feel I have taken leave of the world, and so it isn’t descent but immersion. My room takes on the character of a baptismal font.

I often work towards a first, near-final draft. It takes so much time, which doesn’t necessarily mean weeks or months. I mean that in relation to how long each sentence might take to be written. My goal is to test how each sentence works in relation to what precedes or follows it, to test for rhythm, and to discover meaning and form in the process. (Lydia Davis is in conversation with Francine Prose in the latest BOMB, and she says the following about a review by Michael Hofmann of one of her books: ‘What he appreciated was the shapeliness of thought, the shapeliness of structure … The sentence has to be just right and the thought has to be just right because if it isn’t, well, it’s not as shapely.’) After months of working on a story, if I don’t feel this is the case, I might toss it in the air with no intention to return.

The JRB: I often think about whether the texture of the place has any influence on the writing. Many years ago I struggled to write anything in Johannesburg. It took moving to Cape Town to complete a work of fiction that had taken me months to write. Where did you write this book and did the place you were writing it in have any effect? Is there a place you want to return to, only to write?

Emmanuel Iduma: New York City, in the first months of writing. I was impoverished, in a floundering love affair, but also studying in a writing programme that pushed me to develop an intellectual toolkit I could draw on for the rest of my life. Now that I think of it I see that I began to write while standing on unstable ground, and perhaps the manuscript became a threshing floor where I could winnow sappy emotions from considered ones.

When I left New York with a third of the manuscript, I travelled to Rabat for a collaborative residency, and I wrote most of the chapters on Morocco there, in real-time. Then I spent two months in Senegal, first in Dakar, and then in Sinthian, a village an hour away by car from Tambacounda. Again I wrote in real-time, outworking my emotions. I think the acute loneliness I felt in Rabat and the solitude of those Sinthian nights informed the texture of the book. I would be remiss if I didn’t offer some of the chapters as a tribute to what those places evoked in me.

The JRB: You are a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Can you tell me more about that and what that facilitates when it comes to your writing and thinking process?

Emmanuel Iduma: At the moment I teach in two MFA programmes: Art Writing, and Photography, Video, and Other Related Media. In each case I am working with students on their writing. I encourage them each year to stay shy of privileging jargon over lucidity. It’s a notion that informs my work.

There’s a story that means a lot to me. When László Krasznahorkai was a young man he moved from one little village to another in Hungary, living a secluded life. He had friends, but one at a time. With each friend, he maintained a relationship in which they spoke in lengthy monologues—one day or one night he spoke, and the next day or night the other would speak. When I teach I am in search of such connection and recognition, like Krasznahorkai and his friends. A matter of ear, a matter of deep listening.

The JRB: There are chapters on love here, or something like love, in which I found you evasive, even reluctant, in the way you wrote them. Perhaps love itself was evasive. In any case, I wanted to know, are you too gangster for love?

Emmanuel Iduma: I hope no one assumes that those chapters, addressed to ‘an estranged lover, from Sinthian’, were my exact feelings about a particular woman. Yes, I was working through estrangement, but I was also travel-weary, and uncertain about the future, both mine and ours. Vulnerability was my ultimate goal, and the stakes were high. That chapter can be read in the context of the journey, writ large; the desire for a person that the journey blunts or sharpens; the people loveliest, as Isabelle Eberhardt writes, when left behind. In fact, it is useful to quote Eberhardt’s sad proposition in full: ‘Once more astounded by all that has captured me and all I have left, I tell myself that love is a worry and that what’s necessary is to love to leave—persons and things being loveliest when left behind.’

Tell me why you think I was evasive.

The JRB: I say this I suppose not so much from the reading of those chapters and sentences alone but my own misconceptions about how love has come to be performed. The idea that love is a feeling to be shared widely and openly, detailing its every episode, to friends, to family, to strangers. I have fought with lovers before over my reservations about publicly sharing details of our love. So I had this feeling that you were being careful about what you were revealing, I suppose, almost to the point of being evasive. This does not have to be true, of course. What is however true is that now that you have asked me this, I am thinking of what the reader imposes on the writing, on a narrative, on the meaning of a narrative, and perhaps there lies an opportunity for a conversation.

Emmanuel Iduma: I’m ardent about performing love, right there on the page. Love never ends. If you’ve loved more than one person, especially in a romantic sense, whoever becomes the final ‘love of your life’ is a culmination of all such expressions of love, as if you have saved the best for last. I think that to pass such total love onto the page is a noble, if unattainable, goal. When I wrote that chapter, after it was clear that the addressee could not, in a practical sense, be my estranged lover, I was freed to invest some language in the stupefying melancholia I felt. Sad days. I read those lines now and wonder at the extent of what I conveyed, how I managed to sustain the vulnerability—not, actually, how elusive I was.

The JRB: How has the book been read, both by the general reader and critics?

Emmanuel Iduma: I want to speak to your earlier question: how the reader might ‘impose’ meaning on the narrative. I see my writing as an intervention in the life of a reader—I have to face the reality of the fact that the reader completes the book. Especially writing of this sort, where I meditate on the fact of being elsewhere, an experience I imagine is shared by most of the readers. In the months since it was released, I have received emails in which people speak of their own travels, recount stories similar to mine, what they recalled while reading, or what nostalgia it evoked. My favorite story so far is of a woman reading it to her lover before bed. I’ve always felt criticism expressed in this way is as valuable as, say, Hannah Giorgis’s incomparable review in The Atlantic.

The JRB: You published a novel in 2016, The Sound of Things To Come, and now this, A Stranger’s Pose. In the nature of keeping things moving along, to conform to the ways of the universe, what are you publishing next?

Emmanuel Iduma: Actually, that was the North American edition of Farad, which came out in 2012 in Nigeria. I’m writing the final essays for ‘A Sum of Encounters’, which is more or less biographical sketches of Nigerian artists. That is in addition to a few short stories, monograph essays, and so on. But I sense you’re asking about my next book. It is too early to tell whether this will be a novel or another in-between book—I’m simply copying down the vibrations that occur to me when my attention is strongest, as Anne Carson advised. We’ll see.

  • Lidudumalingani is a writer, filmmaker and photographer, and winner of the 2016 Caine Prize. Follow him on on Instagram and Twitter.
Author image: Dawit L Petros/Composite: The JRB

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