Emmanuel Iduma’s first published work, Farad, was a novella that weaved together eight different Nigerian narratives. He is an art critic and teaches at New York City’s School of Visual Arts and he co-founded a literary magazine, Saraba, in 2009. His latest work (first published in 2018 and reprinted this year), A Stranger’s Pose, is a dreamy travelogue and memoir through west and north Africa that explores the nature of estrangement, identity and grief among other things. In this interview, I speak to Emmanuel about the book’s ideas and diverse influences as he prepares for next year’s publication of his new work, a memoir, I Am Still With You.

It may seem odd, but Emmanuel Iduma does not see A Stranger’s Pose as experimental: “experimenting meant that failure was allowed…I hope [when writing a book] to do something that could be considered fitting at least and to some degree successful.” The book is primarily a travelogue but consists of different styles and forms of writing: short prose vignettes, poems, long essayistic prose passages, and excerpts from emails in no strict discernible pattern or order. It also includes photography (showcasing some of the author’s own) and does not follow a linear narrative structure. How could this combination of forms and styles not be considered experimental? 

Well, as I think back to my experience of reading A Stranger’s Pose, each chapter does feel fitting to its chosen form—simply the most appropriate way to express a particular idea, feeling or experience rather than a conscious attempt to ‘experiment’. It is also terrific in other ways. For one, it is a subtle but powerful examination of the nature of estrangement, identity, and place. As images of Black movement and (dis)placement have become more visible with the Haitian refugee crisis, these primary themes make the text more resonant in 2021 than when it was originally published in 2018. While not a polemic, the book’s rare gaze in travel writing, that of a Black Nigerian man, also adds a much-needed perspective to travel writing about (Black) Africa. And despite its vantage point, it does not gloss over imbalances of power and class difference. The author muses on his identity and privilege while he recollects several months travelling as a tourist with other creative professionals across west and north Africa and his encounters with the locals, often living in poverty or seeking a better life in Europe. It is untarnished by the lazy essentialism and racist tropes about Black Africans which have been perpetrated for centuries by white male travel writers. 

Written in gorgeous, languid prose (and poetry), its fragmented structure gives just enough detail to allow the reader to imagine the places it depicts, yet leaving ample space for them to fill in the remaining gaps. It is also brimming with wonderfully vivid imagery, especially in passages where it explores myths, memory, perceptions of reality and the role of photography in these. As we, two strangers, discuss these ideas and others over a video call, Emmanuel is generous with his answers while I traverse across the book’s rich tapestry of ideas. 

Emmanuel O: Could you tell me about the meaning behind the book’s title and your notion of posing? 

Emmanuel I: I was thinking about the notion of being a stranger. The book is, in the most important sense, a meditation on estrangement as it relates to being in a foreign place, as is implicit in photography, grieving and loss of many kinds, including being estranged from a ‘lover’. It was clear to me from the start that I had to make that very clear in the title or even in the way the book was presented. “A Stranger Pose” becomes me as a stranger posing. I am the stranger who is posing, who is being looked at or, in some senses, who is also looking at himself in all these places. One of the most important things for me to state was that I am a stranger and not entering these places assuming that, by virtue of my time or interactions there, I will become anything other than a stranger.

I was also thinking about the modes and methods of becoming intimate with a place. This came out of the notion of an intimate stranger [from the book, Intimate Stranger by Breyten Breytenbach]. An intimate stranger, in my conception, is a stranger who goes to a place and wants to become intimate in that space [by being] conscious of [their] attempts to connect, interact and to interrogate [their] presence in that space. I knew almost before I started that this was going to be called “A Stranger’s Pose”, precisely because I wanted to think about what it means to be a stranger while travelling.

Emmanuel O: You spend a lot of time in the book in francophone African countries. To what extent do francophone artists influence your work and was it a conscious choice to spend time in these countries? 

Emmanuel I: By virtue of trying to get into the northern part of Africa from west Africa, you, by default, must pass through a lot of francophone countries. In terms of [francophone] influence, Ambiguous Adventures by Cheikh Hamidou Kane was a very big book for me. It is one of the most powerful books in the [Heinemann] African Writer series. He’s writing about the clash between the traditional and modern, but with a certain kind of ear for ambiguity that I was drawn to. [Édouard] Glissant too, of course. I was thinking about the notion of archipelagos and the poetics of relation. [Malick] Sidibé. It was a true honour to think about photography from the point of view of meeting someone like him. And Touki Bouki [directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty], a film that thinks about movement.

“I knew almost before I started that this was going to be called “A Stranger’s Pose”, precisely because I wanted to think about what it means to be a stranger while travelling.”

Emmanuel O: Could you talk about how photography informed your writing?

Emmanuel I: Photographs, for me, are not simply records of what’s happened or who was depicted, but they are also documents for imagination. That’s precisely the way I mostly think about photography when I’m doing any kind of writing. One of the things that has always motivated my thinking around photographs, is that something different happens when you place images beside text in a literary manner. How can you respond to images in a way that is not simply interested in the record as given but also in what can be imagined in response? I included them because I felt they depicted a certain kind of mood.

Emmanuel O: Some passages of the book have, I think, a dream-like quality. Was that a conscious choice?

Emmanuel I: I was trying to find a way into the blur of being on the road. I was on the road for about four months. If you’re travelling for that length of time, continuously, it’s almost like you can’t remember where things happened and you’re in a dream-like space when trying to remember your trip. When I began writing A Stranger’s Pose, I knew I wanted to include dreams as a motif for that kind of experience of travelling and draw from writers’ books that emphasised precisely that like [Amos] Tutuola, whose stories were not simply magical realism but some kind of mix of the most absurd and the most convincing. [Ben] Okri comes from that tradition but doing all these things you would consider high literary.

Emmanuel O: How did your position, as a Nigerian for example [in francophone west and north Africa], inform how you wrote about your travels?

Emmanuel I: I was coming out of a personal history of, in some senses, being out of place. As a result of my father’s work, my family moved around quite a bit. Even in Nigeria, I would not necessarily lay claim to the phrase ‘fixed positionality’. It did not make any sense for me to claim any sort of fixed notion of who I was, especially in relation to my ethnicity. For instance, being Igbo, never meant that I would not in some ways always think about how different I was from say, Yoruba people. At that point, I did not think my position was fixed. That’s how I went into all these places. And then, of course, I’m travelling in places where I’m ‘inadmissible’ because of the language (I can’t speak French with any fluency). I can’t speak Arabic or the local dialects. On that front, my position was being questioned. I entered into all these places thinking I was a stranger. I wasn’t going to become anything else and I wouldn’t attempt to evade the question of foregrounding this unstable position.

Secondly, I wasn’t spending a lot of time in these places. I certainly didn’t have the luxury of becoming ‘native, so to speak. Finally, of course, I was writing about people who I did not have real, full access to, particularly their inner lives. In meeting with migrants, you can’t assume you know what kind of people they are, especially if you come to that country on a visa which terms you ‘legal’ while others were termed ‘illegal.’ I was clear, especially when I was in Morocco, that I could not fully grasp [their experience]. I could really only grasp to the extent I was talking with them and perceiving what they were trying to relate to me.

“My writing in this book was the way to offer a kind of solidarity, to imagine the freedom of the migrant and the one who is itinerant.”

Emmanuel O: What was the importance of centring the stories of Black migrants?

Emmanuel I: Part of my larger compulsion at the time of writing was to think about movement in all kinds of ways, particularly my movement as part of a group travelling in a van across African countries. That was the beginning of everything for me. There was of course my family’s history of movement: the itinerancy of my family, of my father. I then moved to the United States for graduate school.

Once we started travelling to the kind of places we travelled through, we inevitably met and spoke to people who were trying to get to Europe. This wasn’t a question of politics or newsworthiness, but a gesture of solidarity. My conceptual goal was to draw a line from one kind of movement to another kind of movement, to present the book as thinking around movement of many kinds. The story of humanity is the story of migration. I find it ahistorical that it was possible for Europeans to go into parts of the African continent for whatever reasons—evangelisation, colonisation…—and once we are trying to move the other way, it becomes incriminating. Before we talk about the legal framework that makes it incriminating, we must just simply say, this is absurd. My writing in this book was the way to offer a kind of solidarity, to imagine the freedom of the migrant and the one who is itinerant. 

EMMANUEL IDUMA is the author of A Stranger’s Pose, a travel memoir. His essays and art criticism have been published in The New York Review of Books, Aperture, Best American Travel Writing 2020, Artforum, and Art in America. His honours include a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation grant for arts writing, the inaugural Irving Sandler Award for New Voices in Art Criticism from AICA-USA, the C/O Berlin Talent Prize for Theory, and a Silvers Grant for Work in Progress. I Am Still with You, his memoir on the aftermath of the Nigerian civil war, is forthcoming from Algonquin (US), and William Collins (UK). You can find him on Instagram @emmaiduma and on his website.

EMMANUEL OMODEINDE is a British-Nigerian who sometimes calls himself a writer. He cannot imagine a life without the arts and is particularly passionate about Afro-diasporic art across all mediums. He lives in the UK. You can find him on Twitter @emansiji.

“This book was the way to offer a kind of solidarity”: A conversation with Emmanuel IdumaA Stranger's Pose by Emmanuel Iduma
Published by Cassava Republic on 7 November 2018
Genres: African, Contemporary, Essays, Non-fiction, Travel, Poetry
Pages: 216
Format: Paperback
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four-stars

A mesmerising collection of striking travel snapshots. Through stories remembered and imagined, and images by acclaimed photographers, A Stranger's Pose draws the reader into a world of encounters in more than a dozen African towns. Iduma blends memoir, travelogue and storytelling in these fragments of a traveller’s journey across several African cities. Inspired by the author’s travels with photographers between 2011 and 2015, the author's own accounts are expanded to include other narratives about movement, estrangement, and intimacy. These include: an arrest in a market in N’djamena, being punished by a Gendarmes officer on a Cameroonian highway and meeting the famed photographer Malick Sidibe in Bamako.