Author of A Stranger’s Pose, Emmanuel Iduma, is ‘often working towards a first, near-final draft… I want any piece of my writing to be written with the intensity and personableness of addressing an imagined reader.’
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Around the time I became aware of my surroundings, my father returned from graduate study at a seminary in the United States with several hundred books on church history, theology, and Christian life. I cannot say I read several of those books as much as I absorbed the fact of their presence, and even now I can reel off titles by heart.
In particular, I recall a book called Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible, almost a thousand pages long, which I perused at every opportunity. And by the time I was eight, I sketched out a plan to write a similar book. The audacity! Not until junior secondary school did I plunge into the classics of Nigerian literature—Achebe’s first trilogy of novels, Cyprian Ekwensi’s Passport of Mallam Ilia, a scattering of the African Writers’ Series and Pacesetters.
I am embarrassed to admit that I read Chike and the River as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old. In essence, if it hadn’t been for my literature teachers in secondary school I doubt I’d have read anything else, at that period in my life, other than my father’s books, which seemed so central as an everyday fact of our home that I became a librarian of sorts, filling out a notebook that catalogued every borrower.
What book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger?
Not my childhood but adolescence: I remember my feverish encounters with stories in Ben Okri’s Stars of the New Curfew. It made me begin to take fiction seriously, I’ll admit, and I hope it can serve as such a primer for someone in the middle teenage years.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
I’m gingerly drawn to Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I’ll like to adapt his characters as more urbane, with each episode in the bush recontextualized as unfolding in a particular Nigerian city. Or to rewrite the book simply with the aim to paraphrase Tutuola—not translate, to be clear—getting closer to the audaciousness in his imagination.
What makes a great re-write?
I agree, in this respect, with what Alice Oswald writes in the note prefacing her version of Homer’s Iliad: ‘I write through the Greek, not from it — aiming for translucence rather than translation.’ To aim for translucence, I believe, will mean that one will rewrite such a classic text mindful of the context in which it was written, while letting your preoccupations filter through the text.
Not until junior secondary school did I plunge into the classics of Nigerian literature—Achebe’s first trilogy of novels, Cyprian Ekwensi’s Passport of Mallam Ilia, a scattering of the African Writers’ Series and Pacesetters.
What is the last book that you disagreed with, and why?
None that I can recall.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
I have been compelled by James Bridle’s New Dark Age to consider the distinction between understanding new technologies and being literate about them. He makes the case for the latter—we ought to be able to think about the histories and consequences of the complex systems like cloud computing.
As an art curator, what would you say is a common misconception about African art?
That African art is nascent, postcolonial, and simply contemporary. Until we account for all the ways colonialism impacted on culture in general, and visual art in particular, the task of any critic and curator is to contextualize the art made and viewed here as connected to larger historical moments.
What three books on African art should be on all our bookshelves?
I’ll suggest two books I’m currently working my way through: Dan Hicks’s The Brutish Museum: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution and Uche Okeke’s Art in Development: A Nigerian Perspective. Jo Ractliffe’s forthcoming Photographs 1980s–Now is a must-have.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
In each essay, story, or book, I’m often working towards a first, near-final draft. It doesn’t mean there won’t be a good amount of revision afterwards—I want each sentence and paragraph, as well as my thinking and impressions, to be concise and clear to me before I send it out. I want every piece of I write to be written with the intensity and personableness of addressing an imagined reader.
What was your process for writing A Stranger’s Pose?
I wrote in spurts and bursts, depending on what the occasion—of completing my MFA, traveling, being estranged—required. But once I had my first full draft, after a span of three years, things seemed to fit into the manuscript more easily; I could return to my desk after an encounter and at once set to transcribing it into words, knowing exactly where or how it could work. At the end, I took out almost all of the photographs I had worked with in the draft and set out to incorporate new photographs that could make the book resonate in a less illustrative manner.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Write a hundred and fifty words every day.
I’m often working towards a first, near-final draft. It doesn’t mean there won’t be a good amount of revision afterwards—I want each sentence and paragraph, as well as my thinking and impressions, to be concise and clear to me before I send it out.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
I’m only beginning to catch up on the work of Robert Macfarlane. He is said to weave history and memory, literature and landscape, high-flown prose and earthy observation.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
Most of my reading in the last six months has been connected to the how and what of nonfiction, and especially, what distinguishes it from fiction. This is not to say that the elements of one cannot be carried over into the other, but to see what constraints there are for fact-based narratives, in the first place.
What are you currently working on?
A memoir on the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War.
Question from Wardah Abbas: If you could read and write in a foreign language, which language would you choose and why?
I am curious as to what would happen if I were to translate Pita Nwana’s Omenuko from Igbo to English. Igbo is certainly not a foreign language to me, but I am removed from it to a degree that I know I find translating a 1933 novel exacting. I’m most inclined to test the extent of my relationship to a language that is my native language but not my mother tongue, to adapt a phrase attributed to Yeats.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
How do you distinguish between history and memory?⎈
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