This conversation began as a thought, the kinds that linger longer than necessary because of a fear, the fear of beginning something inexhaustible. I have met Emmanuel Iduma a few times in the last two years and in those times, our conversations have stretched the limits of time. So you can imagine.
We’d talk long into the night or day as the case may be and exchange ideas. From politics to religion to literature, we’d skirt through these topics with the ease of the passing time. So in a way, I always feel at home in every conversation I have with him. In this conversation, we spoke about his new-old book The Sound of Things to Come which was first published in Nigeria by Parresia Books as Farad and a plethora of things in-between emails from New York to Abeokuta.
TD: In The Sound of Things to Come, like many of your works, you examined the intangibility of the human experience in a manner that makes the act of introspection between both your characters and your readers possible. Is this a style of writing that you have decided to adopt or is it accidental that it manifests itself in your writing?
EI: I’m hearing you say two things. The first is that in The Sound of Things to Come, there’s a triangular relationship between the characters, the reader, and I, the writer. And then, collectively they probe the human experience. These are generous ideas in relation to my work, and I thank you. I’m certainly aware, now more than ever, even more than I was in 2010 and 2011 when I was writing the book, that my work seeks as its landscape the human mind.
Is this accidental, or is it a style I adopt? I’ll say all of the above. Style is both accident and incident. In my writing I hope to conflate the distinctions between “I,” “we,” and “you.” You remember that, as kids, when we stretched our fingers to say “waka!” we were told that the other fingers pointed back right at us. Imagine for a second this gesture as one that explains the writing process. In saying “you” we say “I.”
TD: Your book for me, felt like an exposé of sorts, with the way every narrative seemed to probe the acceptance of certain ideologies, these probes also ended up birthing more complexities. Do these narratives explain who you are as a writer or were they autobiographical in any way?
EI: When writing a story, I am aware that I cannot resolve the mystery the story holds over me. In a sense I know only the mystery of the story, and not the story itself. Then I begin to write, to work out what those mysteries are, as clearly as possible. So for instance in the title chapter of Sound, I knew for certain at the outset that Mo would leave her husband. I didn’t know in what circumstances, and I wasn’t quite interested in accounting for her decision to leave. This is probably a terribly impatient way to tell a story. And yet I am familiar with moments in Biblical narrative when a parable is told, and left to stand without explanation.
It doesn’t always work; I’m aware of the high stakes. I have spent four years trying to write a story about a man who sees a photograph and stops believing in God. Each time the story has come out contrived. I have tried to hush away this strange storyline, but it won’t go.
As a person I’m invested in the tangential. My friends will likely tell you that I have the terrible habit of ending a thought mid-sentence. While I’m trying to become a better communicator in speech, in my writing I want to make the connections between dissimilar ideas finer and finer. I want to bring my writing closer to the way we travel in dreams, or in a busy city. That kind of fluidity is central to my impulses as a writer.
TD: Most writers claim that most pieces of their works of either prose or poetry are like a summation of their life experiences and that even at times when the writer chooses to explore other people’s experiences, it is his/her own experience and opinion that will drive the flow of the narrative. Do you agree with this?
EI: Each writer can hope to make a singular contribution to literature, through a distinct writing style, and a peculiar set of concerns. These concerns invariably come from personal experience. The writer might choose to work through fiction or nonfiction—to tell stories made from the ground up, as in fiction, or to report on existing stories, from “real” life. Or to tell stories in which the real pivots into the imagined.
TD: Have you ever had to grapple with the problem of placement? Have you ever walked into a room filled with other people and questioned the exactness of the identity which defines you?
EI: No, I haven’t questioned the exactness of my identity. I suspect this is because I don’t think about identity in that way. I stay away from rooms where people feel so certain of their identities they cannot tolerate the identities of others.
TD: Over the years, I have been a huge follower of your works and seen the extent to which old timers like John Berger have influenced you. In fact, in many ways, certain people have labeled you as one of those writers with an endless thirst for experiments. One cannot seem to box you into a corner. But now given the status that African Literature has attained with their African audience in recent times, do you ever have to grapple with concepts of Language Appropriation at anytime when writing? Do you ever feel like giving a set of people an advantage over others in their understanding of your works?
EI: Are you asking if I write with an “African audience” in mind?
TD: As a matter of fact I am. Or to put it more succinctly, do you have an exact type of reader in mind when you write?
EI: For most of this year I wrote commissioned essays. So my immediate readers were the editors who read me first, offering constructive feedback. In the last three months, producing new writing from one week to the next, I have had to clarify my intentions by thinking of a friend or family member to whom the work might be addressed, to whom I might send a draft of the essay or story.
On another level, the question of an audience wouldn’t be answered without uncertainty. We are standing shoulder to shoulder with the dead, the living, and the unborn. As soon as the work is published, it is released with an undelivered promise. It awaits its unknown addressee. In this sense my ideal reader are strangers I couldn’t exactly imagine at the time of writing.
The most promising future of a piece of writing is a future when the writer is unable to receive any feedback. All of my dead heroes—I’m thinking now of Vilem Flusser, Éduoard Glissant, Radwa Ashour, Amos Tutuola, Adrienne Rich, Italo Calvino, Nadine Gordimer, for instance—are writers with whom I converse daily.
I should add, finally, that I hope my work is addressed, however diagonally, to a Nigerian vernacular. I don’t trust the idea of a Nigerian audience defined with specificity—that’s pitilessly facile. I think instead of “Nigeria” as a word facing a crisis of meaning. My criticism and storytelling is aimed at that crisis: finding language to name it, while remaining perplexed.
TD: Given the time you completed The Sound of Things to Come and now, Should we expect more from you with regards to fiction. A novel perhaps or do you currently have a work in progress?
EI: I’m starting work on a novel. Let’s see. My next book, a book of travel stories, is due out in a year.
TD: Always a pleasure to read you or talk to you.