AUGUST 27, 2019
AT PRECISELY THE MIDPOINT of A Stranger’s Pose, Emmanuel Iduma’s engrossing book of travel tales and photography, lies a spread of black pages speckled by a series of unevenly positioned white dots and names, connected by a necklace of dotted lines. From Rabat at the top to Dakar on the left, down through Yaoundé at the bottom to Addis Ababa on the right, the names clarify into cities and towns — 22 in all — across the African continent. Looking at this itinerary, you cannot tell that the cities and towns inhabit 11 different countries, let alone which countries or where their borders might be.
In the second of the book’s 77 numbered sections of lyric prose, the narrator emails an anonymous relative a list of all the places where he has slept: “I hoped, I wrote, that the cities appeared untethered to their countries — an atlas of a borderless world.” Yet on the very next page, he faces a linguistic barrier in Lomé due to his scanty knowledge of French, while the following section recalls his first time leaving Nigeria for Chad, crossing over to “the other side of the language border.” These comparatively soft borders give way to harder ones in subsequent sections, as when “women, men, and children” attempting to migrate toward Europe meet “bureaucratic brick walls, stiff immigration policies imposed by the governments of North African countries in collaboration with the European Union.”
Iduma’s writing depicts the contradictions that borders generate. A person with money and the right passport can treat borders as occasions for the development of his or her subjectivity. A rapper in Nouakchott who studied in Paris tells the narrator “about the borders he has crossed, and those he continues to cross” in terms of geography, language, and creative genre. Others, however, cannot approach borders without being subjected to humiliation, even violence. A new friend of the narrator in Kidira, on the Senegalese side of the Senegal-Mali border, is arrested for not having papers and disappears into the border station.
Many of the incidents Iduma relates and reimagines stem from his own travels over several years with the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers Organization, a Nigeria-based initiative that aims to address “gaps and misconceptions posed by frontiers within the 54 countries of Africa” through photography and other arts. Taking part in their Road Trip Project in 2014, Iduma traveled all the way from Lagos to Sarajevo alongside eight other artists. However, his book, like most of Invisible Borders’s projects, stays deliberately within the continent.
Iduma, who teaches art criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York, is known in African literary circles as the editor of Saraba, a well-respected literary magazine he co-founded in Nigeria more than a decade ago, and the author of a novel, The Sound of Things to Come. Set in Nigeria, the novel was first published there in 2012 under a different title before being released in New York in 2016. His new book is published with Cassava Republic Press, a consciously pan-African literary publisher established in 2006 in Abuja, Nigeria, that aims to foster prose “rooted in African experience in all its diversity.” In 2016, Cassava Republic expanded from Abuja to London — it distributes in the United States, as well — in a striking reversal of the tendency, dating back to the colonial era, for London-based publishers to set up outposts in Nigeria.
Teju Cole, whose autobiographical novel-with-photographs Every Day Is for the Thief was first published by Cassava Republic in 2007, has written the foreword to A Stranger’s Pose. Whereas Cole’s first book limits itself to Lagos, though, Iduma’s ranges across nearly two dozen cities and towns. It is a multifocal book, not just in the sense of including vignettes and photographs from many vantage points, but also in the sense suggested by Madhu Krishnan in Contemporary African Literature in English: that African writers do not need to address either “local” or “global” readers, Lagos or London (or Los Angeles). Enabled by ambitious literary publishers like Cassava Republic, Iduma and his contemporaries can invest in publics on the African continent as well as beyond it.
At the same time, A Stranger’s Pose refuses any linear kind of development, a refusal with a political charge given how often the continent is tagged as “developing.” The prose sections are arranged neither by chronology nor even by the itinerary suggested at the book’s midpoint. The impossibility of full understanding remains a frequent theme. In one of the book’s most evocative tableaux, the narrator is arrested in a market in N’Djamena for taking a photograph of a woman trying to console a man. Set free six hours later, he finds the same scene: “The woman in hijab still comforted the weeping man, who, in addition to being inconsolable, now threw dust, from time to time, at people walking past.” The white space after this sentence leaves us to puzzle over what is at stake in this prolonged performance of grief. At stake in Iduma’s presentation of it may be a conscious unlearning of developmental narratives about Africa.
An anti-developmental travelogue in one sense, A Stranger’s Pose doubles as an idiosyncratic history of what African photographers have developed in their darkrooms. Early in the book, Iduma recounts a 2014 meeting in Bamako with legendary Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, since deceased, who offers a glimpse into an era before the digital camera, when photography was “an act of deliberation.” Sidibé, whose eyesight is faltering, asks an assistant to bring out “his favorite” photograph, which shows a couple dancing at a Christmas Eve party in 1963, their heads inclined toward each other, the young man’s knee nearly touching the hem of the young woman’s dress. (Iduma refrains from noting that Nuit de Noël (Happy Club) has been counted by Time as among the 100 most influential photographs of all time.) A photograph taken by one of Iduma’s co-travelers shows the famous photograph in the left foreground, with Sidibé himself visible to the right of it; a disembodied hand points a smartphone in his direction, presumably to record their conversation. This juxtaposition of older and newer media does not seem so much a clash, however, as a sign of respect toward the elder “composer of images.” “I am very happy, he says at the end.”
Interleaved with fragments of prose are grayscale reproductions of 40 photographs. Half a dozen of the most memorable images come from a series entitled The Stranger’s Notebook, by the US-based Eritrean-Canadian photographer Dawit L. Petros, who participated in the 2014 road trip and appears in the text as Lejam. Alongside images dominated by the sea — a crowd of men gazing at the Mediterranean from Tangier, a figure on a beach in Lampedusa, a ship that has foundered off Nouakchott — Iduma’s writing envisages what it might be like to risk one’s life to cross over to Europe.
A feature in LensCulture about The Stranger’s Notebook notes that Petros looked not only to the European philosophers Albert Camus and Georg Simmel for their conceptualizations of the stranger, but also to the pioneering Tigrinya writer Fesseha Giyorgis, whose account of his voyage to Italy from Massawa, in present-day Eritrea, was published in Rome in 1895. Iduma has written elsewhere about Petros’s series that it was “made in places where he was indisputably a stranger, arriving to leave soon afterwards — an estrangement culminating in intimacy, however brief.” Yet there is no unmediated intimacy here. The book’s cover image, which also appears within the text, depicts a figure in white tank top, wrapper, and sandals whose face is obscured by a framed photograph showing children near a cinder-block wall. (You can see it in color here.) On its own, the latter scene might be received as evidence of child poverty or human resilience. But placing a photograph within a photograph interrupts our tendency to treat photography as a window onto another reality.
Photography apparently runs in Iduma’s family — his grand-uncle “was reputed to have owned the first photo studio in Gamboru-Ngala, a border town in northeast Nigeria” — and in the middle of the book, Iduma traces a genealogy of uncanny encounters between literature and photography in Nigeria. In the 1940s, years before Amos Tutuola’s novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard staggered onto the literary scene, courtesy of the prestigious publisher Faber and Faber, Tutuola submitted another “manuscript about spirits in a Nigerian forest” with photographic negatives “of hand-drawn sketches of spirits featured in the story” to a different London publisher. Decades later, photographs of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa appeared in the Guardian (Nigeria) in 1995 as he awaited execution for challenging the toxic mix of authoritarian rule and Big Oil interests in the Niger Delta. But the paper for the day of Saro-Wiwa’s death, November 10, is missing from the library where the narrator is reading, an absence that leads him to “imagine Saro-Wiwa’s execution as a lacuna in Nigerian history.” Over and over again, the narrator’s attention fastens on such lacunae, rather than on photographs’ potential as documentary evidence. Photographs — and their absences — require as much interpretation as novels.
While Iduma’s passport may be Nigerian, his book’s heart seems to be in Sinthian, a village in Senegal near the eastern border of The Gambia. Iduma made his way there for a four-week residency at the Thread cultural center. Founded by a local medical doctor and American philanthropist, the center has a remarkable building designed by Harvard faculty member Toshiko Mori and a mission to support “art, culture, and architecture […] in tandem with agriculture, education, and health.” The residency program is less concerned to connect artists to global art markets than to immerse them in rural community life. In a reflection about his residency not included in the book, Iduma wrote, “In Sinthian I was almost tongue-tied, unable to converse in French or Wolof, and surely not in Serer. But the gift I received was the freedom to come to terms with my estrangement.”
The narrator of A Stranger’s Pose marvels at the center’s director, Moussa Diogoye Sene, an environmental sustainability expert from a different part of Senegal. Moussa, who already speaks four languages (English, French, Serer, and Wolof), is also learning the local language, Pulaar, and conducts himself with “the authority of an intimate stranger.” Alluding to a book by the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, who refers to writing as an “intimate stranger,” the phrase also recalls German philosopher Georg Simmel’s concept of the stranger in his Soziologie (1908): the stranger is not a “wanderer,” he writes, “but […] one who comes today and stays tomorrow.” Simmel’s concern was not with the social history of immigrants. Instead, he observed that modern social life involves a constant interplay between intimacy and distance: “[A] strain of strangeness enters into even the closest relationships.” Reading Simmel as a modernist philosopher and the stranger as a “social form,” Elizabeth S. Goodstein draws out the implication: “Strangeness turns out, as it were, not to be strange but to be internal to subjectivity itself.” This sense of strangeness within both oneself and one’s intimate relationships is heightened by the modes of address in several section of A Stranger’s Pose, which take the form of draft emails, unsent letters, even a poem “To an estranged lover, from Sinthian.” Insofar as such modes of address aim to bridge a distance, their inclusion in the book performs that very distance. If Moussa seems to be at home with himself and his neighbors, Iduma’s narrator remains restless.
So much writing about Africa, from colonial-era ethnography to the recent New York Times ad for a Nairobi bureau chief, suffers from an exoticizing gaze. In recent years, a number of African writers have countered with sharp reverse ethnographies of American life: Teju Cole’s fictional exploration of New York in Open City, for instance, or Okey Ndibe’s hilarious memoir of immigration, Never Look an American in the Eye. By writing about his own travels within the continent, Iduma takes a different tack. And as Rebecca Jones argues in a forthcoming scholarly book, At the Crossroads, travel writing is not simply “a genre ‘imported’ to a southwest Nigerian periphery from the West and infused with Nigerian content,” but a genre with a global history. The insights of such travel writing by African writers belong in our atlases of the literary world.
Both the pleasure and the virtue of this book is that Iduma neither labors to explain the places he has visited to readers unfamiliar with them nor attempts to slot his impressions into preexisting narratives, whether Afropessimist or Afropolitan. The stranger’s pose may be the one that the writer assumes in relation to those he meets on the road. It is also the stance of his subjects, like the young men in Nouakchott who insist that they be photographed with a billboard of the president: “At the moment of posing, they make themselves into the people they want to be.”
Nathan Suhr-Sytsma is associate professor of English and a core faculty member of the Institute of African Studies at Emory University. His first book, Poetry, Print, and the Making of Postcolonial Literature, was published in 2017 by Cambridge University Press.