A Stranger’s Pose; An extended meditation on temporality and permanence
Emma Iduma has written his obituary.
Many years from now when he comes to the end of his days a young journalist recording the moment will begin with – Emma Iduma, author of the critically acclaimed book, A Stranger’s Pose, has died.”
This is fitting because his debut was a forgettable book; a clunky, overwrought and ungainly novel that failed to achieve lift off.
But A Strangers Pose, his magisterial even if not chronological account of his journeys through Africa is a virtuoso performance. It is part poetry, part travelogue and part philosophical treatise.
Mr. Iduma is in control not just of his narrative but the eclectic structure of that narrative. In reading we are compelled to travel with him as he remembers the villages, towns and cities he has been to across over 10 African countries and in his recollections, his stories segue from one man’s personal story into that of a continent. The words, literally, dance across the pages, the images come alive and the recollections are vivid, burned as if by a red hot brand into the memory.
Writing about a woman he meets in Khartoum, Mr. Iduma says – her eagerness seemed like a sprint ahead of the moment.” P.63
A Strangers Pose is a book about travel, of a young man making his way through Africa, but not as a detached tourist, as a participant observer. Travelling alone or as member of a group, he passes through towns and cities and countries and in so doing allows the places he visits to also pass through him so that in the end, the narrative is not just observation and recollection but an amalgam of experiences, if you will.
His travels have taken him to a place that is as hot as hell and it is in Africa. A town called Kidira nestling in spit of land between Senegal and Sudan. “People say Kidira, and the neighbouring Kayes, are the hottest towns in Africa, set in a bowl surrounded by hills full of iron-bearing rock.” P.121
It is also a book about photographs and what they mean. A photograph as documentation and store of memory because as he makes plain, every photograph is both documentation and meditation. Documentation of a time and a place and an occurrence but more to the point, a meditation on the fidelity of frozen time. What we see in a photograph is a moment but it might well be a fallacy without any bearing on the preceding or succeeding moments. The context is reduced to that very frozen moment.
Emma Iduma tries to capture this very essence of the photograph as both store of memory and a meditation on temporality and permanence – I pose beside the office door, my eyes half-opened. But my face, when I consider the photograph later, indicates that I am aware of how I position myself. Lejam asks me to stand beside the door after he has seen how E stands. – his stance more or less an indication of tenseness, as if readying to spring back into the office. My pose camouflages this tensesness, even nullifies it.” P.21
In those lines, Mr. Iduma captures a range of emotions, some fleeting, others recollected in tranquility, but the moment that we would find in the photograph, if we were to consider it, would be just that a moment; missing both thought and context as well as reticence and defiance, even.
In that sense, a photograph only captures a moment in which an action neither begins no ends, just the culmination of a moment.
In quoting the famous photographer, Malick Sidibe, Emma Iduma seems to present a clarification of this position – “”While Sidibe spoke, I mulled over a sentence with which he opened the conversation: photography is like hunting. Unknown to the sprinting deer, the hunter’s hand was steadied on the trigger and combining precision with an element of indeterminacy, he shot. The animal was shot in motion, its movement truncated.” p.26
That is the moment at which a photograph is made and it is both temporal and permanent signaling when the deer is shot but by no means capturing the moment at which it dies, if it does.
Throughout the book, like a man reading tea leaves, Mr. Iduma considers pictures for hidden meanings, for the space before and after the captured moment. Beginning from the eyes as he says – “The first thing I look for in a portrait is the eye.”p.109 he progresses further and recounts – “Sidibe asks the young man to bring us a photograph from 1963. It is his favourite and known around the world…In the photograph the girl was bare foot, the boy was wearing a suit and tie, and their knees could touch, it seemed, at any minute. What interested me were the smiles on their faces, and the girl’s arm, which held her gown in place; a dance of such zest threatened to reveal her underwear. I wonder what he thought when he took that photograph.”pp.23-24
Pictures become in that sense presages and auguries of something beyond the image as he writes: “In one of Lejam’s Mauritanian photographs, a woman stands with her back to the camera. The hem of her long dress is inches away from the wave-like dunes. Her bare feet are steadied on the ground. Her ankles are visible below the folds of her jeans. Her garment sways, spurred by the wind. She stands surrounded by nothing but sand and sky. Is she pictured in a vacuum? I see how Lejam might have seen this woman: a body that tells its tale in anonymity becomes one with other unnamed bodies, falling perhaps in the Sahara desert, from thirst and hunger.” P.117.
In A Stranger’s Pose, Mr. Iduma, saves the best pieces for last. In the early part of the book, the writer is observing and recounting, sharing life and experiences on the road with a reader who has not, to use a cliché, walked in his shoes.
But it is in his more intimate recollections, what he calls “Draft emails to co-travellers after our return” that he lets drop the guardedness of the reporter.
The vignettes here are poignant and heartfelt approximating intimate whispers to the ear. In these passage his prose is poetry and his poetry prose with language lush with lyricism.
“I see you grabbing your camera. I see you wiping the mist off the window, refocusing your lens. I mistake you for a sentry who, standing watch at a point of passage, has seen suspect movement. There is a man ambling on the other side, a sack of fresh produce on his head. He disappears into a film of cloud.” P.169
Writing to a dead companion, Mr. Iduma’s elegy is plangent and placatory with an incantatory accent.
“Do you remember, Dear brother, that in the house we once stayed, it was a curtain that separated the living room from the bathroom? How we ventured into the bathroom after issuing loud warnings. In the absence of your body, do you know how consolatory it is to reimagine the house without that curtain? To imagine how our bodies moved between the rooms, unrestrained as if through two worlds. I still have the towel you gave me in Ndjamena. The one I used until it became threadbare – an eyesore you said and handed me a new one…I now think of your gift both as a dying declaration and an inheritance.”p.178
What those unsent emails to his fellow wayfarers make clear is that there is still a novel and at least a volume of poetry nestling in his literary pouch.
Beyond travels and photos, beyond the book as an extended meditation on what it is to be alive and to be dead, to be seen and not seen, but above all a meditation on the temporal and the permanent is the fact that in recounting his stories Emma Iduma is (un)intentionally telling the story of contemporary Africa and Africa of antiquity. He is mapping Africa through his peregrinations. By no means chronological nor exhaustive he provides startling vignettes, snapshots of the people and places he has encountered
In one breath, he shows us that civilization as we know it is a Western construct. When Bonnevide comes to the court of “Roi de Dakar better known as Serigne de Dakar, king of the city” he offers the king money but is surprised at what the king gives him in return “Not palmwine, or charm, or amulet. But his portrait taken by an itinerant Sene-Gambian photographer.”p.153.
The year is 1878.
The contemporary Africa through which the writer travels is one of conservative Christianity, fundamentalist Islam, racism, tribalism, power drunkenness, poverty, dictatorship and judicial murder. You will find inside this book the story of Africa writ large but with a blunt pen that dulls the pain which is testament to Emma Iduma’s wisdom.
In a particularly telling moment, the author is punished at a checkpoint by a Cameroonian gendarme for smiling. “He asked me to kneel on the stones. I could tell from his breath that he was drunk. I knelt. Once I did this, he began to deride me. An important looking man like you, he said, see how I have made you nothing.” P.32
But despite the brilliant prose, the lucidity of his thinking and the lyricism of his narrative, there is youthful exuberance and naiveté aplenty. In Asaba Mr. Iduma is cavalier in his dismissal of his older dinner companion. “I can tell that for him I am a reflection of what he imagines he was in his youth. Men like him, self-assured in their idealism fail to distinguish their delusions from what is probable. He couldn’t have known that although I nod to his suggestions for my future, I am amused by his claim to know what is best for me.”p.52
While in Calabar and displaying a malformed sense of history, Mr. Iduma cannot understand why the Old Residency Building, a repository of colonial history has been turned into a national museum – “Why keep colonial relics? Why keep vestiges of an epoch of subjugation?”p.142