Saturday, 9th December 2023

Emmanuel Iduma’s a stranger’s pose

The characters in Emmanuel Iduma’s “A Stranger’s Pose” (2018, Cassava Republic Press) drift in and out of the reader’s focus like apparitions.

The characters in Emmanuel Iduma’s “A Stranger’s Pose” (2018, Cassava Republic Press) drift in and out of the reader’s focus like apparitions. They are in fact apparitions, less than they are characters and more than they are actual persons. It is a long list, the most famous of which is Malick Sidibe, the great Senegalese photographer. Majority is only considered for moments and a few recur over the 200 pages of the book.

Throughout his travels, Iduma examines the people he meets on his travels with wariness; a quality that may come from the prose and not the writer’s own personality, though where one departs from the other, is not always clear. The entire book is one long meditation in the unforceful way the reader is forced to trace the slowed and deliberate pace of the sentencing and storytelling. A ponderous and thoughtful work by a much older writer has the authority of a hard worn life, even if only confined to literary pursuits. Such writing from a writer in his 30s is laudable for its refinement but is without the calming wisdom of age.

There are exceptions as on page 125 which starts out with the pithy phrase: “the world is a small place for vagrants!” after which Iduma tells of a man’s precarious journeys through Libya and Germany for no more than half a page. The perfectly pithy and memorable phrase is installed with an exclamation mark, which insists on its authority, rather than rely on its authenticity.

The careful prose appears to have been sieved of damn near any chaff. And so, any lapses on the writer’s part, and nitpicking on the reader’s part, would seem to be appropriately petty. On page 50, when recalling a teenage friendship rekindled in adulthood, Iduma concludes that “the older we get, the greater the disparity in our experience, like paths branching away from a junction”. A “branch” is both a noun and a verb, and “branching” is a present participle describing progressive division, which is already heavily suggested by the word “path”. It is also a rare departure from elegance by the writer.

Time is a slippery thing in “A Stranger’s Pose”. The episodic stories are not chronological and within a span of a day, the precise hours and minutes are dispensed with or used at convenience. So the reader carries on through pages without an anchor. This, combined with the dreamy prose, would force the reader to either trust completely in Iduma’s accounts, or go rogue.

In one chapter, the reader could be reading of “one afternoon” in Ivory Coast, and of an event in Mauritania, in the next. Requiring more scrutiny is Iduma’s gaze on the people and cultures he comes across. He does so, knowing that he’s going to write about them and for this reason, upon contact, they’re fastened to his narrative mechanism. They are felt, sized and weighed at will. Depending on the emotional reader, this could be confusing.

On returning to Dakar (no time is given), Iduma notices his shoes had been worn by someone other than himself and were now “whitewashed and ashen”. He then recalls a shoe-related event from “several years prior” in Addis Ababa where the author forms a tentative relationship with a young boy. He buys a pair of shoes for the kid on the day he was to leave, a “gift of convenience” even when there was no way for him to “ascertain if the shoes were needed, or worn.”

Of the 200 pages of the book, over 40 are reserved for photographs. Across the lot, the author is often wearing a ‘daraa’ — a white, loose-fitting garment for men – but increasingly, in the last third of the book, there are photos of the people he meets on his journeys through countries that include Mali, Senegal and Mauritania. Iduma does not posit radical, new ideas on photography as art forms on page 26; he offers a way of theorizing the practice which he says “combines precision with an element of indeterminacy”. This is impressive enough but 6o pages later, the author recounts a conversation between a photographer and a writer who reacts to the former’s description of photo-taking as an “indecisive moment” that cannot be “calculated, predicted or thought about.”

Much of the power of “A Stranger’s Pose” comes from the interplay of good prose and artfully, artless photographs. The words in black ink over beige paper and austere black and white photographs have cumulative effect, not dissimilar to that of a serious and academic publication. Time and again, what takes one’s breath away is the truly, graceful writing.

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