27 Aug My Life Would Have No Meaning If I Don’t Write – Emmanuel Iduma
INTERVIEW: First published in DailyTrust Newspaper, Nigeria.
Author Emmanuel Iduma was born in Akure and obtained his LLB from Obafemi Awololwo University in Ife and has just written his first novel, Farad, published by Parresia Publisers. He is co-founder of Saraba Magazine, a popular literature webzine and has been the host of the Gambit series on Mantle Thoughts, which featured a dozen writers from all over Africa. In this interview, he talks about writing, his new novel, and his influences.
I recall that I was filled with doubts before the book went to print. I don’t know if this is an experience shared by every first-time novelist. For me it was a very scary thing – not much of my short stories have been published online, and so generally there had been little reception for my writing, little dialogue. But the cool stuff was that my publishers believed in the book, despite my doubts. Perhaps they have faith because I was experimenting. The truth is that I didn’t anticipate the reception it is receiving because I wasn’t even sure it would be received at all. This is not to say I’m not excited, and grateful.
How does one begin to conceive a novel like Farad, how did the idea occur to you to write such a novel?
A novel, generally, begins the moment a writer realizes self-translation is possible. When you say ‘such a novel’ I’m concerned that you’re addressing the diversified unity of the plot. If I have assumed correctly, I’d say a novel like the one I wrote occurs at several moments, just as though the writer is experimenting with schizophrenia. Thus the idea is really a string of ideas that leap upon each other. Yet, specifically, because clearly there are several subplots, I could bore you with details of how each story came about. But I’m not a boring person, you know.
Let me refer to two moments that ‘occurred’. There was the feeling I got after my short story Out of Memory was published in StoryTime. It seemed to me that an element of justice was missing in the way I treated the story, since I’d written it as a short story. I decided to write something longer, what we now have as the first and longest chapter of Farad.
The second moment was in a university chapel (as you know the central plot is set in a chapel). I’d not visited this chapel for more than 6 months, since I’d graduated from university by then. The choir was singing and I looked around and saw distractedly bored faces. I wondered then, if I could render in prose, and fiction, the obvious longing for change.
I can’t help noticing a similarity in form between Farad and Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel, especially in terms of the convergence of characters.
To what extent would you say you have been influenced by that?
Habila happens to be one of my favourite Nigerian writers – I stuttered very much when we met, telling him I’d read Measuring Time endlessly. It’s been a while since I read Waiting for an Angel; I think I have read it only twice. But if there’s any comparison, maybe it’s the interconnectedness of the stories, the convergence of the stories, as you say; Steinbeck and Plutarch did something like that too; there’s a sort of that in Sean O’Brien’s The Silence Room, and even Susan Vremeer’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. So you see that what I’ve been influenced by, really, is the cogency to wrest the novel of all its conventions, the need to push the limits of linearity, of storytelling as we know it, and particularly the need to always be conscious of the demands of imagination.
There’re people who believe I’ve been influenced by other greats – Jose Saramago, Garcia Marquez. I have not read much of those guys; my earliest influences were Umberto Eco, Mia Couto and John Updike. But I consider the thought humbling that my work is compared to writers of such stature – even demanding.
Your book has been praised for the quality of its prose, and I must admit I equally found it engaging. How did you come about such lucid prose?
My brother, how should I answer that? It’s difficult, you know, to speculate on such things. I am not conscious of lucidity in my prose. It is dubious and dangerous to put that consideration above the demand to navigate the inner recesses of a character’s soul. So what I set to do, as Michael Ondaatje said, is to understand my characters; the whys and why-nots. I am interested on how I can achieve internal consistency in the universe I am creating. Everything else, including this lucidity of prose you talk about, happens in the subconscious – perhaps it is akin to talent, and we have never been successful in understanding the tangible parameters of that word.
Must a writer have an objective for writing, as opposed to the clichéd posture of arts for art sake, and if yes, what was the objective for writing Farad?
Arts cannot be for arts sake, for even art is an objective in itself. In that regard, let’s assume an objective is a preoccupation. You’re a writer yourself, and you know how nagging an idea can be, how you feel you have to capture a feeling as a word, speak to one experience or the other. The challenge we face is that when people talk about objective, they think in socio-political terms. For me, I think in terms of imagery and imagination. Because when you think in this way you are above contrived ideology. You might write about the Jos crises, but in a way that does not seek to make a political statement, but an imaginative statement.
For Farad, I was interested in the word ‘essence.’ ‘Farad’ is the unit of measuring electrical capacitance. I took that word ‘capacitance’ out of a scientific context into a metaphorical space, simply interested in how much capacity we as humans have, and how we can even be measured.
This is your first published novel, what was the experience like for you, from finding the publishers to when you held the first copy in your hands?
Everything happened so fast. I was out of the Law School, manuscript in hand. I wrote a long despondent email to my friends. Temitayo, then Olofinlua, now Amogunla, replied, reminding me of Afi, who I’d written a commissioned essay for. I sent my manuscript to Afi, and our initial agreement was that she’d offer editorial service. But a month later, when I’d relocated to Lagos, we met and she said she was starting this publishing company with Richard Ali and they will really like to sign me on. February 1, 2012 I signed my contract; July 7, I held a copy of Farad.
The experience, expectedly, is different. I joke every time that publishing is politics – I recall that we almost took a vote when we were deciding on the cover. But, in all, it’s been an exhilarating experience, knowing that people care about what you do, are willing to invest in your work, do not take you for granted. I mean it when I say I am grateful.
What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome to write this novel?
Knowing that I was experimenting with form, not knowing if I had anything credible, and incredible, to say. And then, because I’m very spontaneous in my creative process, I had difficulty convincing myself that what I was doing had any longevity.
How much of you is a lawyer and how much of you is a writer?
The part of me that’s a Lawyer, I left it at the Law School. I have never practiced Law – I studied law for studying sake, and I am surprised at myself, how I managed to know that I wasn’t going to practice and studied as hard as I did. I am a writer because my life has no meaning aside my writing, my business with words and language. If Law had such importance to me, I’d be practicing Law today. You know this is a very risky thing I’m doing, leaving a lucrative career. I am suffering from that decision already, having no steady income and all the pain that comes with financial uncertainty.
Doesn’t the Bible say that the narrow, hard way leads to heaven? Ha ha! My friend has just come from Amsterdam with a book by Hans Abbing, Why Are Artists Poor? – The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, and I am thinking of reading it for helpful tips to live a wealthy artistic life!
This romance with writing, how did it start for you? What was the wow moment that made you want to be a writer?
I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision to be a writer. In that sense I didn’t want to write. I just wrote. My father has written 6 or 7 Christian books, so I grew up seeing him write in our study room, books piled on the table, loose A4 sheets here and there. In a sense, my writing began with seeing my father write, his discipline and dreaminess, his preoccupation with the subjects he was writing about. So, my father was, and is, my ‘wow’ moment.
You have had the opportunity of being in the thick of new Nigerian and African writing through Saraba Magazine and through the ambitious and successful Gambit series; how would you define this generation of writers and what do you think is driving them?
I have recently become wary of the term ‘generation.’ Let’s assume you’re talking about writers who have only had their first book published in the last half-decade, say between 2009 and now. Is that a generation? Perhaps. Assuming it is, I’d say what drives us is the desire to push the limits, or to show that the limits are farther than we think they are. We’re not particularly interested, as my Zimbabwean friend Novuyo Tshuma puts it, in stereotyping or destereotyping Africa. Our creed is the delimits of the imagination, and how we can use new tools – social media, web technology – to promote our work. But we’re not slaves to these tools; they only amplify our secret concerns. You’ll see, in another year or two, the distinction would be clear – African writers publishing their first books while living in their home countries and African writers publishing their work while living in the diaspora. The outlook of the latter would not trump the niche of the former.
That’s what drives us – or should drive us. Our literature belongs, first and foremost, to us. We might get no western validation, but our sensibilities would still remain ours. The validation we need is one another.
For one who is constantly engaged in his craft, what next should readers expect from you?
I am reading Ronald Barthe’s Camera Lucinda, because I am investigating the power of a photograph to take hold of a life. So, I’m working on the first draft of a novel about people who are mesmerized by a certain photograph. I am also thinking of a travel memoir, written as a letter – I’d be travelling by road to Congo this September; I am very interested in being an intrepid trans-African travel-writer.
Then, of course, I’ve been offered space on Word Without Borders to work on my next conversation project, this time with African writers writing from their home countries. I am excited about that project