Conversation 002: Emmanuel Iduma and Adebiyi Olusolape

Emmanuel Iduma: Do you remember when we met? I have a vague memory of Dami Ajayi showing you a short story I’d just written (God Sees Backward) and you said something about my poetry.

Adebiyi Olusolape:  That feels like far away and long, long ago, but is it even eight years yet? If you had not given it, I would not have remembered the title of the story. However, I recall the thrill I got from reading that story even though I do not recall many of its particulars. The central character was a Christian preacher, right? And, the story was set against the backdrop of an ethno-religious conflict in Jos, or have I gotten it wrong?

The thing about your poetry is the realisation that your writing relied on a metonymic choice of words. You would be describing an everyday feeling, action or event but your word choice relied on substituting unexpected words for the ones I would naturally expect in those contexts. The journey of reading you meant arriving at familiar places but through oblique routes.

Your writing kept compelling my thoughts to move laterally. From time to time, this lateral movement would run into the concreteness of a solid metaphor. I think it all worked because much of your action played out in the mind of a character or the narrator. The physics and geography of inner worlds allows for that kind of thing. And, your characters were notable for their odd notions, so the technique and the ideas it was used to portray reinforced each other.

Your writing created something akin to a hair-raising experience. In your poetry, you even had more space to be unpredictable, and the surrealism could be the product of impossible settings, improbable actions, unusual juxtapositions. When Tade Ipadeola described you as a ‘young metaphysical poet’ in his introduction to Saraba’s first poetry chapbook, I agreed with him wholeheartedly, but I suspect it had more to do with the effect you created than with your methods for forcefully yoking heterogeneous ideas together.

The second feature of your prose was that you constructed some sentences in a way that the full weight of their meaning would so patently rest on a polysemic verb. I liked to do the same thing but with phrasal verbs, deliberate equivocation was easier that way, so I recognised that feature of your writing in the way one is struck by the simultaneous individuality and overwhelming likeness of identical twins. Beyond the difference in approach, I was of course taken more by the play of signification. It did not always work, but it was magic when it did.

EI: “God Sees Backward” was eventually published by Ivor Hartmann in Storytime, which is the only way I am certain about its particulars. Otherwise I wouldn’t be sure. Memory says I showed you the story printed on two A4 pages, and you read it on the spot. Those days I wrote a lot, really fascinated by what I could do on the page, outside the tedium of university life. I remember wondering, when we got that introduction by Tade Ipadeola, what “metaphysical” meant in my writing. Although of course I adopted it in the way one does a manifesto.

One thing I want to understand—or perhaps get maudlin about—is what Ile-Ife was to us. It’s incredible, isn’t it, the kind of allegiances that formed around that period roughly ten years ago. What was it about Ife? Maybe we shouldn’t be asking about how water got into the coconut.

AO: Maybe the thing to understand is how the bats became the fruit of almost every tree on campus. I think fondly of our furry friends and neighbours. All the time I was there and all these years since then, Ife is about the friendships I struck up, but tell me, what memories of Ife are your fondest?

EI: I imagine those disparate memories strung together loosely. What comes readily to mind are those months at the Health Sciences foyer, where the Internet connection in the school was said to be the strongest. We’d just started Saraba, congregated almost daily to use the Internet. All sort of characters were there. “Yahoo Boys,” computer programmers, campus journalists, guys downloading porn, etc. I liked the range of our interests. Most of us, free from the constraints of curricula, could be immersed in what we were passionate about.

And, let me tell you a secret: one of the stories I started writing at the time, which I hoped could be part of Farad, was loosely based on what I observed about your work with Gamen11. I wouldn’t promise to eventually complete it. Yet I wonder what in retrospect stands out for you from the experience of developing a web-program for football lovers?

AO: Gamen11 was my second attempt at a start-up as an undergraduate. My friends and I, we had a measure of success with that. It is thrilling to identify a need and create a service to meet that need, attracting thousands of subscribers not only from Nigeria but also from Ghana. We tried to gain subscribers from South Africa, too, but that was not as successful.

I enjoyed the challenge of being responsible to our subscribers and to my partners. I was fiercely entrepreneurial in those days, and that is massive fun! We learnt many hard lessons, about becoming a going concern, about making deals. We failed big, but working to build something that has the potential to be an institution has become addictive. We are still at it, different ideas, the group of collaborators is also slightly different, but we are still at it. If nothing at all, the experience deepened my friendship with my partners.

EI: I wonder about exponential friendships. A similar model, you could say, for Saraba. In one sense friendship is the basis on which we’re building these institutions, and what makes it possible. Yet you know that as our magazine has grown, we’ve learnt the limits of friendship. People change, as their ambitions and responsibilities enlarge or constrict. You say, “we are still at it.” Is that optimism misplaced? Is that optimism, in the faintest sense, hope? Hope is not optimism, I often think, but something bound with despair and improbability.

AO: It was a statement of fact. Our keeping at it is a fact. I have to admit, I was not thinking about the role of optimism when I first said what I said, but you are right. Optimism, or hope, plays a role. I also think that the work of building an institution requires, ultimately, that individuals are able to move in and out of the organisation freely. Of course, things do not develop to that point in a day, and certain individuals might play a vital role for a very long time but ultimately, an organisation has to evolve beyond dependence on one individual or a group of individuals to have become an institution.

In connection with Saraba, although my appetite for work has not lessened, I have often remarked that the emergence of my successor(s) is central to my definition of success in my role as Poetry Editor. I have been doing what I can to grow capacity and the pool of talent  that I hope would make that a reality. That is one way in which I invest hope.

However, I am curious about the distinction you make between optimism and hope. Why do you think that distinction is useful?

EI: I’m thinking a great deal about the work of Kerry James Marshall, who in relation to the distinction between hope and optimism, seems to think the obverse is the case. He doesn’t believe in hope, but in action, the optimism that problems can be solved. I don’t readily disagree with him, and yet I find the word “optimism” suspect. And why? Might be chiefly rhetorical. Might also be a question of distrusting the confidence implicit in optimism.

For I am responding primarily to stereotype. As a writer, you’re expected to be optimistic about success—how the arc of your “career” (a word I loathe) pivots towards reward. Instead I’m fascinated by work for the sake of it, process for what it teaches about sustaining a vision. The road is a road is a road, the journey a journey a journey.

AO: Well, whether fuelled by optimism or hope or out of desperation, even, it is important to go on. ‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’

I cannot help but smile at your attitude to your writing ‘career’. Is there any hope, that word again, that you would change?

EI: What kind of change?

AO: That you would begin to play the game for the rewards. Prizes, fame, critical acclaim, influence, money – you have to take those seriously, surely, or what use is the game otherwise?

EI: Aha, I perceive you’re asking as my friend, wondering about my well-being. See, I think of the work as its own reward. In that sense, in the sense that the work rewards you in varying degrees of happiness, I’m not averse to any of those perks. It’s thrilling to be read, to be paid well for your writing, to be recognized in a cafe while in a foreign country, and all for the business of finding the limits of language. These things are practical, basic, and squarely fortuitous. I like to think that, so far, I haven’t been doing too badly! Hah! Yet, what I claim for myself is writing as a calling, a spiritual practice, much in the way my dad became a preacher. This is where I am today. I wouldn’t be ashamed to admit my pretentiousness tomorrow.

AO: It is interesting that those who speak of writing as autotelic hardly ever do so without invoking the spiritual.

EI: For me, since I speak only for myself, I work with specific images from adolescence. Like listening to a good sermon; watching my father bent over in his study, taking notes. My secret literary ancestors are Kierkegaard, and the author of Psalm 139.

On a different note, since we’re speaking of intentions, I remember discussing with you, around the time I’d just agreed to retitle Farad as The Sound of Things to Come. I mentioned my reasons, and you were supportive, only that now I can’t remember why you thought it was a benign change.

AO: It is my practice to encourage myself and people around me to try out the new. Being a practice, I sometimes do this in spite of my instincts saying no. However, in the case of The Sound of Things to Come, the new title struck me as a well-considered choice.

I have observed in myself, and some others, a tendency to be unreceptive to change, to equate novelty with impropriety. This might be a natural human tendency, something tied to our instinct for self-preservation and an in-built mechanism for managing fear, which manifests as anxiety and the desire to minimise our everyday exposure to uncertainty and danger.

Interestingly, both continental European philosophy, in Martin Heidegger’s harping on anxiety as central to the being of humans, and US Management thinking, in Robert Kegan’s and Lisa Lahey’s Immunity to Change, seem to be in agreement on this characterisation, more or less.

In any case, I try to correct for a bias that I have observed in myself by creating a space where novelty is first welcome and then subject to a critical appraisal of its content, not dismissed out of hand just for being new.

On the other hand, the author of the Acts of the Apostles characterised the Athenians negatively, as only interested in telling or hearing new things, and I find that funny. I imagine, aurally, that author’s superior and disdainful tone, quite amusing.

The thing is to keep deep-seated biases from overcoming one’s curiosity and foreclosing opportunities for exercising one’s critical faculties. One thing I am curious about: what has the reception of The Sound of Things to Come been?

EI: The re-titling has been well received, but it’s too early to speak about the book in the mind of an American reader. Every now and then, I read or listen to people who read it in its first iteration, offering reviews. Recently someone said she didn’t think it was Nigerian in its style and flair, and she explained that in the broadest sense of what she knew about Nigerian literature. I’m curious about that. Perhaps it relates to something you said at the outset of this conversation, of my characters and their odd notions. If you’ve ever imagined an artistic lineage for me, where would I fit? What I’m really asking for is a reading list…

AO: I would say the mild-mannered relative of Kojo Laing’s fiction, kin of Gabriel Okara’s The Voice and ‘The Fisherman’s Invocation’, and sibling of Okwiri Oduor’s writing. It is a family of fiercely independent individuals and distinctive writings, so I am not trying to establish lines of influence.

I am more interested in what strikes me as a family resemblance, which is probably traceable to some unknown, surreal ancestors that all four of you share. Or, it might just be that you all get your weed from the same metaphysical farm.

However, you do not publish much fiction and poetry these days; it is almost exclusively essays. In my comparison, I am thinking more of your fiction and poetry, and mainly the fiction and poetry that you created up to 2012.

Perhaps I should add Mia Couto, with David Brookshaw, to that list. I do not want to dwell on this too much. More importantly, I think your writing is changing. Perhaps what is responsible for my perception of change are just the differences that come with writing non-fiction, and non-fiction is the only form of your writing that I have been reading for some years now.

EI: Thank you! Mia Couto was important to me while I wrote Sound, and I’m glad you mentioned his work. I know the change you speak about as a kind of liminality, the result of intense engagements these past few years. Mainly frequent travel, but also living and dreaming and studying in New York City.  I’m now returning to actively writing fiction. Let’s see.

AO: A promise, not a threat. (laughs). That sounds like a promise, a wonderful promise. Do you mind talking about what fiction you are working on currently as well as what you are reading currently?

EI: This month I read Nadine Gordimer’s July People, Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved, and John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook and A Seventh Man. I’m currently reading Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother, Mahtem Shefraw’s Fuchsia, and Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons. Last month, I read Andrés Neuman’s How to Travel Without Seeing, Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark, Isabelle Eberhardt’s In the Shadow of Islam, and The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. There’s a lot of fiction queued up, for most of next year.

Could I speak instead of the manuscript I just sent to a publisher? A book of travel stories, also a book of dreams, also a book of real and imagined encounters, also a book of narrative essays, and a book which, as Claudia La Rocco once pointed out to me, autobiography becomes a porous container. I think it’s fiction, partly. I think it’s art criticism. And it’s the most fulfilling manuscript I’ve worked on yet. I’m excited to share it.


An excerpt from Emmanuel Iduma’s novel ‘The Sound of Things to Come’ is available to read here.


Emmanuel Iduma
Emmanuel Iduma

Emmanuel Iduma, a writer and art critic, is the author of The Sound of Things to Come, a novel which was first published in Nigeria as Farad.

Adebiyi Olusolape

Adebiyi Olusolape is the Poetry Editor of Saraba Magazine, and Managing Editor of Wawa Book Review.