Born in Nigeria in 1989, Iduma studied law at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, and received his MFA in art criticism and writing from the School of Visual Arts, New York, USA.
He is the author of the travelogue A Stranger’s Pose (2018), which was longlisted for the 2019 Ondaatje Prize. His nonfiction and criticism have appeared in Aperture, Art in America, Artforum, Granta, n+1, the New York Review of Books, the Yale Review, and other publications.
He was the inaugural recipient of the AICA-USA Irving Sandler Award for New Voices in Art Criticism and was awarded an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and the C/O Berlin Talent Prize for Theory. In 2020, Iduma was recognized in Apollo International Art Magazine’s “40 under 40 Africa” for the broad social impact of his work.
His latest book, I Am Still With You, a memoir on the aftermath of the Nigerian civil war, was published in 2023 to wide acclaim, and has been featured on best-of lists by The New Yorker, TIME, Boston Globe, Vulture, and The Republic. In 2022, Iduma was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize in the nonfiction category.
He is married to the writer Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀.
Congratulations on your latest book. For me, your book is more than just a search into the past of a people; it’s closure, it’s finding peace. It’s a deeply personal story for you. One year after, so far, how’s been the reception for I Am Still with You?
It’s been encouraging to observe how readers have approached the book, many of whom seem to get the gist of it, how the past is not past.
In your journeys through the southeastern states recollecting history and interviewing people for the book, what was your most impactful encounter, and how did it benefit the book?
I find it almost impossible to isolate any one encounter as definitive, as I tend to view several decisive moments as part of a larger pattern of discovery. But there were certain occasions when I seemed, as it were, to stumble onto an encounter that brought my ideas into focus or helped me reframe what I thought I was looking for. For instance, when I spoke with a former child soldier in Lagos, who spoke about the events of the war as though they happened a year earlier, it was clear to me that it is generally incorrect to assume “Nigerians forget.” I began to see that the question is how we remember, or in what circumstances our recollections are triggered.
I’m deeply fascinated with your idea about trauma which you gave in an interview. In your words, “Those who lived through the war have the experience, but it’s the generation who was born after that can actually speak about it. The trauma is too heavy for those who experienced it.” Often, I find authorial trauma to be one of the major ingredients in art – maybe what oils the wheels of it – particularly in creative nonfiction. How has your work, particularly I Am Still with You, deployed trauma, especially as regards telling us what trauma isn’t?
I didn’t intend to make a grandiose statement in that interview or speak in a scientific way about what trauma is. But that was the working assumption for my book, perhaps to embolden me to write about the aftermath of a war I didn’t experience. My point is simply that there is a degree to which a younger generation can come to terms with a traumatic experience that is impossible — or difficult — for those who lived through it. For one, we can square with the causes of the war without the same level of partisanship as our parents, for whom there was a clear, even existential need to take sides.
What’s your primary philosophy about your art and writing?
I’m not sure I’ll describe myself as having a primary philosophy. Writing of the sort I’m interested in begins with a central question, obsession, or idea. I make my way through writing a book wondering how I am being changed by it. Perhaps that’s the central thrust of my work: an openness to all that’s possible (within myself, and in relation to others) as a result of the subjects I’ve chosen to write.
When writing I Am Still with You, where was the place of memory for you?
The entire book is an attempt to work with, and within memory. I was remembering aspects of my life, listening to others remember aspects of my family story, and reading books in which recollection is a central activity. What makes memory useful for a writer is its fluidity; when I am listening to a person tell a story of the past, I do not assume, entirely, that the events occurred in the sequence described, for instance. What I’m listening for is the manner of telling, and what the story means to the person telling it. It’s akin to the distinction Vivian Gornick makes between a situation and a story. The situation is the occurrence itself, and the story is the emotional truth of what happened. In writing the book, I was attempting to locate the emotional core of each remembered event, and to come as close as possible to describing that nucleus for the reader.
How’s it been like for you writing across fiction and nonfiction. True, there are usually the unintentional overlaps between both. Do you think you’ve been able to draw apart those lines when writing in the two genres?
Yes, it’s been necessary to make distinctions between those genres. Even if my nonfiction – like the travelogue and memoir – is informed by fictional elements, such as characterisation, plot, and suspense, I am careful to clarify that the demands are different. While writing nonfiction, I am almost always interested in the argument the book makes, in the idea it pitches forward.
Historical revisionism in Africa literature is timely, but it’s also quite a gamble especially when writers tend to ignore more current problems. What’s your opinion on the apparent or possible overdependence on history as opposed to inquests into the future and possible negotiations of it? How do you feel history can be more progressively tackled in our literature?
For any event or experience to be written about, it has to have happened. If this proposition is taken as true, then it is difficult to distinguish between current or future problems and historical inquests. My view is that all time-periods require investigation, and that every writer has the freedom to determine what requires immediate attention. Clearly, an event that happened five decades ago has a far more settled character than one that happened a few years ago; there is a distinction between writing about the Biafran war and the ENDSARS protests. As such, history is best examined in literary nonfiction when a writer can identify the personal stakes. The question to ask is how a historical narrative is invariably personal.
Your very eclectic book, A Stranger’s Pose, was longlisted for the 2019 Ondaatje Prize. I’m particularly interested in your deployment of photography. What’s the firm line between photography and fiction or nonfiction, even poetry? Does photography cut right through them?
Photography serves many functions, including as evidence and memento. But when deployed in fiction or nonfiction, as I did, it is used more ambiguously than in a newspaper or courtroom. For A Stranger’s Pose, I treated photography as a narrative device. I made a distinction between images that served as illustration, and those that were evocative in character. That is, only a handful of the photographs depicted an actual scene I’d witnessed during my travels. My aim was to create an image-text correspondence that uncovered or probed the mood of the travel stories.
Your writings are a cataloguing of lives, a curation of experiences. You train attention on individual lives, much like the subject in a photograph. A Stranger’s Pose calls back to Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things. We read in pictures. There’s a deeper dimension to life this way. How do you manage to communicate so deeply with your characters?
I’m generally interested in observation as an ethos. Photographs, I like to think, are “nonfiction images.” I love working with photographs precisely because there is a fixed frame, depicting a scene or subject. I can do my best to describe all that is observable. Whereas a painter makes up an image on a canvas, a photographer takes from what is given of the world. Occasionally when I write, I try to think of how a picture might best represent a scene or moment, and then I describe the elements of that imaginary photograph.
Still, asides from what you’ve done with your characters, there’s always something a book does to and for its writer. You’ve once mentioned that “writing A Stranger’s Pose was an attempt to locate my belonging.” Can you share more light on this?
The book was a travel narrative, developed over a span of five to six years. In those years I lived, for the most part, outside Nigeria. On one hand, I was traveling to countries I’d never been before, and on the other, I was living in a country other than the one of my birth. Both facts produced a feeling of estrangement, which is at the heart of the book. The book ends with a scene in Afikpo, the place where my parents were born, where I write about looking for a photograph of my uncle, whose life I explored in I Am Still with You. You could say that my recent nonfiction work is an examination of being in and out of place, bookended by narratives of journeying and return.
What book are you reading now?
I have a few recent novels on my to-read pile, including Other Minds and Other Stories by Sims Bennett, The Dimensions of a Cave by Greg Jackson, Rumbo by Esther Kinsky, and My Friends, Hisham Matar’s new novel. I hope to get to them soon.