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A Stranger’s Pose, written by Nigerian author Emmanuel Iduma and published just a few weeks ago by Cassava Republic Press, is a somewhat strained blend of travel writing, memoir, poetry, and photography. It is essentially a collection of seventy-seven vignettes or snapshots – sometimes accompanied by actual photos – of the author’s travels in Africa, from Casablanca in the northwest, down the coast to Cameroon, then inland and eastwards all the way to Addis Ababa.
The book’s layout and floating sense of time go a long way to reflecting the fragmentary nature of travel, with its attendant ups and downs. In one passage we join the author as a checkpoint guard hassles him for a bribe: “An important-looking man like you, he said, see how I have made you nothing!” In another, Iduma muses how a traveller is always “tainted by wanderlust,” a person “for whom all restless cities appear similar in size and in labyrinth.”
There is this wonderful dissonance throughout the book: the tug of home and the allure of the distant horizon. There is the bittersweet meeting of old friends who, after eleven years apart, have become “the men who recognise in each other the culmination of teenage traits.” As well as old friends, there are dozens of fleeting acquaintances, often strained by language barriers, which nevertheless add lovely splashes of colour to the tales.
Iduma does a wonderful job of exploring the traveller’s mindset, but he also manages to elicit the political from the personal with some mastery throughout.
The spectre of colonialism is omnipresent and we can see today the choices of imperial administrators past. A fellow Nigerian tells the author: “A white man came here. He put us together over a hundred years ago. […] When he left, did we sit down to say, Okay, this white man joined us together despite our irreconcilable cultural differences? No, we didn’t.” As with many former British colonies, Nigeria is intimately familiar with the legacy of arbitrary borders.
The shadow of Europe’s colonial excesses in Africa is everywhere, woefully impossible to escape. It reaches back centuries, to the transatlantic slave trade, through Leopold II of Belgium’s nightmarishly genocidal exploitation of the Congo, and infects the present day as tens of thousands of refugees flee sub-Saharan Africa for the Mediterranean coast where “they risk deportation and the harshness of the sea, and immigration officials armed by the European Union.”
Indeed – at the risk of perpetuating a Eurocentric reading of African literature – it is difficult not to think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness while delving into Iduma’s travels. A Stranger’s Pose is an infinitely more nuanced portrayal of Africa than Conrad’s, of course, as it highlights the continent’s heady mixture of ethnicities, languages, and beliefs. Beyond this sometimes intoxicating kaleidoscope, a simple truth forms throughout the work: everyone he encounters are simply humans trying to make the best of their lives.
Some of the descriptive passages are more vivid than the photos scattered throughout the book. In Abidjan, the author visited “an old sculptor who lived with the debris of the dead: installed as dolls and skulls, propped by decaying wood,” and possessing “the diaphanous quality I associate with the netherworld.”
Given that this is a travelogue interspersed with black and white photos, there are many interesting instances of ekphrasis, which is the verbal representation of visual representation e.g. a poem about a statue. The most famous example of this textual interplay is likely Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats. In A Stranger’s Pose we are given the rare ekphrastic treat of the photographer and the author often being one and the same person. Speculation thus gives way to certainty and reality. One photo of a woman in the desert is preceded by the commentary that, “Mauritania was referred to as le vide, the vacuum, by early French administrators…” Iduma then asks us, of the woman “surrounded by nothing but sand and sky. Is she pictured in a vacuum?”
More interesting still, or so I thought, were the descriptions of some photos that were absent from the book: ekphrasis without the visual. A corollary of Iduma’s gift as a photographer is his magnificent facility in describing photographs. Some of the images he conjures of photos he has seen but we have not, are somewhere near magical for their vivacity and immediacy. The book is worth picking up for this alone.
Towards the end, we are allowed to feast on some meatier prose in the form of letters both sent and unsent to friends and acquaintances, and these are a sweet way of leading us to the fragmented tale’s end. This lovely book will almost certainly awaken the wanderlust in you, but not without a healthy appreciation for what you’ll inevitably be leaving behind. After all, “Partir est mourir un peu. To leave is to die a little.”
A Strangers Pose Is Available here
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