Emmanuel Iduma was named after his uncle – an uncle he never got the chance to meet. His father’s brother disappeared in the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, in the late '60s. 34-year-old Iduma attempts to find out as much as he can about his uncle’s life and death, and in the process, uncovers stories about the war. As he journeys across city after city in the former Biafra region, he reconnects with relatives, and visits sites that once held significance during this not-too-distant time in Nigeria’s past.
Iduma, who trained as a lawyer before becoming a writer, shares his findings in his memoir, I Am Still With You, which was released on February 21st. The book is about the war, to be sure, and the necessity of remembering what happened between Nigeria and the secessionist state of the Republic of Biafra, during which over a million people were reportedly killed. As he writes in the book, “My family’s loss is not just our loss, perhaps a third of Biafran families could speak of someone who did not return.”
But it’s also, more so, about how a personal story is “invariably connected to an historical one,” as he tells OkayAfrica. In the pages of his book, Iduma sets out looking for the correspondences between the historical and the personal, confronting what the facts of the war mean to him. It’s a vital recollection, and one that’s all the more poignant in the run-up to Nigeria’s elections this weekend.
Iduma, who wrote the much-loved travelog, A Stranger’s Pose (which made the 2019 Ondaatje Prize longlist), has received a number of grants and awards for his writing, including the Windham-Campbell Prize. After spending several years in New York, where he both taught and received his MFA, he moved back to Nigeria, just as the pandemic took hold of the world, and began writing his latest work.
Iduma spoke to OkayAfrica about his hopes for both his book and his country.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This is a memoir about you recovering your origin name story and also locating yourself within your country’s history. When did you realize there was a bigger story to tell than just your own?
That came first – the sense that it was bigger than my own story. As far as I can remember, I always knew about a war. As I recount in the book, my father would talk about it in anecdotes or just in passing, and then it became clear that I was named after my uncle. So the war was always, at least especially after my adolescence, something that I felt was part of my identity, part of my story.
Once I became conscious of how my writing could, in a sense, attend to history, I felt there was a story there; there was something I could write in relation to the Biafran War. At the outset, I thought that it would be fiction, that I would write a fictional story about the aftermath. But I started writing a novel and I realized the story was deficient.
The idea I was working through was that the protagonist’s father had been killed during the pro-Biafran uprising, 10 years after the war ended, and, many years later, he goes to find out about his father. Of course, this was similar to my own story, and I hadn’t thought about it; that it was actually a story about how I was going to go look for my uncle.
So I turned to non-fiction. At that time, my father became ill and eventually passed on, and I felt I had to go through my father’s life and absence at that point, in order to write the story of my uncle, and, therefore, of the war. It started from the larger story, and then I found a way in which the personal narrative could enter into that larger stream of history.
Photo: Algonquin Books
You let the path you take unfold before you; sometimes you get the answers you seek, other times you’re left frustrated. What surprised you most about your travels?
I think that it would be that I had overestimated the possibility of a story. I really felt that once I began the journey, things would unfold almost naturally, in a linear fashion, right? I would go from point A to discover something that will take me to point B and onwards. It didn't occur to me in a clear sense at the outset that this is not how memory works. Memory doesn't unfold in a linear fashion. At its best, it’s circular or cyclical. So my real surprise was that I didn't get those histories or those recollections handed down to me in a very straightforward fashion. More importantly, I had to, as soon as possible, take responsibility for the story. I had to just simply dive in and go as I was led – by fortuitous encounters or just by sheer grit and tenacity.
The book comes out at a very pivotal moment in Nigeria's history, with the elections this weekend…
This wasn’t planned [chuckles].
What are your hopes for the country?
As I was saying to my wife, I'm very nervous. Because I am old enough to have been aware of all the elections since ‘99. I mean, ‘99 not so much, but from 2003 onwards. I have been quite aware of how things unfolded. It was always simply a question of two major political parties, which are usually clones of themselves in some way, without ideologies except, so to speak, the ideology of holding onto power or refusing to let go of power. I don't think anyone really expected Peter Obi to be as popular as he has become, and, for that very reason, just the sheer scale or scope of hope is nerve-wracking. Because you almost immediately see through this moment to realize that people are just really eager for change.
So even those who are ardent supporters of Peter Obi have almost, in some cases, become fundamentalist in their approach where they're not willing to even imagine that there is a good reason why someone else would vote for either Bola Tinubu or Atiku Abubakar. I’m going to be watching very keenly.
To move past the emotional aspect of it, I really hope that something shifts in the sense of political participation that younger Nigerians have. I think it has already shifted, as a result of the protests in 2020, as a result of Peter Obi’s emergence. I hope that this doesn't devolve into any kind of violence, but also that there is not just simply a sense of despair if the preferred candidate of young people does not win. I really hope that it changes the tenor of political participation in the country. I think it already has, but I want to see how that will become clearer or evident after the elections.
One of the reviews of your book says it’s “a powerful contribution to modern Nigerian history, particularly significant in an age of ethnic conflict around the world.” What would you want its contribution to be?
When I was writing the book, I was aware that I was working with history as it is given, or as it has been handed over to me. So I researched the history of the war. I went to all kinds of places, bought all kinds of books, just to see the range of writing that existed in relation to the war. It was clear to me that many people, both within Nigeria and outside of Nigeria would not have access to the same kind of records. And, not to take too much on myself, but I was aware that many people will come to the history of the war for the first time through my book.
In fact, I was speaking with someone yesterday who said to me that when they were 14, they read Half of a Yellow Sun, and didn't realize that it was a historical event that was fictionalized. They actually thought that the war had been made up by [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie. This person was the granddaughter of an Igbo family that moved to the UK around the time of the war. I was aware that people would come to my book in a similar kind of way, learning so much about Nigerian history. In that sense, I hope that it's a contribution to my country's conversation with itself.
In another sense, and perhaps what's closer to my heart and sensibility, is that I hope that it is clear that, as I think of it, the historical is invariably personal, right? That our stories as individuals or on the family level are only consequential, really, because they feed into larger narratives. I hope that that's what Nigerians and non-Nigerians who read this book get; that I am a story within a story, and my story is within a story is within another story, and it gets both even smaller and larger.