Writing and The Trans-African

This conversation started via email between the contributing editors of The Trans-African, Ndinda Kioko, Serubiri Moses, and Emmanuel Iduma. We wanted to bring our thoughts on writing, reading, research, and criticism closer to you, our readers and literary acquaintances. For the past six issues, we have written on a variety of topics, exploring the visual narrative of several historical photographs. The starting point was and is history and the archive. Indeed, our exploration has gone beyond these frontiers, to explore more subjects. The editors reveal their preoccupations, which include memory, architecture, mutability of form, among others.


Moses Serubiri: Can you talk briefly about your recent writing history and how it relates to the Trans-African website?

Emmanuel Iduma: I have a fascination with the mutability of writing forms. Recently, I figured it might have something to do with my father’s work as a writer of Christian literature and the endless hours I spend listening to my mother’s outlandish stories, and how their preoccupations consolidate within me. I had mainly written short stories until 2011; stories propelled by ideas and argument rather than characterization. I guess that led me here: a writing life that intends to eclipse the distinction between narrator, protagonist, and interlocutor. My essays in The Trans-African is prominently a foray in the argument as genre, something that I might not readily achieve with traditional narrative forms. But of course there’s the gnome of storytelling hovering above each essay. I bring to this project a deep, deepening interest in narrative, with the knowledge that criticism could be the moral at the end of a parable, or fact at the end of fable. There’s also my recent writing as a way of coming to terms with Nigerian history. For the average Nigerian thinker the study of history is an extra-curricular vocation. The language of photography, in the way I approach it in my ongoing work, is framed by its relationship to historical dilemma. In fact, in a broader, metaphorical sense, the photographs of Nigerian life I write about are the remains of what has passed into history. I recall what Kracauer said, “The image wanders ghostlike through the present.”

Ndinda Kioko: I tend to think of my writing as a way of mourning, hence my interest in decay and ruins. For a while now, I have been obsessed with the memory of my mother, trying to conjure the memory of her through her remaining photographs, most of which are charred at the edges by a fire no one seems to remember. For some strange reason, this has become a metaphor in my writing, and I carry in me this pressing responsibility to remember my mother and my mothers. To look for them in the history-making of East-Africa. My first essay on the Trans-African, “The Khanga is Present,” is in a way born out of this hankering. The charred photographs of my mother inspire me to consider how spaces and objects hold and lose meaning and possibility in the dance between personal and collective memory. I want to look at photographs hanging on the walls in my father’s house and to see them, photographs that are considered too naïve, too personal to matter to the collective memory.

MS: I can say that I’ve engaged with artistic forms outside of writing. European classical music, music theory, architectural history and photography. So learning musical notation fed into my first few longer essays, which came from reading musical scores of court musicians in Buganda, transcribed by Peter Cooke and recorded by one of the first curators of the Uganda Museum, Klaus Wachsmann during the 1940s. Photography was all about light, and how light brings about form. I was also shaped heavily by my college classes in Architectural History. So, really, architecture and photography are two artistic forms that really pushed me into writing. In the college library, I found a book on the architecture of Louis I. Kahn, with building such as the Bangladesh House of Parliament, and The Kimberly Art Museum, that really inspired me. I recently re-watched The Lake House (2006) starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. The way the film engages the 19th century novel, architecture, and memory comes off as very poetic, and sums up my writing history. In 2009, after leaving college, I studied photography and focused on this idea of religious buildings. I was consumed by the idea of Buddhist architecture, which I’d studied in Malaysia as part of the college classes in architectural history. I came into The Trans African at another moment, after practicing as a critic in contemporary art. The essays, like “The Animals,” and “Learning and Burning,” are mostly written in response to the notion of the postcolonial, and to the notion of “Western Art History.” “The Animals” does not look at art at all. It focuses on scientific drawings. “Learning and Burning” assumes that colonial narratives are enwrapped in our daily experiences. It assumes that in Christian upbringing, we somehow continue “learning and burning” like that of the Uganda Martyrs in 1885. These are strategies are new to my writing, but also challenging, because they call upon for more detailed narratives, and more historical reading and researching. The Animals is also about responding to the European archive that treats the African subject as an animal.

Which writers have you been in dialogue with over the last few months, and in what ways have you responded to them through your own voice?

EI: I like to organize my thinking sources, in order to know what I am working with, and against. I believe this results from my legal education—I can’t shake off my fondness for precedents. Yet, it’s also imperative for a critic (who must be as intelligent as possible, as Henry James said) to respond to contemporaneous voices. Agamben’s idea is of a contemporary that situates people in the century before their birth, and the century in which they work. I like to claim for myself, in this sense, a lineage of scholarship that, for the sake of argument, begins with the diary of Anterra Duke, an Efik slave-trading chief of the Eighteenth Century. I attempt to find how my thinking on photography converges with, or diverges from, essays like Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” Okwui Enwezor’s essay in the catalogue for the Archive Fever show. Books like Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative, Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment, David Levi Strauss’ Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow, Eduardo Cadava’s Words of Light, Kaja Silverman’s The Miracle of Analogy, Vilém Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography, John Berger’s Understanding a Photograph. Etc., and etc.

I’m not self-assured about my voice, so it’s hard to say how I have responded so far. But I’ve been interested in what Charles Olson talks about in relation to the writing of new history. Facts burn long enough in us as crucible until they emerge as fable. I am working with separate reading lists for each essay. My mind roves, grabbing sentiments peripatetically. It’s almost always a mix of biography, poetry, fiction, and criticism. What has emerged so far are essays assured (hopefully) in their quirkiness and idiosyncrasy.

All that to say, I do not wish to trust, entirely and without hesitation, the bias of other writers. I am drawn instead the notion of world-mentality in their writing. The entire premise of literature for me, as a reader and writer, is its empathetic reach towards the other. Every writer that matters to me matters because of a certain pulse of worldliness I feel in their work. I am interested in criticism as gift, as a world-making labor. So when Barthes wrote in Mythologies about the godlike poses of French actors in the 1950s, I tried to respond in my essay on photographs of Nigerian preachers.

MS: I’ve been in dialogue with certain writers for years. Some I have only encountered recently. The ones I have been reading for years are Susan Sontag, Gao Xingjian, and Jorge Luis Borges. I encountered Xingjian at a bookstore in Seremban, which is a little bit to the South of Malaysia. I had this ritual in college where I’d take the train and try to get lost. A bookstore owner asked me what I was looking for as I browsed the shelves. I said something such as “philosophical titles.” He pulled out One Man’s Bible by Gao Xingjian and said it was an impressive book. I took it home, and almost immediately got lost in it. A few weeks later I bought his other novel Soul Mountain, and I was sold. His work is essay-like. Some have called it anthropological. I think of the way memory and writing come about in One Man’s Bible—in relation to the Mao Tse Tung regime. Susan Sontag’s book On Photography came to me after I’d been consumed with Diane Arbus’ photographs. I must have been trying to read everything I could find on Arbus, and that’s how I found Sontag. Her essay also seemed to describe the subjects of Arbus’ photographs as “freaks.” Later I watched the film on Arbus starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus, and I thought Sontag was right about the “freaks.” Sontag seemed to connect so intimately with Arbus’ work. I hadn’t read any critical or thorough prose or essay written on Ansel Adams, the landscape photographer, for example. The only other book on photography I came across at that time with prose was The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier Bresson.

Jorge Luis Borges’ short essays strongly appeal to me now. I was interested in this idea of memory as it relates to poetry. It turns out Borges used to write poetry, and he first came into prominence in Argentina as a poet. His writing appeals very strongly to me because I tend to work through poem and essay forms. In 2013, while I spent a few months writing about the metaphor of the car in Ugandan music lyrics, Borges stood out for me. I heard his lecture on metaphors, in which he says, “there are only four or five true metaphors.” His writing continues to haunt my thinking because of his ideas about fabulation, and his interest in historicizing literature. This combination of fable, poetry, and historiography is where I start dialoguing with Borges.

NK: In the last couple of years, I have become obsessed with Chris Marker, his beautiful presentation of the banalities of life through film and photography. Chris Marker teaches me how to see something as lifeless as a falling leaf as something worth telling, an opportunity for story. This has been a big influence in my recent writing as I try to explore physicality, space, seeing and movement through the travelogue format. I continue to learn from Italo Calvino, whose Invisible Cities remains one of the texts that I return to as a writer and a reader. Calvino teaches me how to pay attention to the details of places: the lives of towns and cities, the histories in ruins and people, the imprint of time on space. Ali Smith and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor have taught me a thing about language and form. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor challenges me to find my own language where what exists is not enough. Ali Smith writes from a place of formlessness, which is something I am very much drawn to.

MS: Have you published any fiction? And how has this shaped your relationship to writing essays?

EI: Yes, my novel Farad, which will come out later this year in New York as The Sound of Things to Come. I have written a lot of fiction since then that didn’t quite work, sometimes lengthy manuscripts. I admit there was something essayistic about those stories. This in itself is not a problem. There’s an extensive list of essayistic, axiomatic fiction—I’m intrigued by the sensibilities of Clarice Lispector in The Hour of the Star, Mia Couto in Voices Made Night, Carole Maso in The Art Lover, Lydia Davis in her collected stories, Lynne Tillman in Motion Sickness, Ingrid Winterbach in The Elusive Moth, Cheikh Amadou Kane in Ambiguous Adventure, Ivan Vladislavić in 101 Detectives, Italo Calvino in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. But what I sense in my recent fiction is that my craft didn’t match my ambition, and so I ended up with stories too heavy on photography criticism. While I haven’t fully resolved what’s next, I often bring in certain elements of fiction in my essays. I attempt to make clear that there is an idiosyncratic voice behind an argumentative cloak.

NK: I am more of a fiction writer. In the last two years, I have been working on my first novel, which I started under the Miles Morland scholarship. I have also published several short stories. In all this writing, I think I am telling the same story over and over. These essays are an extension of my fiction, and my fiction is an extension of the scripts I am writing for TV. I have been playing around with the idea of how stories can travel across form, how I can create in composite languages that allow this mobility, languages that are extensive enough to allow a story to find a home here and elsewhere.

EI: I’m curious about your research process. How do you go about writing these essays?

MS: I definitely would describe myself as a writer first, and researcher second. I tend to write down ideas or annotations, and quotations while I’m reading. My current reading list includes the Journal of Research in African Literatures issue on “Reading Mudimbe.” The research on V. Y. Mudimbe grew out of reading and annotating Kwame Anthony Appiah’s essay “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern” in the book In My Father’s House. I’d been thinking about modernism and culture. The JRAL issue has one specific article focussing on Mudimbe’s readings of African Christianity as modern. This probably connects also to visits to the Uganda Society library, or looking at photographs of the Uganda Martyrs. This reading on Mudimbe’s African Catholic modernism is coming several months after watching the Jean Pierre Bekolo’s four hour documentary on Mudimbe titled Les Choses et les Mots de Mudimbe, in which you can clearly see the Catholic influence on his life. I also connect this to my readings of the Uganda Martyrs, and how when theorizing modernity in East Africa, scholars have left out the religious.

NK: I don’t really have a particular process that I stick to. Each of these essays demand certain kind of work. There is of course the usual endless hours spent on social media watching the deadline approach and the late night love note to a friend with access to resources: Can I have this in PDF?

EI: I remember talking with you, Moses, about the word “peripeteia.” You rightly noted its Aristotelian origin, the sense that regardless of its usage today, we couldn’t take away its roots in theatre (I paraphrase you). I like that sentiment. My commitment to peripeteia suggests that I dramatize my diverse interests on the page. It is almost as though with this word I give myself the authorization to travel through photos, dreams, novels, stories retold, art history, poetry, and philosophy, in one essay. So I want to get a clearer idea of how you travel through a range of art forms.

MS: Oh wow. I think that this word is definitely dramaturgical. Though I really like how you describe writing in this way, as a performance. That’s exactly how I feel about W. G. Sebald. I feel like his writing is a gesamtkunstwerk, which appears in operatic form. Walking, memory, bibliography, poetry, photography, fiction. I definitely think that the Sebaldian sentence is a fine fine dramatic performance. One could think of the drama of Sebald’s sentences as similar to the drama of poetry, or a kind of intellectual form of acting. I think it is the British critic James Wood who points out the doctor’s monologue as a device in both Teju Cole and Sebald.

Do you remember when you started reading?

NK: I would like to pick a certain year and say; this is exactly when I started writing and this is why. Unfortunately, I cannot isolate this seemingly important moment. However, I have imprecise recollections of reading everything I came across as a child; from Nancy Drew to newspaper cuttings. I also remember copying some of the paragraphs I came across word by word, marking the beginning of a love affair with sentences. Even though the details of this literary journey vacillate, one thing is clear; my love for books informed my love for writing.

EI: Ndinda, I’ll like you to talk some more about reading, and of course seeing, newspaper cuttings. You wrote an essay on the collection of calendars in your family. How soon in your adult life did they strike you as something significant?

NK: Growing up, these calendars, these images in the dusty family album were always significant to me. They always mattered. But years later, becoming more aware of the world and interacting with it more, the absences stand out. These calendars, these images only exist at the peripheries. I remember a poem I read as a teenager by Prof. Micere Githae Mugo. Where are those songs/ my mother and yours/ always sang? This poem constantly haunts me. As a woman writer, African, Kenyan, with lived experiences that are not particularly centered, I am trying to find my place in the collective archive.

MS: What local writers have been important to you?

EI: I admire the work Teju Cole has done in his “On Photography” column in the New York Times Magazine—especially with his inaugural essay, on Roy DeCarava, “A True Picture of Black Skin,” and the most recent, “The Superhero Photographs of the Black Lives Matter Movement.” What’s particularly relevant, at least politically, in my relationship with Cole’s work, is that he is one of the rare “African writers” whose scholarly enthusiasms include photography criticism.

MS: I suppose the most immediate ‘reading’ in Kampala has been via 60s guitar music and recent rap music lyrics. I admire the lyrics of Dan Mugula and Christopher Sebadduka in songs like “Tereza” and “Essalambwa mu Luwombo.” In my interactions with rap musicians, I totally admire Cyno MC, whose lyrics I wrote about in Bakwa a few years ago. In terms of analysis of Luganda music, the work of Sylvia Nannyonga-Tamusuza, has been of real importance. I go back to her book Ethnomusicology in East Africa over and over again.

NK: Emma, we share this admiration for Teju’s “On Photography.” His two books, Open City and Everyday is for a Thief remain beloved. By local, do you mean Kenyan? I think at each point in my writing and reading journey, different writers have been important to me for different reasons. Right now, I am obsessed with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Dust terrified me. She found a language to speak the Kenyan silences. There is this pre-writing ritual that involves re-reading her essay in African Cities Reader, “Kin la Belle” and listening to Papa Wemba or Mbilia Bel.

MS: How does something get started for you?

NK: It starts as a sentence, a conversation with a friend or stranger. I am always taking notes on the Simplenote app in the bus. I never know where any of these paragraphs I am collecting are going. But eventually they become something.

EI: Increasingly things occur to me while I’m reading, or rereading my favorite writers. I read everything with a notebook close by, always careful to denote where excerpts end and my thoughts begin. Each piece of writing is different, though, but I rarely write anything in a stretch. I take a lot of breaks.

And you, Moses?

MS: I struggle with starting things. Last year, I wrote this essay “Which Art History in Africa?” It started when a Dutch photographer commented on the labels I had printed for the exhibition, KLA ART 014, accusing me of mythologizing the artists. I responded to her critique by writing the essay, more or less to give examples of “mythologizing” and “overtheorizing” in Art History writing. It is a problem, that I can definitely admit. But it certainly wasn’t and isn’t my personal problem. This Dutch photographer made it seem as if I had single handedly invented the mythology of African art and African artists. That’s what I tried to respond to, and so responding to wrongful accusation is one of the ways I start things.

NK: Emma, just to go back to your answer above, how would you then say that you balance your influences not to reproduce the work of those who inspire yours?

EI: My perspective is that I am the addressee intended in the work of those writers. What they inspire isn’t particularly my writing style—“voice,” you might say. Instead they inspire my politics. What histories do I engage with? What worldviews? I think that a sophisticated prose style is the least of my goals as a writer. So when I am reading my favorite writers, I am less interested in technicality, but in the soul I encounter. As far as I’m concerned a writer aims to speak to the world in a unique way, to speak with a voice crystallized after intense personal struggle. All I hope for is to be in conversation with a range of diverse voices and writing styles. I don’t think I’m answering your question, and I really want to. And so let me discuss, instead, the frenzied process of writing an essay like “Image of Displacement.” I began with recalling Kierkegaard’s thoughts on despair, and had to revisit The Sickness Unto Death. I was interested in the specific, quite spectacular gravity of despairing people, and how, however long, the arc of the moral universe could tend towards justice. From Kierkegaard I made detours to Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Albert Camus’ The Plague, and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I wrestled with these thinkers while seeing several videos of Nigerians in IDP camps and reading human rights reports on the displacement crises. In writing each essay it becomes clearer that I can localize my struggles, keeping it grounded in the histories I’m responding to, and hence differ from my influences.

MS: Do you ever reread your work?

NK: Yes. However, I cannot stand it immediately after it is published. I wonder if there is an end to writing? I am always re-writing what has already been published. There is that other way something could have been written. At some point though one has to let writing be.

EI: I reread my work when I lack confidence in my ability to finish a new piece of writing. It is best if I read it a year later. Almost always I am surprised.

EI: So, perhaps as a way to end, let’s speak about how we select the images we write about.

MS: The images that I write about are definitely part of material I’ve been looking at over and over again. The recent Alice Harris photograph that I wrote about is one I have encountered again and again in books, and on the internet, for some time now. Selecting an image is all about finding the right language to talk about it. Usually this can take some time. I try to explore language as much as I can.

EI: Oh, yes, my process is similar to yours Moses. I don’t think I can write about all the images that move me. But there are some, like Ishola Oyenusi’s, trussed, smiling to his death—after repeated looking the photograph became amenable to language. In writing of this sort one hardly gets lost in the flow, as a painter or sculptor might. There’s already a sense of what could be written. You stay long enough in the process, putting one word after another, hoping for insight.

NK: Yes, it’s a matter of finding the right language, the right question to ask. There are always several options, but it is never clear to me what I want to say about the images from the start. I knew that I wanted to write about the “new” Westgate Mall for example in “Stones and Memory,” but for a while I did not know exactly what I wanted to say. I visited my father a weekend before I wrote this and a conversation with him about an old house he refuses to demolish because of the memories it holds gave me the language for Westgate.

Image: Shri Sanatan Dharma Mandir, Kampala, 2010. Photo by Moses Serubiri