Emmanuel Iduma, I AM STILL WITH YOU: A Reckoning with Silence, Inheritance, and History

Emmanuel Iduma, I AM STILL WITH YOU: A Reckoning with Silence, Inheritance, and History

Zibby speaks to award-winning author Emmanuel Iduma about I Am Still With You: A Reckoning with Silence, Inheritance, and History, a powerful, transcendent, and lyrical memoir about his journey through Nigeria as he searches for the truth about his missing uncle. Emmanuel describes the culture shock he experienced when he moved to New York City for his art criticism degree and reveals why he ultimately returned to Nigeria. He also talks about his love of photography, the role that homesickness has played in his life, how he grieved his mother’s death through writing, and the importance of dreams in his culture and life.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Emmanuel. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss I Am Still With You: A Reckoning with Silence, Inheritance, and History.

Emmanuel Iduma: Thank you so much, Zibby. It’s nice to be here.

Zibby: Nice to have you. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about? We happened to have had a little tech snafu, so this is the second time Emmanuel is telling us about his book in two seconds in about two minutes, but you’re only going to hear the one. Here he goes again. Go ahead.

Emmanuel: Thank you. I Am Still With You, which is A Reckoning with Silence, Inheritance, and History, is a book that is based on the Nigerian Civil War that’s happened between 1967 and 1970. After the war, my uncle, who I was named after, eventually didn’t come back. In the first sense, the book is an attempt to figure out what happened to my uncle, but it’s also a book where I write about my family and my life in the way in which it intersects with Nigerian history and the current Nigerian political climate.

Zibby: You’ve had such an interesting background. You lived in New York for seven years. You were born in Nigeria, came to New York for seven years. What is that even like for you to leave where you were born? It’s crazy enough here for me to navigate. I’ve lived here my whole life. You came for your art criticism degree. Is that right?

Emmanuel: Yes.

Zibby: And then decided to pack everything up and leave right before the pandemic, basically. Talk about that juxtaposition of the two cultures and what it was like when you were here.

Emmanuel: It was only in retrospect that I began to realize how shocked I was by New York in the first place. My first, I would say, two years or three years, even, were really just years in which I was trying to survive on all kinds of levels. New York is not just an expensive city, but it’s also an intense city. You have to always be on top of things, really, in order to make it work. The first thing that happened for me was that I realized that I was away from home. All the things that I’d taken for granted in Nigeria, access to family, access to a couch you can sleep on, that kind of thing, were suddenly gone. Also, that it was a complete different life from the one I had lived in Nigeria. In Nigeria, I trained as a lawyer. My education, obviously, when I came to New York or by the time I came to New York was very illegal in that sense. Coming to New York and having to do a program in which I had to see a lot of exhibitions, write about them, think about philosophy or literature or art history, all of those fields, in a way that I’d never done was actually quite intense, in a good way, of course. Intellectually, for sure, it’s stimulating, but also demanding. In my case, a time comes when people just have to ask themselves why one commits to New York. I feel like it has happened for many people, even Americans. Do I want to commit to New York for the long term, or do I feel that I want to be elsewhere? For me, that was a very easy decision to make because I wanted to be close to my family. I felt that Nigeria had more for me, both intellectually and culturally, than New York or any other part of America. This was what prompted my leaving. It was quite fortuitous because this was just three months before the lockdown.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I studied a lot of art history in college, I have to say, and spent many, many hours — they had this whole gallery of hundreds of images of different pieces of art. We had to memorize the name, the artist, the date, and where it was from. Then we had to regurgitate all of that. I just spent hours. People were there all night. I would cover it up. This is my art history.

Emmanuel: I didn’t have that experience, no.

Zibby: That was tough. That was in my intro class. It got better after that, but still. What type of art are you most interested in? I know we’re going to talk about the book, but I just happen to be very curious about this. What type of art brought you here? What are you most interested in on that front?

Emmanuel: I, before coming to New York, had an experience, for a few years, of traveling with photographers who would travel from one part of the African continent to the other by road. That was really how I got into all of this, into visual arts. I would have to write about being on the road. I just became quite interested in the idea of writing about photographs as they were being taken. Photography is the language that I feel like I have most spoken or written about. Of course, I’ve always written about other forms of art. I feel like if I would look at the writing that I’ve done in the past ten years, most of it would really be around photography.

Zibby: I love photography. I used to do photography. I used to study photography. I love going to photography exhibits. Speaking of photography, you have these amazing photos in here. Hold on, let me find one. Although, I don’t know why I’m going to hold it up when we’re on a podcast or why I need to show you when you’re the one who put it in here. For people listening — I won’t even describe it. It’s just a really beautiful picture of men in the military facility training for the army in Nigeria back in the day. This was part of the story of your family’s history and how you were uncovering everything and wondering what it was like for people in your family, uncovering all the things you were curious about. As you write about it, as you mentioned earlier, you talk about these personal things about your own childhood. One thing I particularly responded to was your homesickness at boarding school. I have a son at boarding school who’s been there for several years. He was quite sad at the beginning. He’s gotten older now, as we all do. That homesickness, it just broke my heart. I was like, come home. I’m the worst. You lost your mom at such a young age. I’m so sorry about that. You write about that beautifully, when you were four years old and what it was like to carry that loss around with you. Can you talk about your most painful memories here now that we’ve known each other for ten minutes?

Emmanuel: Writing about boarding school was such a clarifying thing for me. I was writing about that in the context of faking this illness while I was in boarding school.

Zibby: Nice job, by the way.

Emmanuel: It’s quite vivid for me even now. I just had this strong sense that I wanted to be anywhere else — especially, I wanted to be home — but in school. I went and would start hitting my head on this — quite intense, actually — hitting my head against the goal post. I would develop a headache and then go to, as they called it, a sick bay and then get a permission. For some reason, the nurse on duty believed me and wrote a prescription for me. I took it to the administrative building and got an exit to go home. When I got home, of course, my parents immediately said, “Just say you wanted to come home.” Clearly, I wasn’t ill. I don’t know how to talk about the most painful memory I’ve had. I do think that homesickness or the feeling of being away, I feel like it’s a very big thing or has been a big thing for my writing. How do I write about that acute sense of being elsewhere, being in a place other than where you feel like you belong?

Of course, for someone like me who migrated voluntarily, it’s not as acute or as painful as someone who is looking for papers or caught between, say, two countries because they don’t have the right papers to move. Recently, I’ve been speaking to friends, people who I’ve known for years, but just didn’t know that for many years, some of them, fifteen years, lived without the right papers in America. I just found it so fascinating. My experience isn’t as acute as that. Yet there has always been a sense when I’m away, especially when I was in New York and when I was growing up and being in boarding school, that I’m longing for home. Of course, as we know, home is not just the physical location. It’s a series of experiences, including having parents and where you keep things, how your day starts. All of those things is what forms home. Being away from that always felt quite acute for me.

Zibby: How did you process the loss of your mom back at that time? Do you remember all of that? I know you wrote about it a little.

Emmanuel: First of all, the processing of it, really in my adulthood, has come with writing this book. For anyone who has lost a parent at such an early age, it’s a very confusing thing because you don’t even recognize that there is a part of you that is lost, so to speak, until you’re old enough to have the language for that loss. I don’t think that growing up, it was immediately apparent to me in the way it is now that I’m a parent myself. My own childhood was ruptured in that way, so to speak. One of the incredible things that helped me and certainly helped my siblings was that my stepmother is just an incredible person. We grew up in that immediate sense of having a maternal presence without feeling that loss. Yet, of course, as one has gotten older, you begin to think about what if and what could have been and all of that. That processing is still happening. In fact, writing the book, I didn’t think that I would even address it headlong until it became clear that if I was going to write about my father’s passing, I had to also deal with the kinds of griefs that my father would have carried within himself, including the loss of his brothers and then, of course, his wife, my mother. I don’t necessarily think of it as something that hasn’t processed as much as something that, it’s the fact of my life. I’m understanding it better as I’ve gotten older.

Zibby: Interesting. You weave in your story with all of this Nigerian history, of course. Have you read Zain Asher’s book, Where the Children Take Us? Do you know her?

Emmanuel: I know of that book. I know her. I haven’t read it, but I know that book. I know her, yes.

Zibby: I feel like I learned a lot about Nigerian history first from her. It was very fresh in my mind because I probably read that within the last year. This, of course, is a different lens through which to view some of the same sort of conflicts that she wrote about with her family and how they had experienced — when you’ve done all your digging on the war and everything that’s happened and your family’s involvement in it, what are some of the things you take away? When you think about writing it, what are the pieces of it that you’re like, “It’s really important that everybody knows this”?

Emmanuel: It certainly takes many decades for people to understand what happened in the past, especially with something as traumatic, as definitive for Nigerian history as the Nigerian Civil War. I feel that sometimes we have the urge, which has been the case for Nigeria, to move on and to find ways to keep going. In such a hurry to move on, the nation, in a collective sense, move past very quickly what should be dealt with. For me, in the research and in the thinking around the war, I just realized that there were so many things that were obviously a hangup or a hangover from the war that have not been addressed in the direct sense, such as, for instance, where are the records of people who fought during the war? Especially on the side that lost, which is the side that my family was part of, if there were records that had been kept of men who fought during the war, perhaps it would’ve been easier to figure out what happened to my uncle. Just that very basic, even bureaucratic thing of, “This is the list of people who fought at this front or at this particular location,” is absent as far as I know of, as far as I could discover in my writing. That’s one sense. The past is never really finished in any sense, especially for the generation of people who were born after. For me, because my name, it’s part of that history — it’s not a traumatic name. It’s just a simple name, Emmanuel, but this is one of the names of my uncle. I felt in writing the book that there was some kind of personal uncovering that had to be done. Why do I have this name? Especially, what does this name now mean to me in light of the fact of the previous bearer of the name? I don’t know if that answers your question.

Zibby: It doesn’t matter. It was interesting to hear, so there you go. I do like how at the end of the book, you explain it to us and what you uncover then, maybe things you hadn’t expected. That was great. I feel like dreams play a big part in this book. You reference many dreams throughout. Tell me about the importance of dreams in your culture, your life, yourself. Any good dreams lately?

Emmanuel: This is great because I think you’re the first person that has actually pointed that out. Nobody has asked any questions about that. I’ve always been fascinated by dreams. In the previous book I did, that was even more of a motif. Dreams, just as what they are, they’re quite fascinating to me on a conceptual level. Dreams are these interesting experiences where you’re neither in the past or in the present or even in the future. You’re in this state of consciousness or semiconsciousness, however you want to define it, where chronology is not even a question. You can be in China in one scene of a dream. You can be in Legos in another scene of the dream. You can know what people are thinking even without them speaking. For me, it’s always been this place of great narrative, so to speak, when I think of dreams. For this book, I hope that I wasn’t too obvious with my interest in dreams. One of the first things that was said to me in relation to my uncle was that he had been the oldest member of the family who would, automatically in our culture, be the head of the family, of the extended large family. Kept having these recurring dreams where my uncle would appear to him. For them, that signaled that his spirit was not at rest, and so they had to perform a ritual that would appease him, so to speak. This is not something that people who believe in it take for granted. It’s not a joke. Once that kind of thing happens, you go to the ritualist. That’s, even for them, how they knew or felt that he had actually died. If a person is not dead, they wouldn’t appear in that recurring way.

Also, I began to have dreams about my father once he passed. Not so much lately. In the first year, I would have all this — I think it was more of a nightmare, really. It was just the strange feeling of loss where you want to claim someone or have them come to life. The only way you can access that is by dreaming about them or willing yourself to imagine them in a dream state. All in all, how I think about dreams in relation to the book now is just how they allow us to access parts of ourself that are not visible to us. Of course, there are people who believe that dreams are foreshadowings of what is to come. If you have a terrible dream, then something bad is about to happen. I don’t think about it that way. Mostly, I think of my dreaming as a way to access what is otherwise unavailable to me. I hope it’s not a psychoanalysis in a psychological sense. I think it’s just the fact of dreaming. For me, when now I have a dream about my father, especially now after five years, it’s quite benign. Maybe we’re somewhere together and all that. It’s actually, at this point, something nice because you can see that person again. You can have some kind of experience with them. Many times when I’m having the dream, I know this person is actually not alive. It’s this fascinating thing to me that I never quite — it’s difficult to talk about because dreams are just always fascinating. You never know what space you are in when you’re dreaming.

Zibby: It’s true. You’d think we would all talk about it all the time. Oh, my gosh, can you believe what just happened last night? I had some crazy dream last night where Tom Cruise went crazy. We all had to wrangle him. I was like, when’s the last time I even thought about Tom Cruise? Why on earth was he in my dream? Whatever. It’s just crazy. I believe, too — sometimes my grandmother will come say hi. I wake up, and I feel like I’ve just been given a warm hug. It’s such a nice visit, whatever it is. If it’s imagination or a spirit or whatever it is, it’s nice. It’s a nice feeling.

Emmanuel: I believe it’s mostly our imagination, memories.

Zibby: Who knows? You never know. Life is crazy. Humans are weird. Who knows what’s out there? Emmanuel, thank you. Thank you for the time. Thanks for this hotel visit we had here. I hope you have a nice trip wherever you are. Thanks for your time. Congratulations on the book.

Emmanuel: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thank you very much.

Zibby: Take care.

Emmanuel: Thank you. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Emmanuel Iduma, I AM STILL WITH YOU: A Reckoning with Silence, Inheritance, and History

I AM STILL WITH YOU: A Reckoning with Silence, Inheritance, and History by Emmanuel Iduma

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