The Quest to Uncover a Disappearance in the Biafran War

In his memoir "I Am Still with You," Emmanuel Iduma returns to Nigeria to search for the uncle he never knew

Soldiers in the Nigerian Civil War, image via Wikimedia Commons

When Emmanuel Iduma was growing up in Nigeria, he learned little officially in school about the Biafran War, the civil war that split the country along ethnic lines between 1967 and 1970 when the secessionist Republic of Biafra declared its independence from Nigeria. Nor was the conflict talked about much at home, despite its great personal impact. 

“I have no account of the daily grind of my grandparents as they maneuvered to survive the invasion of our hometown. Most of my family’s war stories are hidden from me, as though repressed so long ago they now seem canceled out. I know only this sliver of fact: everyone in my father’s immediate family, except my uncle Emmanuel, returned from the war,” he writes in I Am Still with You: A Reckoning with Silence, Inheritance, and History, an expansive book in which he journeys through Nigeria in search of this lost namesake—at once an intimate memoir, a political reckoning, and a study in the creative process as it intersects with a country’s complex history.

Iduma returns to Nigeria, after a time in New York, to find Lagos erupting with the #EndSARS protests against police brutality. His father has recently died, and his search for the uncle he never knew—across familial hometowns and university libraries, monuments both mundane and overflowing with memory—is imbued with echoes of love and grief for a father’s long-lost brother, and a writer’s recently passed father.

Through a skillful structure and expressive prose, I Am Still With You brings together probing philosophical questions about inheritance, cogent historical and political concerns, and an exploration of the reverberations between personal and collective loss. Finally, the book is about the uneven process of discovery amid the certainty of unanswered questions. “Once it was clear how little there was to know about my uncle,” Iduma writes, “I realized I barely knew what I sought. Hence, chance encounters—not a prepared list of interviews and survivors—were my only approach to the aftermath of the war, my need to learn what I could from a slantwise perspective.” It is this perspective—inventive, tender, and all its own—that gives Iduma’s book such power.

I first met Iduma not long before he planned to return to Nigeria, when I was an editor at the New York Review of Books and we worked together on his writing. I emailed with Iduma about what stories and identities we inherit, love and loss in I Am Still With You.

Lucy McKeon: We worked together on the 2019 essay that was a precursor to I Am Still With You, and I’m struck, rereading it now after reading your book, by how a philosophical kernel of the book was already fully there in the essay: what is the meaning of a life when one dies so young and leaves nothing behind, like the flash of a meteor’s light? And what is inherited? I wonder if you can say more about what this question meant to you, then and now.

Emmanuel Iduma: At the outset, and up to the point of writing that essay, I was quite interested in the notion of brief presences. But in working on the book, I found it increasingly dissatisfying to designate a life in such terms. My uncle’s life was, as far I know, brief. But what could it mean to uncover a sense of his ambitions, to uncover the meanings of his person, to trace and flesh out that brevity? 

LMcK: And what do you feel you learned, as a writer, along that journey of discovery?

Since the war ended more than 50 years ago, how do we remain impacted by its catastrophes?

EL: While I researched the book, almost everyone I spoke with recalled a mere handful of details about my uncle. In that sense memory was a blind docent. And yet, a docent it was, leading me to a greater understanding of my family’s past. It wasn’t so much an evolution in my sense of self as a deepening, and even that in a way that didn’t eventually seem cathartic or therapeutic. I felt that I now understood how my identity was not only shaped by the war (and disappearance of my uncle), but also by my attempt to discover the extent of that loss. And so, regardless of how much anyone in my family could remember, by writing the book, I sketched out the terms through which I can now engage, and be at peace with, the unknown.

LMcK: Speaking of inheritance, the book is a beautiful tribute to your late father. It is also a meditation on familial relation: fathers and sons, and brothers, both biological and chosen. Was your search for your uncle Emmanuel always also a gesture toward your father?

EI: Yes, the book is, in every sense, a way to honor my father. His passing gave the book its urgency. I wanted to understand how he mourned his brother, how his brother’s absence shaped him. Considering him in retrospect meant that I made meaning out of his life as it related to mine. This was a form of consolation. I am aware that, as Peter Gizzi writes in a poem, conversing with the dead is the “most honest definition of silence.” Yet I came to my father’s life from what I made of it in his absence, and hopefully every word is one in which I pay homage to his fortitude and spirituality. And yes, since it is a search for my father’s brother, it seemed necessary for me to conceptualize brotherhood as extending from one generation to the next.

LMcK: You’ve returned to Nigeria recently when, in October 2022, the #EndSARS movement launches against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad’s police brutality; and you’re very near, and at one point join, the Lagos protests. You’re also, for the book, amid processing the legacy of the Biafran war and investigating continuing pro-Biafran agitation. Can you say a bit about the fascinating relation between the two political movements and moments, one of many aspects of the book that give it a kind of full-circle feel? 

EI: Each generation in Nigeria has had its political awakening. The Biafran war was such a moment for the post-independence generation. It was difficult, perhaps even impossible, for those in the Biafran region not to take a side. The same can be said of the EndSARS protests: my understanding was that the key actors in the leaderless movement were those born in the mid-to-late ‘90s. I don’t intend, with this comparison, to trivialize the acuteness of the war, or to mischaracterize it as similar to the experience of being on the street in protest. Yet it was clear to me while I wrote the book—particularly since that opening section was written after completing two drafts—that the real failure of imagination would be to avoid a reckoning with the histories that led, in part, to the protests. My sense is that political reckonings are cyclic in nature—an event sparks a reaction, a reaction leads to a flashpoint, again and again. It felt necessary to connect those flashpoints, to insist that it would be nearsighted to think in pockets of events.

LMcK: Names are central to the book, most obviously in the fact that you are your lost uncle’s namesake, but in other subtle and surprising ways as well (of your father’s many names you consider “what name his identity was staked at the beginning of his life”). Have you always felt close to your name, and did writing this book change how you identify with it? 

Each generation in Nigeria has had its political awakening.

EI: My father had two endearing names for me, “Nwannennaya,” and “Ezeali.” The former, as I mention in the book, translates as “father’s brother.” And the latter is the name of my maternal grandfather, since in my hometown the second son is called thus. In my early adulthood, I grew fonder of those names, especially knowing that my father, in using either name, was deliberate in his affection. In writing I Am Still With You, I hoped to work out, at least theoretically, what it meant to inhabit the identities of both my uncle and mother’s father, both of whom I know little about. 

LMcK: We share an interest in photography (and I would just plug your wonderful newsletter on African photography, Tender Photo, here!), and photos are central to I Am Still With You, both in the literal sense of Romano Cagnoni’s reproduced image of men training for the Biafran army and Priya Ramrahka’s early death, as well as your hunger for family photos—but also in your idea of “afterimages,” often appearing in dreams, “the climax of my engagement with the trauma handed down to me,” you write. How did, and do, images guide your process?

EI: When I write about photographs, I am looking for a piece of speculation in my reading of the image that can hint at an idea greater than the sum of the event that led to the photograph being taken. And yet I do not say this to mean that facts aren’t important, or that it is unimportant to state the basic details of where, when, and in what context a photograph was taken. I take those as starting points. 

Now that I think of it, my initial attempt to write about the war, several years ago, was through photographs. I had the idea for something akin to Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer, a journal of photographs collected from various sources. But unlike Brecht, who wrote poems, I planned to write short texts in relation to each image. The core of that idea was carried over to my book, which was to consider photographs as central to any speculative reach for the past. Cagnoni’s photograph became the quintessential expression of such a method, in the sense of its invocation of a sea of pensive men going to war, and in the sense that each face can represent a distillation of an unknown fate. 

LMcK: What was it like to return to Lagos after your time away?

EI: I returned to Lagos just before the pandemic began, so I spent 2 years living largely in the quiet of our home, visiting only a select group of friends, most of whom weren’t writers. I think this has helped me understand Lagos and Nigeria less as a place where I had to be a writer, but where I had to make a life. I didn’t return to Nigeria because I wanted to change anything about my writing life, but because I wanted to be closer to my family.

By the time I was leaving New York – and I wouldn’t think of it this way at the time – I was thankfully plugged in to a network of editors and fellow writers, which is now global. I have received a steady stream of commissions, mostly to write about art. It would have been difficult to make a living on these terms in New York, given the cost of living, but in Lagos it has been possible.

In Lagos, I have sought to imbue my work with a character and mood that hews closer to narrative than to art criticism. In one sense, this comes out of writing a memoir that has little to say about art or visual culture. I’m still at the early stages of probing that transition from criticism to narrative—or finding a middle-ground between both—but I also think it is my attempt to propose my work to a “mainstream” audience, outside restrictions of predilections or expertise.

LMcK: Can you say a bit about how the Biafran War has been written about in the past, and how this history perhaps influenced your own writing about the war?

EI: There’s, in fact, a good number of literary works about the Nigerian civil war—one need only look at the bibliography of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which lists nearly 30 titles that inspired her novel. The other relatively recent book to explore the war is Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country, styled as his personal history of Biafra. The distinction I made, as I prepared to write my book, was one between writers who were born before the war (and were old enough to remember its events), and those born afterwards. I belonged to the latter group, and felt our task was to work out our own “personal histories” in relation to the war, and to approach it with a different kind of immediacy: since the war ended more than 50 years ago, how do we remain impacted by its catastrophes?

LMcK: How has your sense of home and family developed over time, and how do you attribute the effects on your writing?

EI: My family moved quite a bit in the years I grew up. Before I turned 20, we had lived in 7 towns. And then, a few years after I left law school, I moved to New York to study. In all that time, I returned to our hometown on occasion. While it is true that my Igbo identity is framed by this itinerancy—that is, by the fact that I have not spent sufficient time in places where Igbo is claimed as a primary culture—I have become more and more interested in using my trajectory as a spark for my writing.

It has meant that my writing has dealt with subjects about home—going and coming through several seasons. The passage of life. These themes have always been electrifying for me. What does it mean to stay away, and then to return? In general, I think a writer is as affected by itinerancy, distance, and estrangement as by permanence and localization. I certainly don’t think that one needs any form of estrangement to write compelling literature, but in my case, much of the writing I have done has been in an attempt to bridge distances between home and elsewhere, and to consider the ramifications of absence.

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