Interview: Teju Cole

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For all the critical acclaim his novels have receivedand deserveI suspect that more readers know Teju Cole through his writing on the Internet than have read Open City or Every Day is for the Thief. Before he took a break from Twitter in July, he regularly tweeted to over 167,000 followers (even more if you account for the ways his tweets were shared, compiled, and re-tweeted) and he's consistently done interesting things with the medium. You could say that he makes Twitter "literary," if you wanted to indicate the intellectual depth of the work he's done there: from his much discussed "small fates" series to "Hafiz," the short story he performed by orchestrating other people's tweets, to his Twitter essay "A Piece of the Wall," on the US/Mexico border, to his crowd-sourced photo-essay of the World Cup, "Time of the Game," the list goes on and on. He also makes jokes on Twitter, posts playlists, and chats with friends and strangers, but it would be hard to name another well-known novelist that has approached the medium with as much creativity and serious attention to the literary possibilities of the form as has @TejuCole. In fact, he's described tweeting as something akin to writing poetry, in that the line must stand alone, isolated and naked.

Part of the attraction of Twitter to Cole, however, is also that it strips writing of its pretensions. As he observed in 2013, the American people had been "drawn into a war without end, and into cruelties that persist in the psychic atmosphere like ritual pollution," even after replacing George W. Bush with a deeply well-read and intellectual president. "What became of literature's vaunted power to inspire empathy?" he asked; "Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became?" And so, in his "Seven Short Stories about Drones," Twitter proved to be the perfect medium for expressing the shortcomings of the literary, indulging in the macabre fantasy of canonical works of world literature being interrupted, mid-first-sentence, by drone strikes. For example:

"Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s."

Reading and writing is no refuge, no haven from the political. And for all of Cole’s formal experimentation and his obvious delight in writing for writing's sake, the one consistency in all of his work is a refusal to let Art, with a capital A, stand in the way of being fully human, as well as a sustained attention to the ways it sometimes does.

This interview was conducted over email.

T.Cole_cr Retha Ferguson

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AB: I was in a seminar discussing the death of the author, some years ago, and one of my colleagues spoke up and observed that, as a novelist, he took the matter quite personally. It’s one of those remarks that has stayed with me, especially as I’ve found myself discussing and writing about authors who are both alive and, like yourself, good critics of their own work.

TC: Anyone who writes is lucky. The idea that one will be read, whether by a few or by many, is a basic expectation that makes me happy. In a somewhat childish way, I can't quite get over the mystery of written communication. When I'm writing, I'm mostly thinking, "Some other human being will read this, and probably comprehend all or most of it in just the way I intended, or in a way I will find believable." That's what I think about, and so I really leave no space for brooding about the death of the author. The author, if not dead yet, will die. The reader will die and be replaced by another reader. But literature itselfits peculiar form of communionis a deeper miracle. You're reading Song of Solomon. That's a thing you can do. You're reading Stendhal. That's another thing you can do. I know I'm being a nerd about this, but it honestly amazes me. I refuse to get over it.

I’m curious: do you feel like you have an authority over your writing? Or maybe I should ask, do you think that you are a good reader of your own writing? At what point do you let go of something you’ve written, and allow it to make its way in the world?

I think I'm a good reader of my own work. My right hand does know what my left hand is doing. But I wouldn't imagine that I'm the best reader of my work. I think an intelligent and sympathetic critic can do as well as I can with the text. Some have done better. In response to questions at readings, I sometimes say to the audience member, "Your interpretation is as good as mine," and I mean this sincerely. The text should have some openness, some volatility, some space for interpretations beyond your own. You send it out, and it's no longer yours alone. And in writing, the dear wish is always to write something by which you outdistance your ordinary reach. The text is a telescope, or a spacecraft.

That reminds me of something Tope Folarin told me, about how he can start with autobiographical materials and events from his own life, but the process of putting it on paper inevitably changes it.

That said, I suspect that you know your work in ways that no one else does. Which is why I want to ask you about the Sebald thing. Everyone compares your novels to Sebald, which seems fine and correct enoughand appropriately complimentarybut, at this point, it’s also become something of a cliché. I’m curious both what you make of the comparison, and what it might obscure; putting aside what it shows us about your work, what do you think of the way it’s become a kind of common knowledge about you as a writer?

A reader wrote to me this week to ask whether the last few pages of the Brussels section were influenced by Kieslowski's Red. The answer, of course, was yes. I was delighted to get this note. Open City is a reader's writing, and it is completely infected with other readings, of texts, of films, of pieces of music, and other artifacts. The pity in taking the Sebald thing and sticking to it means that you then miss the Woolf, the Wong Kar Wai, the Michael Baxandall. You think you've found the one key, but the book has many keys. Also, the Sebald thing can obscure a key issue in the book: this is a narrative troubled from beginning to end by Julius's origin in Africa. It is a book about historical memory, it is an African book, it is a city book, and it is a book about male privilege. Only one of those things is properly Sebaldian. Having said all that, I love Sebald. Are you kidding me? Who wouldn't want to be flatteringly compared to one of the most interesting contemporary writers? But there are limits to it, and I'd generally rather be read and understood than flattered (or, as occasionally happens, summarily dismissed).

As the author, I’ll say that there are other, powerful, and rather clear influences, notably Dalloway and Joyce's The Dead.

There's [V.S. Naipaul’s] Enigma of Arrival and about three different Ishiguro novels, and, of course Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. But there's also a lot in the book that is, I hope, original. I'd call original the imbalance of when the "revelation" appears, and what that does to the conventional structure of storytelling.

zurich switzerland

Zurich, 2014. Photo by Teju Cole.

Those authors are all names associated with the extremely broad category of "unreliable narrator."

Yes. Though I wasn't going for regular unreliability: I was thinking more in terms of a formalized testimony, of the kind that might happen on a psychiatrist's couch. In other words, a plausible framing device for Open City is a series of visits by Julius to his psychiatrist.

I had not considered that. It's never actually part of the narrative itself, is it?

No it isn't, which is why I say "plausible." It helped me think about what could be included in the narrating, and what might be left out. The specific forms of oversharing and evasion one might engage in while talking to one's shrink.

But wouldn't the therapist be pushing him to actually explore the stuff he's avoiding?

Not in psychoanalysis. They'd let him unfold. They'd let him circle and digress. All the pushing will come from within himself. And since the patient is also a psychiatrist, he's naturally going to brood over questions like whether he has a blind spot, or come up with the a statement like "I have searched myself." He would present with that kind of self-deceiving self-awareness.

The stuff that's not included in the novel seems so important to it. That reminds me, I got a really sweet email the other day from a student who was in the class where we read Open City, and one of the things he took from my class was the big deal I made of how Open City begins with the word "and." He also told me he understood a sparrow reference in a movie.

Oh, that's great. Well, it's the little victories. I can't begin to imagine how the book functions in a classroom. I think it must be quite frustrating, given how slowly and how quietly the book does what it does. This is why I'm so grateful when people like Open City, because I know exactly how annoying it must be to those who don't like it.

As a critic yourself, how do you feel about becoming an object of critical attention?

As I said, I feel there have been some good academic analyses of my work of late. I am grateful for such intelligent readings. But I'm definitely not fond of being, personally, the subject of scrutiny. That stuff is guaranteed to be inaccurate, and it gets squalid and unpleasant very fast. As a general rule, the more about the book and the less psychologizing of the author, the better.

Among non-academic readings, Alyssa Rosenberg’s review was one of my favorites. She was one of the few to intuit a feminist commitment in the book.

That's interesting. In that vein, I read Open City as being much more engaged and invested in thinking through and dismantling rape culture, and the reproduction and normalization of gender violence, than most of your critics and readers have acknowledged. Do you feel like that aspect of your novel has been overlooked?

I suppose I anticipated this question a bit. And, yes, I feel this aspect of the book has been overlooked. For the most part, the events at the end are taken as simply a dramatic twistfor a minority of critics, a badly handled one. For me, in the writing, it was one of the governing energies of the project: it's not "the thing at the end." It's been there all along, in the same way that it's around us all the time. I wanted to ask: what is taken for granted in the matter of being a man? And since I feel that one answer is "far too much," I tried to convey that answer novelistically.

Alyssa Rosenberg had a more recent essay where she grouped Open City among "three novels that explain why it is so hard to get justice for rape victims."

Well, let the record reflect that I much prefer "think about" to "explain." But she's right: Open City is very much about rape, though I doubt this word "about."

That said, I’m also attracted to the physicality of the word "about." Even when it is used in its usual symbolic sense, I find myself reverting to the circumambulatory sense of it, the circumferential sense of it. I am very interested in the kinship of aboutness and avoidance.

But let's think about rape and justice. Beyond the very obviousa woman’s body belongs to her, there's nothing to discuss herethere's also the maelstrom of that comes with every incident of sexual molestation. It is one of the most narratively complex things that can happen in a community. People take sides, and it's often quite saddening what sides people take. But rape is also one of those situations where, as a man, your wiser self says: shut up, dude. Believe her, and shut up. Men opine entirely too much about rape, while managing not to ever say enough.

You said that Open City is an "African Book." That fascinates me! But I also wonder: does being called an “African writer” make you something other than an "African-American writer"? I ask this question only because you once suggestedand if I’m mis-remembering, please correct methat the American publishing industry's friendliness to African literature is also sometimes a way of ignoring African-American writing, or that an openness to "internationalist" writing comes at the expense of the black American writing. (I think this article was the prompt for that comment).

Not caring too much how I'm labeled has gotten me into a bit of trouble at times. Some Nigerians object to me being called an American writer, for example, as though I were shirking some invisible responsibility to be allied to one place and one place only. But, really, I don't care what I'm called: African, African-American, American-African, black American, Nigerian American, Nigerian, American, Yoruba. My writing has European antecedents, Indian influences, Icelandic fantasies, Brazilian aspirations. Labels are really a game we play with whomever happens to be sitting at the table with us. But beyond the labels are various indelible realities: the sordid processes of publishing and marketing, the difficulty of writing well, the unfairness about who gets celebrated and who gets ignored, the difficulty of getting properly paid for any of it. To the extent that I'm in the public eye, I do like to speak to those realities. I speak not as someone who's above it all, but as someone who tries to be aware of labor, systems of rewards, canon formation, and all the various problems of prejudice that just won't go away. I try to stay awake. I listen to hip hop. My dreams are not materialist but, inshallah, my feet are on the ground.

What do you think of "Afropolitan," the term that Taiye Selasi coined?

I’d think the burden would be on you to show where she claims to coin it. She's always maintained she popularized it, not coined it.

Really? That’s interesting. Is the difference important? Part of why I insist on the difference is that certain scholars who have taken the term up have very obviously erased her from the story they tell about it, even though her 2005 essay is very clearly the point at which the term starts circulating (at which point it gets taken up by folks who would prefer not to place themselves in her debt).

Her disavowal of having coined it is important, and relieves later usages of citational pressure, I think. Even if your point about people rejecting that lineage is a good one.

It seems like there's an implicitly gendered way in which "Afropolitan" is used, like a kind of bad, degraded version of pan-African, and it also lines up very neatly along the split between Selasi and various academic uses of the term.

The discourse around Afropolitanism foregrounds questions of class in ways the "I’m not Afropolitan" crowd don't want to deal with and in ways the "I'm Afropolitan" crowd are often too blithe about. Collectively, we could do better. The phenomena describedAfropolitanism, pan-Africanismare real, and interesting, and discomfiting, and for very many of us, no matter how we squeal, the shoe fits.

Yes. I was thinking of this piece at Africa is a Country, "Why I'm not an Afropolitan." Binyavanga Wainaina, Achille Mbembe, Frantz Fanon: good. Taiye Selasi's consumerism: bad. People keep discovering the scandalous fact that TS is well-off, which she keeps a closely guarded secret.

I'm an Afropolitan, a pan-African, an Afro-pessimist, depending on who hates me on any given day. I embrace all those terms. However, labels: they always apply, except when they don't. I'm dying of boredom. I always answer the question because I'm nice, but it's really, really, not one of the interesting questions. Let the record reflect that.

Keguro Macharia said you're most Afropolitan when dancing the ndombolo in NYC.

Dancing? Me? Can you imagine it? I certainly can't. You shouldn't believe everything I've written in the New York Times.

You know, you made me get past my initial lack of enthusiasm with Selasi's writing; I was kind of thrashing around in the long first section of Ghana Must Go, where Kweku Sai takes 90 pages to die, and I made some comment on Twitter that you responded to, telling me work harder, insisting that she's doing something important. And you were right!

Some books require more sympathy than others, quite apart from literary considerations. She's celebratory and extroverted in a way that challenges people's sensibilities. Whatever questions one might wish to raise about her prose style, a still more interesting question is: what is African writing? We need a poetics that extends from villages in the late 19th century to cities in the early 21st and beyond, all the way to the Afro-futurist horizon.

I wonder if we're going back to the old distinction between what circulates in print versus what is uttered in other spaces.

Why tie "circulation" to print? That tie will fray (is already fraying).

As for me, I’m fortunate to have "access" these days. I can publish in the places that interest me. And, luckily, I find the audience (in print or online) that can read what I write the way I hope to be read.

Woman in East Jerusalem

East Jerusalem, 2014. Photo by Teju Cole.

Let's talk about Real Politics instead of this bourgie culture stuff.

Thought you'd never ask. Let's do it.

In June, you were in the occupied territories for the Palestinian Literary Festival. I’m curious what it was like after that, not just in terms of watching "Protective Edge" from afar, but in how it affects your memory of having just been there (and your perspective on what you wrote about being there).

Why is the Palestinian situation urgent? I'll add my voice to hundreds, to thousands, of others who have thought about this question. When I visited Palestine in June, I heard a lot of testimony and saw many things. But what I keep remembering is two things I heard, and one thing I observed. The things I heard were from an elderly Muslim man in Aida Refugee Camp, who said, "You can go to Jerusalem tomorrow; I can't," and an elderly Christian woman in Bir Zeit, who said, "We always used to go to the sea. That was part of a culture. I haven't seen the sea in decades." That brought home, in a simple way, the fact of the imprisonment of millions of Palestinians within their own country. When I went to Jerusalem, I thought of that old man just a few miles away, and tears came to my eyes.

And what I observed, which I'll state simply, but which deserves to be laid out and argued in detail, is that the Israeli oppression of Palestinian people is not a crude thing. It is, I was surprised to see, an extremely refined process that involves a dizzying assemblage of laws and by-laws, powers, contracts, force, amendments, customs, constructions, and sudden irrational moves, all of this mixed together and imposed with the greatest care, so that the impression, from the Israeli side, is of an infinitely patient due process that "guarantees security," and the reality, from the Palestinian side, is of suffocating viciousness and the inch-by-inch theft of land and confinement of people. You won't get this from any one article, but if you listen even for a mere eight days, as I did, as you criss-cross the country, from Nablus to Hebron, and from Jerusalem to the Jordan crossing, and get an account from knowledgeable people about how the features of the landscape came to be (the buildings, the barriers, the names of things, the presence or absence of human beings, the kinds of humans permitted where and when), if you have a few hours of this landscape interpretation for eight continuous days, you will begin to see that what is happening in Palestine is a staggering offence to human dignity, a stain on whatever we mean by the collective term "humanity."

Were you following @Impalestine? (e.g.) I was struck by a certain similarity between his tweets and your "small fates," and I suspect the influence might be quite direct. But even if it isn’t, do you think there’s something about that form that is appropriate to the context? One comes to feel like everything has already been said, so many times, when it comes to Palestine, so I’m very interested when someone finds new ways to talk about the never-ending crisis, to de-normalize it.

I did follow that account (when I was still active on Twitter). Situations can get to the point where what needs to be said must be said very simply. Twitter is paradoxically not good at helping us express the most needful things. There's so much foolishness around. And it is very good about sometimes saying plainly what needs saying. I'll be reading the timeline, chuckling or frowning or yawning. Then all of a sudden, a pristine line emerges and I forget to breathe. @Impalestine was one of those who brought us unbearable but un-ignorable news of the world.

I see the literary as a modest contribution to closing the empathy gap. Little more than that, often, but that’s important anyway. There's a refuge in those thingsin poems, in novels, in tweetsthat contain no clear policy recommendations.

ALSO IN THIS SERIES: 

African Writers in a New World: Introduction

Interview: Maaza Mengiste

Interview: Laila Lalami

Interview: Miral al-Tahawy

Interview: Tope Folarin

Interview: Sofia Samatar

The interviews in this series were conducted in concert with the Symposium of African Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. The event, which took place December 2-3, 2014, featured conversations with Laila Lalami, Maaza Mengiste, Nnedi Okorafor, Sofia Samatar, and Taiye Selasi. "African Writers in a New World" will conclude with a conference report from the Symposium. Details are available at http://africanwriters2014.wordpress.com/.