Contemplation Is African: A Conversation With Teju Cole

Teju Cole
Teju Cole

Born forty-three years ago in Michigan, United States of America, Teju Cole was raised in Lagos until he was seventeen when he left Nigeria for Kalamazoo College where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1996. He later did his graduate studies in Art History at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and Columbia University, New York. Teju Cole’s writings and photography are erudite, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. Important to him are formidable writers like James Baldwin, John Berger, Wole Soyinka, Aleksander Hemon, Derek Walcot and V.S. Naipaul. He understands how Literature works. The canvass of his imagination is wide and broad. His images are lucid, enchanting, robust, richly textured and inspiring. This writer is on fire, but he doesn’t advertise it, which makes him dangerous. To read Teju Cole is to read a high-minded writer with fascinating turns of phrase. He is the author of Every Day is for the Thief, Open City, Known and Strange Things, and Blind Spot. Based in Brooklyn, New York City, he writes on photography for The New York Times magazine. He has also written for The New Yorker, Granta, The Guardian of London, Transition, Next on Sunday, among other publications. Cole has given lectures, readings and interviews on various platforms across the world. In 2015 he won Windham—Campbell Literature Prize. His novel, Open City has won Time magazine’s Best Book of the Year award and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. On Sunday July 29, 2018 at The Jazzhole, Ikoyi, Lagos, Teju Cole had a conversation with Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor of TheNEWS and PM NEWS, the last four questions of which were from the audience, even as these were moderated for clarity and precision. For a start, he read in full a non-fiction narrative, “Water Has No Enemy”, an essay he published in Granta magazine, number 124, recounting an encounter with Lagos in 2012. The audience obviously enjoyed it as well as the following conversation:

Ajibade: Some of those who read that Granta essay on Lagos and your novella, Every Day is for the Thief accused you of Afro-pessimism. What is your response to their accusation?

Cole: I stopped worrying about that stuff a while ago. I think we do have a responsibility to project stories in their complexities. We do the best we can. And when you’ve put all the layers into the story, you go back and put another two or three more layers because you never quite get enough complexity. But when writing also, you cannot cater to the concerned trolling of people who don’t really care. I mean people speak out of their bitterness, and so the first responsibility is to do the best pieces of writing – have them stand by themselves.

Commentary is cheap and easy and it’s hugely abundant. So it worries me a lot less now. This story, for example, is part of the material I’m working on as I think of a long form of non-fiction about Lagos, but I’m very much in doubt about whether this is the direction I want to take it in. Do I think it works as a piece that I want to do an entire book on, about Lagos? It could work but I feel a greater sense of responsibility to continue pushing myself to what I can try to do with language.

Yes, the story is coherent; I think it’s complete, but it’s dissatisfying to me, which leads to my own criticism because no one can critique my work more stringently than I critique them myself and, very often, more than an accurate critic. Categories like Afro-pessimism are just a little bit empty, sometimes. Lagos is shit; people really suffer, so we are not going to paint a picture that makes it look rosy. But on the other hand, when you acknowledge that Lagos is shit but it’s our Lagos, and we take care of each other a little bit, that’s also largely a relief. If you do something that has many layers and some people just have a tag-line to describe it, then they are not talking about you. They are talking about themselves.

I think every book I’ve written, fiction or non-fiction, has been about people who are inside their own process, their own thoughts. That’s my natural inclination… There’s something a little bit quieter but I think it’s also important to convey to our general readership, our general audience, that exuberance is African; contemplation is African…being a heady intellectual, that’s African as well.


Ajibade: On page 233, chapter 20 of Open City, Julius the narrator concludes a paragraph with the following statement: “Names matter. Everything has a name.” How do the names you give your characters matter in your fiction? In other words, how do the names of your characters help the flow of your narratives?

Cole: When I sit down to write, I do very much try to account for every last possibility. In a way, you write your book well enough that if a graduate student decides to study it, there are things that are buried inside. I try to account for every eventuality and layers in the narrative. I put in symbols and metaphors. I drop something in chapter two, I take it up again in chapter 19, and I do a really tight weave. But what talking a lot about my work has taught me is that you cannot anticipate every eventuality; you cannot plan for everything. You can think of it all – 90 per cent of it might be specific and calculated and significant but, strangely enough, not everything signifies.


The narrator in Every Day is for the Thief is unnamed because I was much more interested in inhabiting the consciousness of that narrator but in Open City, what was important for me was to have Julius bear the same name as his mother. So, his mother’s name is Julianna and his is Julius. Now that you mention it, it occurs to me that I named her Julianna because my grandmother’s name was Julianna but their family name is Ajibade, which is something I picked randomly. It barely shows in the book; it’s mentioned maybe once in the book. But also in the process of creating a fictional character, even if it’s not sci-fi or fantasy, you are still engaging in world building; you are creating a coherent and believable environment around something that’s actually invented, which means there’s a lot of backend materials that doesn’t make it into the work.

I had a very robust biography for Julius, even if the book just ended up largely occupying his everyday thinking but I had a back story for him. I had a base built for him and all of that. You know, Julius was born on January 23rd, 1975 but none of that shows up in the book but I need to know, and you need to suspect that I know it, so that you read it and say, Oh is it biographical?, and I can say no.

Ajibade: In “Languages Inhabited: Teju Cole’s Favourite Albums” published in The Quietus of August 24, 2016, you write: “A few years ago I was asked to name the best novel of Lagos and without hesitating I said it would have to be Fela’s complete discography. He earthed the lighting of our contemporary life.” Could you expatiate on this confident assertion? Are you saying that the complexity of Lagos hasn’t been captured in our literature?

Cole: A lot has been written about Lagos. I read them and I learn a lot but I don’t think I read any of them and say, viscerally this is Lagos. Lagos is a visceral place; it’s intense and it’s not just intense, it’s multi-vocal and incessant. Lagos also has a rawness to its edges that refuses to lay still or be smoothened out. Fela captures a lot of that in his music. If you look at Lagos on a macro scale, it’s struggle. If you come down to a micro level, inside one person’s room, it’s also a sort of struggle, and it’s all woven into Fela’s music, very hard to do in literature.

Fela is ferociously musical. Yet, maybe with the exception of Koola Lobitos, there was something that was incessantly rough about his music. He was a master musician, he was a gifted theorist of music, he was one of the great arrangers of our time, his harmonic sensibility has not been surpassed in Nigeria, but he made something that was extra excessive. When you sit down and listen to 30 minutes of “Beast of No Nation” or that liquid groove of “Look and Laugh”, you get the closest thing that comes to this experience I’m trying to describe: there’s optimism in it, there is refusal, and there is irreverence – Fela in a constantly defiant mood. There’s political courage. I mean Fela would say, ‘Oh our situation is too important to be singing about love; my music is for revolution’, except his music was just pure sex! And I think it is that completeness of it that fascinates me endlessly. I’m not trying to be controversial but I don’t really think that we’ve had a genius his equal in any field. The rest of you can compete for Number 2; I think he is Number 1 by far.

Ajibade: What is the relationship between your fiction and photography? You say in the preface to Known and Strange Things, that the book “favours epiphany.” Would it be right to say that your photography also favours epiphany? Why do you call your photo book Blind Spot?

Cole: I should say that in preparing for this event and planning to be here today, I didn’t realise that I was going to be in conversation with Kunle Ajibade, and it’s an honour and a privilege. The thought you have given to all of these, I’m very moved by it. So, thank you very much. It also means that I thought I was just going to be coasting along here with my bullshit and not actually answer questions. Now, I have to think.

There’s this belief that there’s grace in the middle of the harshness. I’m never going to write self-help book that’s going to tell you how to make lots of money or that everything is going to be fine but I think I will always write the kind of work that embeds a challenge inside of the story: there’s always something inside that’s saying he too is also human.

Epiphany I will describe as the sudden and unplanned moment of lift that interrupts everyday life. It’s just so important to the way I live my life. It’s one of the great consolations of life that, out of the everyday, something can catch you off guard and blow your heart open. It could be a line of portrait; it could be a piece of music; usually it’s not an entire piece of music. It’s one turn inside the song and your emotions, you just go phew. It could be a very beautiful gesture, it could be an exchange between two people. It could be looking directly into somebody’s eyes but the possibility that, out of the harsh material of the everyday, that grace can exist. I see it beyond politics, argument, information, narrative, my gender, my race, beyond all of that stuff.

There’s this belief that there’s grace in the middle of the harshness. I’m never going to write self-help book that’s going to tell you how to make lots of money or that everything is going to be fine but I think I will always write the kind of work that embeds a challenge inside of the story: there’s always something inside that’s saying he too is also human. There’s grace here, there’s beauty here, and there can be elegance here. To go back to Fela, for a second, you’d imagine something like “Coffin for Head of State.”

Probably my second favourite Nigerian musician is Sunny Ade. And Sunny Ade is in a completely different direction, right? But as a master of the mellifluous tune, Sunny would never do “Coffin for Head of State”, why would he? When you consider a song like “Coffin for Head of State”, which is so pained, so bitter, so irreverent, so heartbroken – this is a song that is entirely concerned with grief and anger, and there’s still a groove. And it’s still beautiful. Why should your grief and anger still have a beautiful tone to it? For me, that’s the role that epiphany plays in our lives.

Blind Spot is so titled because it’s about all the things that we miss as we go through life: the buried histories that we disregard. But also, the idea that, again, something can bloom out of that, that can expand your awareness of several city blocks all of a sudden.

Ajibade: Solitude is a subject that interests you a lot as a writer and as a reader. In 2011 you wrote a piece in The Guardian where you listed your top 10 novels of solitude and you wrote about being drawn, not only to extreme isolation but apparently to well integrated individuals who nevertheless spend most of their times in their own thoughts. Could you explain your understanding of solitude as a transformative, creative force?

Cole: It’s a very delicate dance that you do between loneliness and aloneness. The desire to be by yourself and process your own thoughts and yet the heavy psychological toll that you can get from being too alone or for not having company when you want it. And it’s a kind of dangerous dance because if you go too far into being alone, then you can sort of tip over. I think every book I’ve written, fiction or non-fiction, has been about people who are inside their own process, their own thoughts. That’s my natural inclination. I have talked about Fela a bit already – that’s a master extrovert, and in my work, that’s not really my style.

There’s something a little bit quieter but I think it’s also important to convey to our general readership, our general audience, that exuberance is African; contemplation is African; being a good dancer is African; being a heady intellectual, that’s African as well. To just say all of these is part of what we do so that somebody doesn’t just look at our work and say why are your photographs so quiet, is it really African? No, everything belongs. You know that thing that football commentators always do. You could have a footballer with the most sublime first touch, incredible elegance, vision and results, and the commentators would say, yes, he’s a big lad, strong, physical, African. We are always physical. Michael Essien had a tireless engine – he was basically a brain on two legs, but he never got credit for all that. Makelele, the greatest midfielder of all time, never got credit as much as the other Galacticos. And it was always as if his game was so physical, but there was nothing physical about his game.

The opportunity of being read by somebody you really admire is not enough reason that your work is ready yet. My word of encouragement therefore is: be ready. Don’t think if this person reads my work, then I’m made. No, your work is going to make you. And if you are fortunate enough for them to read your work after it has reached that level, then things can come together.

I think there’s also a role that contemplation – being reserved but dangerous – plays in the message we also give to the world. It’s what is called opacity – the idea that people who are in the minority have a right to their opacity. They don’t have to explain themselves to you; they have a right to their own moods, their own darkness. We are allowed to be in the shadows, if we wish. I won’t really call it an agenda but, for sure, it’s an inclination for me. But it’s an inclination I foster because not performing what’s expected of an African photographer, what’s expected of an African writer, is very important to my sense of liberty.

Ajibade: Seamus Heaney, one of your favourite poets, once said of his poetry: “I like the in-betweenness of up and down, of being on earth and of the heavens. I think that’s where poetry should dwell, between the dream world and the given world…” Don’t you think your preference for Esu as a metaphor is pretty much similar to Heaney’s likeness of in-betweenness?

Cole: I’m a big fan of Esu. A big fan. I think that we had cultural insights that we had arrived at, that colonialism has made us repudiate and be ashamed of. White supremacy and colonialism are attempts at a kind of mental genocide. It’s an attempt to obliterate and to extinct; and make it sub-zero tolerance for systems of thought that don’t fit into what the colonial or imperial power brought in. And this is the time to start recovering a little bit at a time and so when I talk about local insights I’ve not become evil or fetish. I’m saying there are insights that were here; there were ideas about how to be an integrated and complete human being and how to be good to each other and we have chosen to formally repudiate all of that stuff because some white men came with a book.

Esu is particularly helpful because after 25 years in the U.S., my English is pretty good but it is not quite enough as an agency. I write in English. I do a lot of reading in it, but it’s not enough for all the thinking I want to do. It’s actually really bad when it comes to potentiality in the in-betweenness that serves as a flow station for possibility. And I find that I miss the spaces of potentiality, ambiguity, cross-purposes – I miss it almost like missing a vitamin. And it’s only in the great poets that you see glimmers of this pre-modern European world. In a great poet like Seamus Heaney, that’s also something that’s present in a poet like Emily Dickinson but it is also present when Wole Soyinka is writing about Yoruba cosmology, so that the proper function of art becomes what the artist is able to preserve on behalf of the generality and against regressive forces like capitalism. Capitalism is not going to tell you about ambiguity. To sell you the shit you don’t need, that’s all it cares about. As logic for living my life, I decided not to be afraid of other spaces; I decided to actually live in a space of ambiguity.

Ajibade: Philip Roth was once asked in an interview just before he died to name writers he really enjoyed reading, and he mentioned your name among two or three other authors. V.S. Naipaul (and his publishers) also invited you to write an introduction to one of his books. Now, these two men can’t be more diametrically opposed, but both of them found something in you and your work to speak about. I’m curious to know what you think you represent to these two men that they can point your work out in a very distinctive manner?

Cole: When you’re read by writers like Philip Roth or V.S. Naipaul, that’s not something you plan on. Let me tell a little story that I think could be encouraging to young authors in the audience. As you know, I finished secondary school in this city. Coming into my own as a writer, I would say the priority has been to do the work and to do it to the highest possible level. While my peers were trying to win story contests, submitting stuff, I never submitted anything. I spent all my time reading and writing and refining my art, my detector, so that I know if the work is good or not. If you know there’s something you need to put into the world and you need to put it into the world in a very intense and precise way, in a highly elaborate and thoughtful and committed way, then you’re going to do everything possible to make sure the work is up to scratch.

I met Philip Roth a couple of times. I didn’t particularly know him, but I was invited to his funeral and I went. While I was standing by his graveside, the service was over and people had retired over to reception/refreshment, a woman I didn’t know, an old lady, came up to me and said, I’m so glad you came. Just before Philip died, the last time I saw him, he wanted to discuss your essay about James Baldwin and he particularly liked that part and she started to tell me in detail. Now, she’s telling me this while I was looking at the man’s coffin inside the grave with some handfuls of earth on it. A couple of things happened there for me. One is that I was immensely moved. Another thing that occurred to me was: whatever thing that got me to that point, I need to keep doing it to the best of my ability. What I tell my student is, I could give you email addresses but what good would they do you? Those people have not shut down the gates; it’s not as if they know all the artists already so they are not looking for new ones. They are always looking for something new.

The opportunity of being read by somebody you really admire is not enough reason that your work is ready yet. My word of encouragement therefore is: be ready. Don’t think if this person reads my work, then I’m made. No, your work is going to make you. And if you are fortunate enough for them to read your work after it has reached that level, then things can come together. And if they never read it, then it’s fine. You still made it. Just get it good, very good. It would be terrible if somebody told me that one of the last things Philip Roth read on his death bed was my work, and I’m thinking: I wish I had done better on that essay.

The greatest event I’ve ever done in my life, was a conversation in Northern Italy – me on stage with John Berger to an audience of 700 people. I’m thinking one of the most important things he taught me is that politics is personal; it’s not just personal in its effect but also personal in the way that the necessary conversation can be conveyed.

Ajibade: When you set out to write a novel or novella, do you start with the premise that I want to write about a particular city or do you decide to characterise the city through the random encounters and rambling thoughts of the different characters in the story because when you read Every Day Is for The Thief and Open City, it’s very interesting to see how Lagos and New York almost become characters themselves through the characters in the story?

Cole: I don’t discover the form before writing the work. When I’m working on some projects especially, it’s very much a hunter-gatherer situation. You are going around and you are picking up on things that you might want to use. You have your radar up at the time and you are receiving a lot of signals. Other writers, other artists, other authors in the room will confirm this. You know: the issue of writing, making music, doing visual art, is a question of recognition. Being in the world and knowing what’s yours. If I just put on the video function of my phone and recorded for eight hours, in fact that would be quite tedious but we need incident even when the incident is submerged but, above all, we need selection. My view of what it means to enter the territory of a writer is to start understanding what’s yours and what’s fascinating that’s not yours. What’s yours is yours and you have to train yourself to know what’s yours and you’re not expending energy on what’s not yours. It’s very important when you see what’s yours to make a note of it because your memory is not that good. Jot down the details and use them later.

Ajibade: What is the influence of John Berger on you? What do you make of his two sides: the compassionate man and the very active Marxist?

Cole: He was a very politically engaged Marxist. He was a very tough art critic, but there’s something striking about the gentleness of his work. Amazingly sensitive prose writer; great poet as well. Somebody I can’t say enough about. He was a real Baba for me; I looked up to him very much. I loved him very much. The greatest event I’ve ever done in my life, was a conversation in Northern Italy – me on stage with John Berger to an audience of 700 people. I’m thinking one of the most important things he taught me is that politics is personal; it’s not just personal in its effect but also personal in the way that the necessary conversation can be conveyed. You could read feasibility studies but until someone actually talks to you about something in a way that makes sense to you and that can light your head about that political direction, you might not really get it. John Berger had a strong art background. He was very avid in art and drawing; a great photo critic. He was a novelist and non-fiction writer.

I think the two parts are necessary: Not to be shouting from the barricades all the time because at a point nobody would listen to you. For the most part, it was John’s writing about Palestinian life, about breaking bread with people in a state that was under siege and occupation that made me think, oh is it my business: Is it something I should care about? Of course, it’s our business. So, when I got an invitation to go to Palestine, I went because of John’s writings. And that’s how freedom is contagious – when you see someone that’s free.

Ajibade: Could you talk about the short text, the lyric essay that accompanies the last photograph in Blind Spot?

Cole: It’s a photograph I took in Brazzaville, Congo. That is a passage that begins with “Darkness is not empty. It is information at rest”, which again returns us to this idea that I was talking about: opacity. You can be in the shadows. Darkness is not empty. It is information at rest. A couple of things were happening there for me. One was how do you create an ending in a book? My books always start in the middle, you know. Randomly like that. Yet I have an interest in endings but it’s also the idea that the end of a book should be like a little door, slightly ajar that opens up to what’s next. There should be a little bit of mystery; a little of turn that absorbs the turn of the previous that maps out new possibilities. I believe that when you write, you have to write in the interest of precision. Because the book is called Blind Spot, I wanted to end it with vision and not just one vision but double vision but I also think when we write, we write for our best readers. I try to write things that even I don’t know. It takes me back to ambiguity and potentiality, and possibility. The work has to be permeable for possibilities beyond my intent and that’s what this end is about.

Picture credit: Brisbanepowerhouse.org


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