Interview: Teju Cole

by Anthony Byrt / 09 June, 2012
New York-based Nigerian Teju Cole is the perfect writer for these times.
‘Mrs Swantony locked her daughters, aged 2 and 3, in the house while she was out shopping in Yonkers. They found matches, alas.” Every day, one or two horrific, darkly comic micro-stories like this appear on Twitter. New York-based Nigerian writer Teju Cole sends them to his 35,000 or so followers; individual fragments of a project he calls Small Fates. Based on real stories from New York newspapers exactly 100 years ago, they’ve made Cole one of Twitter’s literary heroes. He is also an award-winning novelist, non-fiction writer, art historian and accomplished photographer. Next week, Wellingtonians will get a brief chance to see him when he delivers a creative-writing masterclass at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters and a public reading at Unity Books.

If Twitter is anything to go by, he’ll have no problem using his visit’s brevity to make a big impact. Cole’s 2011 novel Open City, like his Twitter account, is focused on New York life. It tells the story of Julius, a Nigerian trainee psychiatrist who, to unwind from the pressures of his job, walks the metropolis with no fixed plan or destination. As he does, the city’s layers reveal themselves, spatially first, and then through chance meetings with fellow New Yorkers, often, like himself, immigrants. “I wanted to hand off one thought to another, one connection to another, in an organic way,” Cole explains. “That’s why Julius has these different encounters. The events, sensations and thoughts are calculated to look as if they are random, but they are actually carefully selected. There’s a curatorial instinct driving the writing.”

Julius’s unfocused journeys, then, are vehicles for a tightly “curated” reflection on the novel’s central theme: the legacy of 20th-century violence – World War II in particular. But rather than ruminating on the horrors of the Holocaust, Julius becomes a cipher for quieter aspects of mass trauma. “We [writers] have an ethical responsibility in the way we deal with atrocities to make sure we don’t reduce them to entertainment,” Cole says. “If we’re talking about people on account of their sexuality or race being marched off to camps and killed in large numbers, that actually defeats language.”

So Julius’s narrative sets up subtler resonances. His mother, for example, is a German who was a baby in late-war Berlin as the Red Army raped its way through eastern Germany. An elderly Japanese-American professor describes his internment on US soil during the conflict. While on holiday in Brussels, Julius meets a young Moroccan with strong views on Zionism and the European project, and watches Rwandans partying in a nightclub, wondering who among them participated in their nation’s genocide. As these moments accumulate, he becomes the perfect post-9/11 flâneur: simultaneously fixated with and numbed by events beyond his control, and their effects on the lives of others.

Cole’s latest project is a non-fiction book about the city of his childhood: Lagos. “When you grow up in a city,” he explains, “you have a sense of how it works for your needs as a child. When you’re an adult and you go back, you realise there are layers and intricacies you never considered when you were younger, which are essential to how the city functions.” He also hopes the project will provide non-Nigerians with some understanding of daily life in one of the world’s fastestgrowing conurbations: “Lagos is one of the most complicated cities in the world. But in my American experience, I’ve found that it’s not even so much that they’re saying the wrong things about Nigeria and Lagos here; it’s that they’re saying nothing at all.”

Small Fates actually began in Lagos as a repository for strange, often violent news stories of contemporary life there that Cole couldn’t fit into the book. Its recent transition to 1912 New York may seem odd, but actually points to some strong parallels. “I want to be careful not to say that Lagos today is like New York 100 years ago, as though it’s somehow lagging evolutionarily; that’s not what I mean. But it’s a society that is newly urbanised and taking in a lot of immigrants. It’s not completely in the control of institutional power. Public services are poor. This particular mixture, I think, leads to the kinds of crimes and accidents that happen. It’s very striking, for example, that in Lagos this year and New York 100 years ago there was an unusual number of elevator accidents – people stepping into the elevator when it’s not there – that sort of thing. Or people shooting each other in lovers’ quarrels. These things of course happen in contemporary New York. But it has become a much more controlled environment since 1912.”

Besides elevator mishaps, World War II and Twitter, Cole winds through a huge range of topics during our interview: his love of the sentence; WG Sebald; Dutch painting; his admiration for art historian Michael Baxandall. He moves between them smoothly, bending around their corners with a combination of seriousness, irony and humour. He seems the perfect writer for these times: a polymath who can cut through the chatter and, at his best, deliver meticulously formed frozen moments; reminders that, no matter how much contemporary culture tries to wash it away, the past continues to infect all of us.

OPEN CITY, by Teju Cole (Faber and Faber, $24.99); Cole is reading at Unity Books, Wellington, June 11.
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