The writer, art historian, and street photographer on the body vs. the intellect, the mythical pre-history of humanity, and how very serious a Twitter post can be.
“A book suggests conversation,” the narrator Julius says early in Teju’s Cole’s acclaimed novel Open City. “One person is speaking to another.” Open City showcases a series of erudite, often probing, wide-ranging conversations between Julius and other characters, and between Julius and the reader. Of course, what the book also reveals, and this is part of its brilliance and surprise, is that conversation can also be used to avoid talking about something.
Set in post-September 11th New York, the narrative unfolds in slow, deliberate measure, revealing the partiality of memory: how nations remember and forget, the selective nature of commemoration, the histories that lie buried under our cities, and, no less true, the ways in which unpleasant, private secrets are repressed in our psyches. What follows began as a live conversation at Vassar College, where I teach. I asked Cole to read his recent drone tweets, which address what is left out of our conversations about literature, and also about war. For Cole is not just the author of Open City but also, as some of us see him, the inventor (or re-inventor) of the tweet.
Cole said, “In my fiction writing, especially in something like Open City, I try to move at such a slow pace that if you have trouble sleeping, it will knock you out. But Twitter calls for different techniques.” Then he recited his “short stories about drones,” which are parodies of great novels in the tweet form, ending with deadly drone strikes. A typical entry reads: “I am an invisible man. My name is unknown. My loves are a mystery. But an unmanned aerial vehicle from a secret location has come for me.”
Cole told the audience, “In the sense that we’ve all heard of Madame Bovary, Flaubert read one of those short news items and from that he expanded out into an entire novel. He read about a doctor’s wife who had been having an affair and she killed herself and he thought ‘Huh, that’s interesting.’ Then he wrote one of the greatest novels ever written. And Wole Soyinka—the Nigerian playwright who won the Nobel Prize in Literature—his most famous play, Death and the King’s Horseman, came from one of those incidents he read about in a Nigerian newspaper.”
Close to the end of Open City, Julius declares: “I read Freud only for literary truths.” I read Teju Cole for the same reason. Julius admits Freud’s shortcomings but insists that, despite them, Freud “illuminated psychoanalysis—which, let no one forget, was his original discovery—more vividly than would even the most meticulous of modern practitioners.” So, in the face of the rank punditry that claims the ability to save the Third World, Cole also presented a series of tweets dubbed, “Seven Thoughts on the Banality of Sentimentality.” The tweets were a takedown of so-called Western humanitarian intervention and coined the phrase “White Savior Industrial Complex,” which became an Atlantic article of that name. Two of the tweets read, “From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex,” and “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
Cole teaches literature and art history at Bard College, where he is Distinguished Writer in Residence and Achebe Fellow. His debut Open City won the 2012 PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, and was described as “an indelible novel” by the New York Times, capturing “life’s urgent banality [and] the ways in which the greater subjects glimmer darkly in the interstices,” according to Claire Messud in the New York Review of Books. The conversation that follows began at Vassar in late February and continued over email.
—Amitava Kumar for Guernica
Guernica: Are your tweets the new essay form?
Teju Cole: No. I mean, the old essay form is perfectly fine. But this is a new technology, something different. All creative work, I feel, and all meaningful contributions that somebody can make creatively, only comes from here. [Points to heart.] It comes from something very deep, something very profound in you, from having an attentive attitude to life. It comes from having a serious commitment to justice and to observation. The medium is irrelevant. If somebody tells you that a five thousand word essay in the New York Review of Books is the only way of being serious, they’re lying to you. I’ve read many of those five thousand word essays and some of them are serious and good and many of them are not. And if somebody tells you that writing something on Twitter automatically makes it frivolous, they’re also lying to you. Writing it on Twitter definitely makes it easier to be frivolous, but you can take it on yourself to use the form against itself, because the seriousness and the value of the contributions actually come from here. [Points to heart.] They come from plunging into the well of yourself.
If you choose to participate in the excitement that is new technology then that is up to you. I think that is a perfectly natural thing for a young person to do. You know, Beethoven was the Beethoven of his day, but the Beethoven of our day is probably somebody paying really serious attention to electronic possibilities in music or someone who’s using hip-hop in an interesting way. The Beethoven of our day is probably not somebody who’s using the same instrument that Beethoven was using in his day. Just like Beethoven wasn’t using the same instruments as people one hundred years before him that he admired. So the medium just gives us a chance to participate in the now. But Twitter is neither here nor there. In the eighteenth century they had pamphlets, Montaigne wrote essays, and Homer wrote epic poetry. But quite rightly we see them as participating in the same conversation. That’s why I embrace things like Twitter—because it’s an opportunity to talk to the people I actually want to talk to.
“Essay” means “attempt.” Reading a novel should be like watching a pole-vaulter. Maximum flair as well as a high degree of technical difficulty.
Guernica: And what about Open City as an essay, or even a series of essays?
Teju Cole: I have always liked Kundera’s insistence that the novel at its invention was charged with possibilities, that it was unsettled and wild. If we look at Cervantes and Rabelais, they were inclusive in their sensibilities. But what happened was that in the nineteenth century, the novel became tamed—Dickens and Austen, I’m looking at you—and that well-behaved novel, despite the best efforts of Woolf, Joyce, and Mansfield, is what we have inherited. The essay, the list, the tangential excursus, the stream of unbroken dialogue, the thicket of unremitting description: these are all available to us as novelists. But we rarely use them. “Essay” means “attempt.” Reading a novel should be like watching a pole-vaulter. Maximum flair as well as a high degree of technical difficulty.
A novel insists that it is a work of fiction, and of course it is: full of invented situations and names and characters. But in a way, it is also profoundly non-fictional: it is a memoir of those inventions, it is a CAT-scan of the author’s brain, a State of the Union address on what your self mentally encountered during the period of writing.
Guernica: On Storify one can find archived a series of tweets you sent explaining the process of composing them. Can you tell me a bit about the process of creating Open City?
Teju Cole: A novel insists that it is a work of fiction, and of course it is: full of invented situations and names and characters. But in a way, it is also profoundly non-fictional: it is a memoir of those inventions, it is a CAT-scan of the author’s brain, a State of the Union address on what your self mentally encountered during the period of writing. I am an art historian, a lover of music, a “race man,” a walker in the city, a Yoruba, a political doubter, a devotee of the Anglo-American legal tradition, an apostate. All these things influence the way I shaped the fictional narrative that became Open City.
Guernica: Can you also tell us a little bit about your own training, because the dust jacket of Open City says: “He’s a writer, a photographer, and a professional historian of early Netherlandish art.”
Teju Cole: I like this word “professional.” Because it implies that I’m not unprofessional. I don’t, like, grope the paintings. I’m very professional. I maintain a proper distance, and I try to keep them as equals. “He is an unprofessional historian of Flemish painting.” No.
If I were a movie director, I would be one of those that totally uses slow-mo too much—somebody fires a bullet and I slow it down. Because everything comes filtered through the fundamental insight of studying paintings for a living.
I’ve done most of my PhD at Columbia where I’m writing on sixteenth century Dutch art, and it’s an area that interests me very much. In the past couple of years, since I’ve focused more on writing fiction and writing essays, I find that the training has been a great help to me because it has actually helped me to slow down and to be very deeply interested in bringing slowness into basically everything that I do. If I were a movie director, I would be one of those that totally uses slow-mo too much—somebody fires a bullet and I slow it down. Because everything comes filtered through the fundamental insight of studying paintings for a living, which is that if you spend enough time with a still image, it can be drawn out, it has things to say to you. What it means to be a professional historian of art is to be able to write twenty pages about one painting and somehow keep it interesting, and that influences absolutely every other thing I do, my photography as well as my writing.
Guernica: In James Wood’s review of Open City, there is a line where he describes a discussion between your narrator Julius and a young Moroccan named Farouq: “This is one of the very few scenes I have encountered in contemporary fiction in which critical and literary theory is not satirized, or flourished to exhibit the author’s credentials, but is simply and naturally part of the whole context of a person.” I like that line; it recognizes the novel’s intellectual ambition and its seriousness. But in the line that immediately followed Wood had something else to commend: “And how very subtle of Teju Cole to suggest, at the same time—but with barely an authorial whisper—that perhaps Farouq leans too heavily on his theoretical texts, and that this was the real cause of the plagiarism charge.” I’ve always felt that Open City engages with theoretical texts but its pleasures lie also in the way its sensibilities rebel against them. The eye is drawn not to the ground where the kite is tethered but to its dance in the skies above. Can you comment on that particular tension? Is a part of your creativity caught in performing that turn from academic analysis, its fixed oppositions, or even certainties?
Teju Cole: On the one hand, I believe in the body, as Serres counsels. I trust the body more than I trust the head, and this is why I walk, and this is why Julius walks. This is probably why I take photographs. And this is why I’m never happier than in a crowded club at 3 a.m. when the DJ is playing drum and bass. But I don’t repudiate the intellect either. I don’t want to over-ironize my relationship to it, because our predicament is such that we still have to articulate what’s going on. I don’t care that Foucault on power or Said on positionality or Kristeva on the abject are almost clichés by now. These are concepts that still strike, as though from without, the massive walls of our absurd forms of “civilization.”
Guernica: When you talked with the students earlier, you said that here is a book with no jokes, no plot, no multi-generational family-saga. You weren’t expecting it to be received as well as it has been. I’ve heard Daniel Alarcón say about Roberto Bolaño that the latter is inspiring, particularly for young people, because it seems from reading his stories that nothing has to happen. There doesn’t need to be plot. What you only need is an accurate description of the mood. I was wondering if that applies to your work, too, and whether students here who are starting to write should follow that example. How do you accurately describe the mood? And if that is true, what is the mood you hope to describe?
Teju Cole: I don’t know that Alarcón quotation but I like it very much. Because as the composer Pärt says, it is enough if one note is played beautifully. You can take that approach to writing as well. If you sustain a mood it gives many other things an opportunity to happen. So it’s not so much about the plot, it’s about the space that you create in which other things might happen to the reader.
Guernica: Well, tell me about the mood of Open City?
Teju Cole: This is a book set five years after 9/11. There’s a public response to 9/11 that’s the most well-known, and for me the most agitating being that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. That was a response, a significant part of it. There was an invasion of Afghanistan, an invasion of Iraq, and enhanced security in all parts of public life. Those were the three main responses. But there was something else going on, especially for those of us who were in New York before, during, and after the attacks on the Twin Towers.
I like it when a book has something for the re-readers, so I put a number of things in Open City that won’t be caught on a first reading—they just register as part of the apparently aimless drift of the book—but that on a second reading will be as vivid as blood in a sink.
Guernica: I should readily admit that on looking more closely at Open City, I have found more and more to admire in it. A first reading can immediately impress you with its voice, or its perfect capture of a mood, but the reader isn’t always aware of the subtlety with which you have arranged the narrative.
Teju Cole: You’re very kind about this. Of course it’s not perfect. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower is perfect. The Rings of Saturn is perfect. Memoirs of Hadrian. I mean, the perfection of certain works chastises us, but we have no choice but to move on. But you’re right, having done the first arc right through the book to the ending that I knew I was headed for, I then went back to seed the book with these quiet foreshadowings. I like it when a book has something for the re-readers, so I put a number of things in Open City that won’t be caught on a first reading—they just register as part of the apparently aimless drift of the book—but that on a second reading will be as vivid as blood in a sink.
Guernica: W.G. Sebald used to offer the following advice to his students: “If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope.” How do you look back on your work on this book?
Teju Cole: With great tenderness. The love that others have for the book has taught me to be forgiving of its weaknesses. I understand that Open City is no longer mine, it’s the readers’ now, so I’m not as hard on it as I was when I wrote it.
Guernica: Can you tell us how you achieve form by putting together fragments, sometimes disparate and sometimes not, in a particular relation to each other?
Teju Cole: Like my writing, my photography tends to be made of hopefully poignant fragments that I then seek to reunite with each other. I’m a street photographer. I don’t do posed photos. Some people ask, “What is the best camera to use?” And the answer is, “The one in your hand,” because that’s the only one you can take a picture with. The central thing motivating my photography and by extension my writing is the idea that there was a mythical pre-history of humanity when everything was intact. The process of photography is finding the little pieces and somehow connecting them to each other, introducing them to each other, reuniting little bits of the shattered world.
When asked about literature and photography as practices, I used to get into these long elaborate answers about how they answer to different parts of myself. Now, I would say I’m trying to do the same thing with them, they come from the same place. I’m trying to create a space where something can enter into your head—usually it’s something that is connected to cities and usually it’s something that has to do with trying to find a way to turn the volume down—so that something strange can happen.
One of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me about my photographs was said by a friend yesterday, but he wasn’t trying to be nice. He said, “In almost every single one of your photos, there is something wrong.” There was something about all of them that made him uneasy, like he was about to fall off a ladder or pitch forward. I was absolutely delighted with that. My ambition is—with my photography and with my writing—that there will always be something wrong.
São Paulo by Teju Cole
For more of Teju Cole’s photography, check out “Who’s Got the Address?” in our art section.
To contact Guernica or Teju Cole, please write here.