Teju Cole, author of Open City, on literary influences, the reception to his first book and his project on Twitter.
Teju Cole blazed across the international literary scene last year with his debut novel Open City. Born to Nigerian parents, 36-year-old Cole grew up in Lagos and moved to the US when he was 17. The writer, street photographer and art historian currently lives in Brooklyn and is working on a non-fiction book on Lagos. While working on this project he started on Small Fates — flash portraits of life in contemporary Nigeria that he paints with words — 140 characters to be precise, on Twitter. Rigorously observant and curious, Cole is the kind of interviewee who can throw you off your list of questions and engage you in a much deeper conversation in an instant. Much has been said about his searing intelligence and way with words, but sitting across the table from him what hooks you is his intense involvement with art and literature and his great compassion for many different worlds and their many different people. Excerpts from an interview:
You are into several modes of expression. Do you see yourself primarily as a writer after Open City?
When I was writing the book I got into this mental space where I thought this is what I do: I am a writer. After the book came out I felt clear to say that I am a writer and a photographer. On many days my primary artistic struggle is in fact photography because it is harder to do good work with that. I see myself as an observer of the world who has a strong drive to testify, which I can do because I have the privilege of living in New York with enough food to eat and shelter.
Where do you think the novel is as a form is in its journey right now?
The novel is a very democratic form and the intellectual price of entry is not very high so most novels are pitched low on the level of complexity. But also because it is a mass form there are so many readers and practitioners who are doing very investigative and experimental forms of novel writing. So even though publishing is having a bit of tough time right now I think that experimentation in novel writing will definitely survive. If you wanted to read stuff that is not mainstream all year you could easily do that but in terms of the percentage of the market of course it is too little.
Do you see your own novel as experimental?
Many people have described it as experimental but the reality is that, compared to true experimental writers, my book is fairly tame. But because it has been published by a major house and promoted well it is reaching certain readers that this kind of book normally does not reach and one is getting a lot of “what the hell is that.”
Are literary influences on your writing always subconscious — indistinguishable from the imprint of emotional experience or do you consciously pay tribute to your writing heroes as well?
The original sense of the word influence is to flow into. For the most part, these writers that I admire... their style flows into me without my intervention, which is what explains the broad range of writers who I've been compared with; it reflects my reading. The problem is if you are copying one writer in particular. I am suspicious of writers who say their work is original and influenced by nobody. If it is, it is probably uninteresting. The biggest source of novels is other novels. But, occasionally, I will doff my cap to the other stuff I assume my reader has read. In Open City there is a passage that any reader of Joyce will immediately recognise as a very close, formal analogue of one the stories in Dubliners. That is because a novel is also a literary conversation.
Of the names that come up among your influences, foremost is Sebald. Why Sebald?
I had already published my first novella when, in 2005, I was first told that my writing reminded readers of Sebald. It was only then that I read him for the first time. It turned out that the reason for the similarity in our writing, in addition to my sensibility — a spirit of melancholy and an academic background — was that we had been reading the same writers who were not very popular like Thomas Brown, the 17th century British nature writer.
Your narrator Julius is someone who would seem to be a lot like you. Why was it important for you to start with material so close to yourself?
I think in part because if you're writing something very close to observation, to make those observations believable they need to be rooted in your observation. I have a particular eye and a particular sensibility. Those are the similarities. Actually superficially Julius is not that much like me.
I'll give you an example. He is somebody who is a mixed race guy academically affiliated to Columbia University and he has a melancholy interior; kind of trying to find his own way in the world. His African father has died and he has some tender feelings towards his European grandmother. Basically those are all things that are actually not true of me. But they are true of Barack Obama! Yes, part of it is me: he grew up in Nigeria, now lives in New York etc. So people can pick the parts that suit them and say it's based on you.
I think what I was trying to get at was that you could have picked material that was completely foreign.
And you know, what they often say is that: Oh your first novel is always an autobiography. And I decided not to fight against that. I have nothing to prove. Because what I could have done is have the book exactly as it is, and have the narrator be an Indian woman.
You know, you say that you didn't fight the need to start with material which was very close to you. But you also created these differences between you and Julius. Since you weren't fighting the material, why did you feel the need to create these differences?
Because I am interested in playing with the ‘Is it made up? Or did it really happen?' device. So there are incidents in the book which are actually based on observations and interactions. And there are many many incidents, precisely the ones which you think are true that are completely made up. If you mix non-fiction and fiction what you get is fiction. I wanted to play with that gap. I dont usually like to talk about what's made up and what's not but I'll give you an example. There's a book that's evoked in the book. It's called A Monster Of New Amsterdam. It's a book written by one of Julius's patients. Julius describes the book to us and tells us that it has been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Yesterday Open City was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. So, you know, either you draw it out of life, and so it's real or you write it in a book, and then later it happens, so.
Has Julius been laid to rest, or is he still in your mind somewhere?
I'm having a hard time letting go of him, you know! I'm not doing a new book with him. I'm playing with the idea of doing a short story where Julius has an outtake: the DVD special edition. Some readers feel real anger towards him — readers who like the book. But I have some tender and sorrowful feelings about him.
You say that you wanted to talk about 9/11 indirectly. What were the dangers of talking about it directly?
It is very difficult to be responsible about disaster because once you're in a position to write about it means you've actually survived; you have your brain intact. Second, you could actually spend your whole life coming to terms with one death; how can you talk about 3000 deaths? Life shocks us into silence. So I wanted to fight back and reclaim a space for a kind of ethical imagination of disaster. I just wanted to say something about the atmosphere of mourning that had settled on the city that we didn't have a public language for. And I just felt that could only be done through an indirect eye. You know, when you're weeping the world is blurry. It's not sharp. So I'm highly suspicious of clarity when it comes to grief.
There's a sentence in your book where Julius observes how people ask “how to get to 9/11” instead of asking ‘how to get to the site of the disaster' when asking for directions. How did you get to 9/11? There's so much around it. How did you know what about it you wanted to write on?
By making it, personal and having one person testify to his own experience and leaving it there. By not speaking about somebody else's experience. In a sense, we all own it. You didn't have to be there to own it. So own up to your part in it in an honest way, and don't exaggerate. It just tells you that Julius and the people he meets are so shuddering from the effect of something; 9/11 in part, but also the long echo of history and erasure in general. For example, the professor who is still astonished at what happened to him in 1944. The young Moroccan who's astonished as to what's going on in Palestine. The blacks who still have slavery on their mind. The immigrants who are trying to make a way into the US and are stuck in between. That is the way it is with historical disaster; it never wipes the slate clean before it occurs. Shit happens while other shit is already happening.
Tell me a bit about your project Small Fates on Twitter.
See, the world is always being consumed by some private mayhem. I want to give each one its due. I also want to testify to life in Nigeria through the prism of absurd incidents and small scale disasters but with the ultimate effect of giving my readers a fairly complicated picture of contemporary Nigerian life, of contemporary Nigerian modernity. Because there are still people who would think: Oh Africans, they live in a mud hut and in the rainy season they climb up into the tree.
You use plot so effectively in Small Fates. One can't help but wonder why you all but dispensed with it in Open City.
(Laughs) That's interesting. See, it takes two or three days to read a novel, and through it I want to bring your mind to a certain place. I want to create a weather for you to enter into. In Small Fates I want to give you a jolt but over the course of a novel it's a different kind of psychological approach that you're making into the interior of the reader. It requires a lot more building up.
Then again, you did so well without plot in Open City, I was wondering why you felt the need to have a dramatic twist towards the end.
That is because I'm not averse to plot. Part of what I wanted to say through that was that no matter how averse you think you are to drama — like Julius thinks he is — drama has a way of seeking you out. In a weird kind of way melodrama is a part of life. It is just that in most artistic productions melodrama has a tempo and frequency that is not to be found in real life.