After reading a few uninspiring books (and about to make a brief trip to the UK so keen to have a few more hardbacks to return (so there’s more space for cava when I drive back to England)), I decided to give myself a tentative treat and read this gorgeous, 400-page collection of essays and photography by Teju Cole.
Cole is, as some of you may be aware, the author of the acclaimed but often disliked Open City, as well as the similarly-treated (though less problematic) Every Day Is For The Thief. Personally, aside from the “twist ending” of Open City – which felt inappropriate back in 2013 and would almost certainly feel more so now – I really enjoyed both of these books. Cole is an engaging, articulate and intelligent writer and reader, and in both of those flaneury texts, he was able to create vivid senses of place, while also offering insightful opinions on society, on culture, and on modern modes of thought. In Known and Strange Things there is no fictionalised gap between Cole’s thoughts and the text itself, for these essays purport to honesty, to a reflection of direct and unreconstructed experience, and they focus directly on the arts (both literary and visual), politics and travel, but less directly (and perhaps more significantly) they engage with race, gender and class.
It’s an interesting collection, but (possibly due to a printing error?) there is no record in my copy as to where and when these pieces originally appeared. It is clear that this was not constructed as a single cohesive work (due to the open admission of this in the introduction, as well as some of the structural decisions made on a sentence level), but the choice of arranging the essays non-chronologically means that a reader often finds Cole moving as if forwards, to then suddenly be thrown a long way backwards in time, or to return to locations we’ve visited before, but with a new focus. It gives a pleasing sense of the idea of Cole’s life over the past decade or so, however what it fails to do is emphasise the genuine and deserved success that he’s built up. Cole wasn’t getting invited to be artist or writer in residence at prestigious international locations at the time of the earliest pieces here, yet there is a somewhat frustrating chronological squashing that means the perspective of an internationally-lauded literary success is presented as if the same as the perspective of a young writer starting out in the world.
Maybe for Cole this is the case, maybe Teju Cole has not had his perspectives or his ideologies affected by acclaim, but in that case there’s an essay missing that explores or clarifies this. For all of Cole’s close engagement with the ways in which his American citizenship, his intelligence and his comfortable middle class Nigerian upbringing are in a position of conflict with his race anywhere outside of Africa (Europe, USA, Brazil), the exploration of this is more theoretical than personal, and though Cole is a witty, emotive, writer, the places in which he conveys emotion are – except for a few notable exceptions – situations related to the lives of other’s.
His sense of elation when Obama wins his first presidential election is palpable and fucking gorgeously evoked, but this essay – towards the end of the book – is somewhat overshadowed by its repeated first person references to a wife, while the rest of the text is seemingly devoid of any romantic connections at all. The epilogue, ‘Blind Spot’, is similarly evocative due to an experience Cole had, which was where he first feared that he was going blind, due to a recurring problem he has with one of his eyes. There is a close sense of fear as he recounts this, a drifting powerlessness and vulnerability that is often absent from Cole’s descriptions of himself. It’s a strange absence, though perhaps intentional: this isn’t really autobiographical writing, instead Cole writes informed literary essays that all have a present first person narrator.
There are multiple pieces about a Swiss residency Cole undertook at some point earlier this decade, where one piece writes at length about photography and isolation, while another engages more intensely with a James Baldwin essay about being the first black man to walk in a tiny, mountaintop town. There is a deep, intellectual engagement with the ways in which racism has changed: Cole is not treated with open awe like Baldwin was, but he is regularly conscious of slight differences in the ways he is treated compared to white clientele in, for example, restaurants. He has a similar experience when visiting Brazil, as part of a wonderful essay that explores in detail the commodification of travel and the familiarity of certain unfamiliar things. Cole, as a Nigerian and an America choosing to live in New York, is both at home and homesick, and these ideas recur throughout the book. So, I dunno, maybe I’m wrong to say that he isn’t self-evaluating, he just isn’t necessarily being self-critical. But why should he be?
There are some marvellous pieces in here about the thrill of gorgeous works of art and literature, there are deeply moving pieces about topics as diverse as the death of a poet in a terrorist attack, and the fear of misguided lynchings in poorer parts of Nigeria. This is intelligent, informative, prose, and Cole’s essays on the disappointments of Obama’s administration are especially haunting given the America that has arisen in the time since Cole submitted his final edits to his publishers (this was published in 2016). Cole’s writing is great – clever without being smug, emotive without being overwrought, and personal without being self-indulgent.
I’d have liked this to have felt more like a single work, or a more chronological one, perhaps, and maybe a little more of Cole reckoning with his success and the effects this has had on his international, transoceanic existence. But, y’know, most essay collections, just like most short story collections, are just that: a collection, not an entity. This is gorgeous, relevant, artful essayistic prose, and I think it’s exactly the kinda thing that regular readers of this blog would enjoy. Like my writing here, but more clever and you gotta pay for it.
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