|Your correspondent & Teju Cole at The Ace, Shoreditch|
Talking to Teju Cole was a lively and engrossing discussion to be part of. Right at the top Cole previewed a sardonic piece that he had just written for the New Yorker (and which was duly posted online there the following day) about CNN’s coverage of the Ebola crisis. Cole is an assured and beguiling speaker, and his prefacing remark about feeling uncomfortably ‘like a slam poet’ in delivering this new text (off the screen of his smartphone, no less) turned out, you might guess, to be modesty in extremis.
Cole is Nigerian-American, or American-Nigerian – born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, raised in Lagos, educated in London and New York inter alia, and now a citizen of the world in the manner of all writers who attain his level of accomplishment and reputation. (Cole was the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award of 2012 for Open City, his debut publication in the US and UK.) Accordingly the conversation ranged freely. He was in the West Bank this summer past, so there was that for starters.
His most recently published work Every Day is For The Thief (actually his first discrete book, originated as a sequence of blog posts and then published by Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria around 2007, before Open City went out and made his name) concerns an unnamed protagonist returning to his native Lagos and encountering a society in which daily transactions seem to be endlessly debased by a climate of corruption: one that seems rather to emanate out of the yawning societal gulf between the powerful and crude-wealthy, and the mass of the people in the streets grafting for coppers and fighting among themselves.
Every Day is For The Thief is full of pained scenes and observations that stay with you: from the narrator’s desultory wander around a denuded, asset-tripped, historically dishonest national museum to his pilgrimage into a heaving marketplace where a pilfering child had been burned alive by a mob and the killing recorded on video. Reading this book certainly brought sensory elements of my visit to Lagos in September 2013 vividly back to the front of my mind, but nothing I saw was nearly so dreadful as that.
Every Day is a different sort of book to Open City, in that the latter can be read with a familiar gratified sense by anyone at home in the great city-centred literature of modernity that was born in the nineteenth century and probably attained its high watermark after the Second World War, before rolling back. Open City has been reviewed as a notable entry in the celebrated literature of the flâneur, and its narrator Julius is keen-eyed but as full of melancholy as Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, seemingly unable to affect the course of events he perceives so sharply. Cole is not his narrators, though, and the depth of his engagement with politics, coupled to his facility at speaking freely on political matters in his own voice, are noteworthy.
Cole told the audience in Shoreditch that for him the novel was very much about New York in the aftermath of September 11 2001. (He also professed his high regard for Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.) The legacy of traumatic events is certainly of great interest to him. Open City, though not a heavily plot-carpentered work, nonetheless builds to a revelation of personal trauma which shows Cole working in a plangent way on more than one register.
A significant element of Cole’s oeuvre has been made on Twitter, which he has made use of in a manner of ingenuity that far outstrips any other writer of fiction I can think of. If you don’t know of his Twitter projects – Hafiz, Small Fates, A Piece Of The Wall – you should investigate immediately. Cole has been a forceful advocate of the economy Twitter presses upon a writer (‘When you're tweeting, the sentences are isolated, naked, so there is that much more scrutiny on how they work’.) For the moment, though, he seems to have retired from the medium. I expect there’ll be another medium along shortly he will use just as adroitly.