Teju Cole’s Open City has been widely praised as one of 2011’s best novels, and deservedly so. It is a reflection on the experimental modernism of the early 20th century as well as a sharply political and contemporary novel. Cole’s erudition and intellectual curiosity are characteristic of all his writing, whether in the long-form Open City or the short, absurd “Small Fates” snippets from Nigerian life he posts regularly to his Twitter account (@tejucole).
Cole grew up in Lagos and is a resident of Brooklyn, New York, where he teaches at Bard College and works as an art historian and photographer. He was at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival last week to talk about several of his wide-ranging and closely followed interests in art, urbanism, music and literature. Edited excerpts from his conversation with Lounge:
When did you start to think about writing and literature?
I haven’t always been a writer of fiction. Sometime in my mid-20s, 10 years ago, I realized that my desire to put experience into words was best matched by a very specific approach; trying to find the most layered and complicated thoughts and put them in the clearest language I could manage.
Reading the city: Novelist, art historian and photographer Teju Cole.
Earlier on, under the influence of people like James Joyce, people like Wole Soyinka and generally this idea of the shock of the new, my concept had been to be pyrotechnic, like Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie—make it new by making it noisy and furious. Clearly, there are people who can do that well. But In my mid-20s I realized that I needed to go back to (George) Orwell, (Ernest) Hemingway, (V.S.) Naipaul; Virginia Woolf, who’s a wonderful writer of the English sentence. A little bit of Henry James, not in the length of the sentences, but in the effort to be complex by being complicated without being needlessly loud.
Once that discovery was made I started to write. I did quite a bit of writing online: blogs, essays, writing to friends, writing for friends. If I travelled somewhere I would write about it, and a kind of voice started to emerge, and I started to write better and better sentences.
Tell us about your first book.
About six years ago, I went to Nigeria. I wrote a fictionalized memoir of my experiences of going back after a long time, which was published as Every Day Is for the Thief.
And so it started. It was never, “I have to be a writer.” Never that. I had a stark and pragmatic attitude to literary success.
We’re talking about success after publishing.
That’s right, not about success on the page. I suspected that would be within my reach or that it was worth fighting for. But the way the industry is set up, I’m not going to write what they want, and they’re not going to like me. I know: I’m an African, I’m in America, I’m supposed to write a multigenerational family epic. I wanted to write about resolutely contemporary experience.
What did studying art bring you as a writer?
Because you’re looking at a single painting and you are expected to be able to write 20 pages about it, it means intense looking, very patient description. And I found that patient description did not bore me; quite the contrary, it was evidence of mind.
Do you find all forms of cultural production would benefit from that kind of contemplation?
I certainly enjoy it.
Do you enjoy reading that sort of novel, which you would never write yourself?
I need work that focuses on mind rather than on narrative, if you can make that distinction. I am interested in high modernism, and in exploration of consciousness. The exceptions are astonishing. Think of Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic novelist. I’m happy to read him because he’s just so good at this. Garcia Marquez is so masterful that even inside the historical multigenerational epic, the mind is in every sentence.
Narrative does interest me, but these days I’m drawn to short forms, short narratives. Short novels. I love Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels. I love Alice Munro’s short stories. I love microfiction, which is narrative-driven. Taking something like the story of a wife (who) bursts in on her husband and his mistress and shoots them both: There’s clearly something over there on the three-sentences level that, when expanded to 500 pages, would not interest me quite as much.
Who were the writers you liked to read as a child?
The first book I remember reading is Mark Twain’s (The Adventures of) Tom Sawyer in an abridged version when I was very young.
This was in Lagos.
Yes. So before I was 10, I remember Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, which in a funny kind of way gave me a view of a Nigeria I did not know. I was a city boy. I became a more avid reader in my pre-teen and early teen years, when there was a lot of Enid Blyton, a lot of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. That led me over to Agatha Christie—you just go with a completist attitude towards that kind of thing.
And then between the ages of 14-15, and 19-20, I was not much of a reader at all. At the age of 20 I found myself doing an internship in Boston. I had a long train ride and these people I was living with had American books I had no access to because I was not a student of literature at any point. From their shelves I plucked, oddly enough, The Catcher in the Rye. I plucked out The Old Man and the Sea, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
This was the beginning of close reading for me. I became an avid but very slow reader. From that time on, I read every book very slowly, trying to understand how it was doing what it was doing.
What did you like about modernists like Woolf and Joyce?
On the sentence level, they got into me psychologically. I was amazed that they could bring me into their minds and writing a hundred years before me could be so persuasive. That amazed me.
Do you also like high modernism in art?
As far as my writing goes, when I say high modernism, I’m talking about literature. I do like high modernism in art, but it falls within a large swathe of appreciations for me. When I think about the visual arts that have influenced me, I think of films, usually from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, not American, that influence me. There was Satyajit Ray. (Federico) Fellini was important. I privately think to myself of Open City as a response to 81/2, which is weird. But it is episodic, it is concerned with structures of consciousness and I think it is immaculately curated. That is what I was going for: the curation of incident that to a careless observer seems like randomness. So also La Dolce Vita, which is a man’s journey through various episodes of his life—a callow and somewhat callous man, who is confronted with desire and loneliness and aestheticism and death and ambiguous relationships with pleasure: an essentially conscientious hedonist.
Classical music plays a big role in ‘Open City’. Did composers like Gustav Mahler influence its writing too?
Music is very important to me. I love classical music, I’m fanatical about jazz, hip hop is very important to me, I listen to a lot of Bollywood, stuff I love—it’s very wide tastes.
New York street scene shot by Cole
Mahler is important to Julius because Mahler is, sort of, melancholy and grandiose and epic, in the shape of Julius’ mourning. But for me, structuring the book, (Jean) Sibelius was more important because he’s structurally more subtle. Mahler is immensely subtle as well, but Sibelius doesn’t get as loud, doesn’t get as bombastic. Sibelius, for example, had this habit of doing highly intricately worked synmphonies that in the last movement would get loud, and unaccountably soft in the final minute.
And there’s this idea of having a theme on the piccolos and then the same theme on the flutes and then the same theme at half-speed on the tubas and double basses and the same theme with just a fragment of it on the violin. Building that up was exactly what I was trying to do in this book, where in one section someone is talking about terrorists and in another someone is talking about bedbugs.
It sounds like a book which was read out loud as it was being written.
It’s a voiced book. For some other people, the way to slow things down is to write long-hand. I write on the computer. But I’ve developed a sense of cadence in my head, so not everything has to be read out loud. I know when something’s getting too unvoiceable and change it.
I want to ask you about developing Julius as a character. How did he come into being? And how did you develop an experience for him which would tend away from—or not draw the reader’s attention to—the autobiographical?
That was an interesting challenge to work through, particularly since Julius has a lot in common with me superficially. There is a struggle, not just for some readers who want to impose a biographical reading on Julius vis-a-vis his author but also for me because I’m writing in the first person. I could not write about Mahler in that way if I did not have an interest in Mahler. Julius probably knows more about Mahler than I do (laughs). But he knows a lot less about jazz and hip hop than I do. So he’s not me.
What it entailed was that I give him a lot of time to develop to give his self plenty of time to percolate and become Julius, distinct from me. That was psychologically difficult. Life goes on; I was not mourning the way that Julius was, and he’s mourning all through the book. So it means in 2008-09, sitting down to write the book, I had to enter into Julius’ mind in 2006.
The September 2001 attacks are obliquely at the centre of the book. Were you in New York at the time?
I was. The book was for me a response to those attacks because I felt that 11 September needed to be written about in an indirect way. The responses I had read were far too direct. Open City is a kind of shell-shocked response to the enormity of the event, to say that there is a catalogue of grief.
You’ve said that you felt people moved on too fast from the disaster. But how can you recover from disaster, except incrementally and through habit?
I don’t know how people recover from disaster and I don’t know how they’re supposed to. I think there’s an appropriate space for stunned silence. I think there’s an appropriate space for academic work. I think there’s an appropriate space for tangential responses such as Open City or (Joseph O’Neill’s novel) Netherland, or the works of (W.G.) Sebald. And I actually believe that there’s also a space for irony and tragicomedy.
But in the context of New York you thought the move on was too quick.
In the context of New York, yes, because it wasn’t just a disaster but a pretext for war and heroism.
You think heroism was co-opted into the political narrative?
It was co-opted. There was real, amazing heroism. Hundreds of firefighters died. That is a shocking fact. We used that then to go and kill a few hundred thousand people in Iraq, which was disgusting. It was the absolute opposite of what mourning should be. Mourning should be about becoming aware that others have suffered. I think the shock of it was so great that it made Americans callous.
New York street scene shot by Cole
How would you respond to the criticism that a narrative like ‘Open City’, with its determinedly solitary narrator, makes solipsism seem heroic?
Julius is engaged and knowledgeable without being active. I think it might be harsh on Julius to call him solipsistic. I don’t think it’s quite so simple, because there is Julius’ own positionality as a black man living in the US. I don’t believe you can be black in the US and evade politics. You embody politics.
Now whether you decide to participate in party politics and carry placards is a different matter. But the moment you walk into a room as a person of colour, your accent, your place of origin, politics will be imposed on you.
I think that, like many people I know, Julius’ politics are layered and complicated. Open City arguably has several projects but one of them is certainly that he is not your Everyman narrator. He is not only involved, not only implicated, but also among the oppressed. It might seem weird to say it, because he’s highly educated and in control of his mind and his faculties, but he is. Even the President of the US right now is oppressed, because there will always be someone who can get up in Congress and treat you as if you are a slave that has not been released yet. Just like every woman who lives in that country now can still have someone say or do something aggravated and violent to them, that they would not be able to do to a man.
Tell us a little about your connection with Goa, and India.
This is my third time in India. I come here often because I’m married to a woman from Goa, who grew up in Goa. I’ve been to Mumbai, Delhi, Cochin (Kochi), the Kerala backwaters.
If I go back, being a Nigerian in the States, young Indians were kind of like a natural ally for a foreign Anglophone student trying to find a place in American society because there were many more Indians than Nigerians—I don’t think there were any Nigerians at my school. Indians had the kind of parents who thought like my parents. Indian students had to live this sort of double life, where your home life is very different from your school life, and you had to deal with the assumptions of one about the other, like this push to go into lucrative professions. And at the same time there was this seriousness about learning. It was a negotiation that said, here we are, fully immersed in Western culture; we have to make it our own but it’s not our own. We’re not outsiders but we’re outsiders.