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Neo Africanus: In Teju Cole’s World

Teju Cole, author of the award winning book Open City, recently announced that his new book is a non-fictional narrative of contemporary Lagos. But what is Cole’s relationship to his native Nigeria and its cultural and commercial capital, Lagos? Akin Adesokan looks of the answers in his books.

I

opencityOf the many encounters in which Julius, the protagonist of Open City, Teju Cole’s elegantly disarming novel, finds himself, two strike me as constituting the pulse of the subtle cultural politics animating the novel. In the first, the young psychiatrist is about to post a mail when the post office clerk, Terry, struck by his choice of stamp, says, “Say, brother, where are you from? ’Cause, see, I could tell you were from the Motherland. And you brothers have something that is vital, you understand me. You have something that is vital for the health of those of us raised on this side of the ocean. Let me tell you something: I am raising my daughters as Africans.” The man then goes on to importune the narrator to listen to the declamation of a Spoken-Word poem titled “The Unconquered.” Walking away from what must have been an ordeal for him, Julius says, “I made a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.”

In the second encounter, several pages later, he is telling a patient, Mr. F., about his medications when the man, suffering from depression, says: “Doctor, I just want to tell you how proud I am to come here, and see a young black man like yourself in that white coat, because things haven’t ever been easy for us, and no one has ever given us anything without a struggle.” Julius does not comment on this statement, which ends that particular chapter.

These two moments are important, I think, because they say much about Julius, and more pointedly about the attitude of his creator toward belonging. Julius is biracial, born of a German mother and a Nigerian father, and he does not, cannot, hide the fact that his poised, aestheticized, yet pernickety lifestyle is intended to guard against unresolved family problems. Imagine the novel as an opera, and episodes from Julius’s childhood and family life in Nigeria would be indispensable arias oddly bereft of the kind of consequence one expects from the accompaniment to the here-and-now story of a New York flâneur. Given his predisposition up till this moment, it is not a puzzle that Julius swears never to go again in the direction of the Terry’s post office. If a man so well-informed about what James Baldwin once called “the white centuries” (Gustav Mahler, El Greco, Gaston Bachelard, Brussels, the “city of monuments”), feels so much unease about race-based identity claims, what does he expect us to make of Mr. F’s untroubled observation?

Teju Cole apparently did not consider this question seriously enough: the problem of racial identity is complicated, divisive, and like most things that matter, ultimately insoluble. Giving the protagonist of the serious, erudite, emotionally nimble novel a biracial identity owed to a union between a Nigerian and a German allows Cole to chart a cultural genealogy free of the racial politics of the United States, and of the vast archive of the movement called Pan-Africanism. In one of the novel’s many remarkable insights into the hidden histories of New York, Julius considers the effacement of an old cemetery specifically designed for black slaves at a time when “negro” was the word. But a biracial person is black (the word Mr. F uses), especially in the United States, and to pointedly refuse to take Terry’s (and a taxi-driver’s) more aggressive claims seriously is to undermine the graceful wisdom of Mr. F’s observation.

This point should not be overlooked. I think it holds a key to a productive engagement with the novel, indeed with Cole’s work, and I shall devote more time later to a variation of the cultural politics it signifies.

One unarguable quality of this novel is its deftness; Cole characterizes Julius with such precision that his choices, encounters, observations, questions, and desires give the novel its aura. Character is the attainment of a moral position in relation to an environment, but in Open City, Julius comes about his ethics through an uncanny understanding of the idea of individuality. It is as if this character has resolved a given moral issue before it is presented to him, and so does not need to arrive at his conclusions in the crucible of visceral or rational experience. Blackness is only one of the character’s several identities, and the one whose importance the author clearly, though unsuccessfully, minimizes. The part of Julius that is given greater purchase in the novel is his work as a psychiatrist. Any number of modern professions can provide insight into human nature, but psychiatry is perhaps unique in this respect in that it is concerned with the fundamental questions of how the human mind works, and more crucially about the consequences of those questions, the categorization of humans in terms of their conduct in a social space. What Julius professes is, all told, the result of an extremely sophisticated calculus, “the potent neurotransmitter, the analytical trick, the surgical intervention,” as he declares in a revealing moment of self-analysis a third of the way into the novel.

Julius is mostly attentive when dealing with remote, remarkably intelligent, worldly, but understated people—Professor Saito, a survivor of the US government’s historic internment of Japanese-Americans; Dr. Maillotte, a retired physician who numbered musician Cannonball Adderley among her famous patients. But captious people forged in grievance, such as Farouq, the Moroccan immigrant he befriends in Brussels, and Moji Kasali, a hurt-bearing Nigerian acquaintance who becomes his girlfriend after a chance re-encounter (in a long monologue one dawn, she accuses him of having raped her in Lagos), get on his nerves in ways he’s too self-controlled to show. His ability to display this kind of sensibility is as much a result of the severe repressions that pass for his psychiatric tutelage as of his other education—the accretions of the arts, family memory, and monumentalized history he calibrates so carefully the better to impress his own sanity upon the reader. It’s a complex, the superiority type.

On the face of them, Julius’s walks around New York City can be seen as an opportunity to advance a view of the city in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the city without the shadow cast by the two towers. But this is only on the surface, and in novels, especially of the kind that Open City proposes to be, depth matters. Or, better still, surfaces conceal. In this city lives not only Professor Saito, but another of Julius’s patients, V, a Native American whose life and death by suicide, like the bones of dead black slaves, is part of the invisible detritus of the city. The three—Saito, V, black slaves—were the scars of the wound within, but Cole is too clever to come across as proposing these as some sort of “Invisible, Everyday 9/11.” One of the best-achieved set-pieces in this novel (actually, the best, in my opinion) is Julius’s account of viewing the work of John Brewster at the American Folk Art Museum, occurring early in the novel. From looking at this special exhibit and reflecting on Brewster’s personal circumstances and social milieu (mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century America), Julius is able to articulate the perspective he himself would affect in the novel: “a sealed-away world, visible from without, but impossible to enter.” This series of small stories is showcased as counterpoint to the protagonist’s fascination with the miniature accounts of the lives of bed bug and migratory birds, although again Cole does this in an unobtrusive manner. Setting the encounter with Farouq in Europe seems to me to follow the same pattern. In a way, the debate Julius has with Farouq and his friend Khalil about fundamentalist Islam, and particularly the role this phenomenon plays in the thorny issue of the relationship between Israel and Arab/Islamic countries, is better presented without the controversial context of anti-Semitism in the US.

 

II

thiefOpen City is described and marketed as Cole’s first novel. This is inaccurate. Sometime in 2005, around the time of his return to Nigeria, the country of his childhood, after a long absence, Cole created a weblog called “Modal Minority,” and the dominant entries in this blog were the lengthy accounts of his experience during that visit. From these blog posts Cole developed an unusual manuscript published as Everyday is for The Thief (2008) by Cassava Republic Press, an innovative publishing company based in Abuja, Nigeria. This 128-page book is explicitly characterized as a novel in an Author’s Note, although to my mind it should have been called a memoir, if a category was so important to the author and the publishers. The point is that Everyday is for The Thief occupies a generic no-man’s-land. The brisk, free-flowing, yet reflexive prose text is interspersed with poetically poignant images. The chapters are short and in some cases are just vignettes of Lagos city life, some of which are fictionalized out of sheer poetic license. The unnamed narrator “is similar to me in certain ways,” Cole notes, “and different in some other ways.”

The book is set in Lagos, the cultural and commercial capital of Nigeria which has in the past fifteen years become the focus of interest among journalists, policymakers, architects, urban planners, and the like, on the account of its status as a “megacity.” Lagos, a city of extremes and paradox, has always been that way, but the recent global focus on cities, plus Nigeria’s storied identity as a political conundrum, have ensured that anyone with a sense of proportion (or of the absurd) would look at Lagos not once, not twice, but more, and be compelled to write about this microcosm of the society. What’s more, Cole lived in this city until 1992, and what the book does is to use his perspective as a worldly man of letters to think through the present state of things.

The unnamed “I” narrator gives very little away that could be used to figure out personal circumstances, until more than three-quarters into the book. Here, we are told of the sudden decision to leave the country following the death of his father and the widening of the chasm between him and his mother. The young man was in the final year of secondary education at a military school in Zaria. He bid his time until the holidays, and without informing any family members (except the one person who lent him money), he made his way out of the country to the United States, resolved to start life “on my own terms.” This biographical outline (the death in the family, the tensions with the white mother, the military school in the north, the flight to the US) is exactly the same as Julius’s, and in the opening paragraph there’s a mention of a hospital as a place of work. Obviously, in institutional and aesthetic terms, this is the book that helped Cole to write Open City.

The end of a fifteen-year military rule in 1999, and the attendant liberalizations of the economy and the polity are some of the immediate reasons for the intensive focus on Lagos, and by extension, Nigeria. There is optimism in the air, there is money, though in very few and undeserved hands, there is imagination in small matters, and there is a self-assured spirit, as anyone walking around Lagos in the latter half of 1999 often heard, of “Never-Again!” But the narrator of Everyday is for The Thief is far from impressed. Corruption, superstition, inefficiency, empty religiosity, and habits of random cruelty are so ingrained in the society as to make the spectacular changes in communication, transportation, and urban renewal less of an opening-up and more of the same old. The problem with this perspective, however, is that the young man who returns to Lagos lacks the kind of context that can enable him to experience the Lagos of the present in terms of what he used to know. There is an enormous lot by way of high-minded critique of the present order of things. Visiting the National Museum, he muses over the profligacy of a former head of state gifting a controversial artifact to the Queen of England. Sitting in an Internet café he reflects on the phenomenon of e-mail scammers (“419,” “Yahoo! Boys”). A band of “Area Boys,” street-hustlers, tries to intimidate his relatives as they take delivery of a consignment of goods arriving from the port. In everyday life, as indeed in the formal organization of society, things proceeds on the basis of “all we need is a general idea or concept.” And so on. But this critique, necessary and well-appointed, does not stand on a solid ground. The narrator is conflicted; engaged but disinterested.

For all that, the book is a remarkable achievement. The blend of acute observations and essayistic reflections on Lagos and what inhabit it, the self-conscious deployment of literary and artistic references to declare the narrator’s personal taste, all posit something quite refreshing. There are fine historical and sociological studies of Lagos, and there are good novels about Lagos, but none of these has the kind of worldliness and sass that Cole turns into style in this book. While these stylistic choices raise questions about the degree to which Everyday is for The Thief is about Lagos, they give it its unique character. One learns to understand its flaws. This is not so much because the perspective of the person who left is not as sharp as that of the one who returns—I don’t think Cole wants that conclusion drawn. It is because this is a novel, an utterance as a set of questions rather than as answers. It would be bad form, after all, to point out errors of fact in a work that does not pretend to be historical fiction.

Yet confronted with a book wishing to convey the idea that Lagos is a habited paradox, would the engaged reader be wrong to imagine a connection between the elitism of the Musical Society of Nigeria, which impresses the narrator, and the decrepitude of the National Museum across the road? Calling this book a novel, then, is a sleight-of-hand which gives the author the license he needs to avoid the many potholes in the road he has chosen to travel. Furthermore, the private domain is a hotbed of complicated emotions and he constantly turns to it in impressive, lightly-touched, vignettes guaranteed to lure the reader away from argumentation around the seemingly insoluble problems of Lagos.

 

III

Chloe Anthony Wofford. Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes. Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Eric Blair. These names never graced the covers of books, but they were names attached from birth to those who would become famous authors. The reasons that those writers opted for names other than the ones their parents gave them could be varied, but they came down to one thing: the imaginative freedom to choose what one wants to be. In some settings, the writer Teju Cole would be known as Obayemi Onafuwa. Besides his wide perspectives on the world (he knows and has written quite perceptively on music, cinema, art, philosophy and literature from a variety of aesthetic and national traditions), he is also familiar with a culture which says, “Abroad, one is free to answer to a name of one’s fancy”. And, come to think of it, what is adulthood if not the freedom to stop doing the biddings of one’s parents?

I bring up this issue for two main reasons. First, the rhetoric of Cole’s fictions is more discursive than narrative, and thus opens up a vast field of interpretations. Having made ideas the warp and the woof of his writing, blending the essay, reportage, criticism, and social analysis with fiction, and running the mix through the mill of the subjective I, the author has thrown down a juicy bone of contention. When you have the flâneur, rather than the raconteur, as the guide in a narrative undertaking, you can be sure of greater propensities for reflection along that Walter Benjamin one-way street. On this street, the most fleeting of observations contains multitudes. This also means that both Julius and Cole are fictions and open to interpretation.

Second, I imagine that as Cole’s unique imagination brings him deserved recognition in the coming years, some readers will try to link the kinds of work he produces and the identity he’s adopted, and are likely to come to trivializing conclusions. They will be wrong, but they will be justified because Cole has made deliberate choices against the background of a long and ongoing history of cultural difference and unequal symbolic exchange. For those familiar with the history of modern Nigeria, the name Cole (like Williams, Doherty, Leigh, Coker, Jones, Rhodes, Thomas, Haastrup, Simpson, etc.) immediately calls up associations with the elite of Victorian Lagos. These were the families of westernizing worthies either descended from freed slaves or patronized by the clerical and commercial establishments at a time the city was redefining its ambiguous past. For them, bearing names attached to African institutions, especially religious ones, was in many cases a sign of social or cultural backwardness. True, there were also those who in that very context deliberately brought back old and spectacular African names, but English-sounding names came with a great deal of cultural capital for those who bore them. Now when a writer with one such name, Cole, lives abroad in New York, produces work which consciously foregrounds departure, heterogeneity and difference, adopts biracialism as an ontological premise to the extent of fashioning subjectivities that assume Euro-American culture as patrimony, while at the same time shading in African institutions and settings as the repositories of questionable folkloric authenticity, well, there is going to be a debate, if not the sort of quarrel Baldwin once feared between himself and Leopold Senghor, whom he imagined as having equal access to both civilization and barbarism.

Without defending or condemning Cole’s choices as an individual or foreclosing this hypothetical debate, I think that our writer is fully aware of this question, one of the most contentious topics in postcolonial thought. One should expect nothing less from the owner-blogger of “Modal Minority” who once went by the pen-name Ibn Battuta. Indeed, in Open City, he causes Julius to deliberate on an aspect of this dilemma during one of his exchanges with Farouq in Brussels. The opinionated immigrant is trying to offer his views on the work of two Moroccan writers—Mohamed Choukri and Tahar Ben Jelloun—in terms of which was more authentic, and charges the Paris-based Ben Jelloun with affecting “a certain poeticity…in the eyes of the West.” It is the old compulsion to divide and choose, of course: between an Ariel and a Caliban, between a Martin Luther King and a Malcolm X, between a Borges and a Neruda, between a Derek Walcott and a Kamau Brathwaite. The unchanging assumption behind this division is that the first is the agreeable “cosmopolitan” and the other the problematic “nativist”. The first is the integrationist, while the other is the nationalist. Somewhere between or above them hovers the presence of The Man. If they exist in real life, and I think they do, the two pigeonholes are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but rhetoric requires them to be.

Julius’s response to this issue is quite instructive, and the novel’s originality lays partly in how it attempts to avoid this divisiveness. What it does is to change the joke, as it were. Since the division works through the formulation of class issues as racial ones (the “refinements” of class passed off as a function of racial background), Cole gives us a protagonist who is “divided to the bone,” as Walcott once puts it in an emblematic poem, and often proceeds from very abstract premises—the surface, the residue, the examination of the quality of the mind. Some of the best writers of the twentieth century (C.L.R. James, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, George Lamming) battled this deep-seated prejudice: they were not seen as just good writers, but as good black writers. Others like Toni Morrison, Alex Haley, Édouard Glissant and Alice Walker wrote to embrace it. Cole stands on the shoulders of these eminent writers, and assumes the privilege of speaking as a legatee of the world’s heritage located in Europe, but without being saddled with the conundrums of color. He gets Julius to reflect on the ideology of difference that operates between Arabs and Jews, and from the angle of the window thus opened on the world, invites comparisons not just with the V.S. Naipaul of The Enigma of Arrival but also with the likes of W.G. Sebald, John Berger and Thomas Bernhard whose works stand as complex reflections on European intellectual and artistic heritages. He writes about New York City as few contemporary writers have done. Above all, he gives us a thoughtful black psychiatrist without inducing thoughts of Frantz Fanon. We are no longer in the heavily politicized terrains of race and class, and so-called “white centuries” are no longer anything of the sort.

Once upon a time in colonial society, whether in Fort-de-France, New Orleans, or in Lourenço Marques, to be biracial was to be viewed as a traitor. This is what gave rise to the figure of the tragic mulatto, who thought himself white, but was unequally distrusted by black and white. That certainly provided a good argument for Aimé Césaire in Une Tempête, where Ariel returns as the mulatto and obstruction to the anti-colonial effort. But a lot has happened between 1959 and 2009 and as Zadie Smith, writing about Barack Obama not too long ago says, being biracial can also be a matter of learning to speak in tongues! She should know. Its presumed tragicness thus entirely reinterpreted in light of new realities, biracialism no longer needs to view itself as a form of otherness, especially not in relation to Africa or America. The division was artificial right from the start.

Part of Cole’s strategy in his writings, it seems to me, is to try to recapture that moment before the slave trade when, according to Berger in his controversial Booker Prize acceptance speech of 1972, “black and white approached each other with the amazement of potential equals.” Or to imagine it as our common future. And he wants to do this not on the terms of contemporary understandings of race and culture but on the terms of writing as the mode of fashioning individual sensibilities. This option is not to be construed as avoiding politics, but as conceiving of the political on terms that put the individual first. Thus, his literary references are not so much the post-slavery black writers, but those of a different clime and orientation, such as Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, and al-Wazzan who wrote about Africa within the context of worldly travels. As the historian Natalie Zemon Davis notes in Trickster Travels, her highly imaginative account of the life of al-Wazzan (better known as Leo Africanus), what is important about this kind of literary orientation is “how a man moved between different polities, made use of different cultural and social resources, and entangled or separated them so as to survive, discover, write, make relationships, and think about society and himself.” When travel and the writing which chronicles it are conceived as the modes of creating sensibilities, the author embodies a world of imaginaries, creating stories that can find home in the imaginaries of others, a world unfettered by artificial divisions.

The problem, though, is that artificial divisions crumble hard. They sooner acquire material force, become real and hard to transcend. They have an archive, leave a mark on institutions. People kill and are killed for them. The most powerful man in a very powerful country is relentlessly maligned by his citizens simply on account of the color of his skin. This is why, to return to where I started, Julius’s encounters with Terry and Mr. F in New York are important in grasping the cultural politics at work in Cole’s novels. For him, Leo Africanus might be a less ideological literary progenitor than Edward Blyden, but it is the latter who offers a more persuasive argument to writers of Cole’s temperament about how to approach creativity in an adversarial context. That biracial identity could be a viable option for a worldly character is itself a result of the ethical exertions of writers across generations, black and white—but they took up the challenge so that a Cole doesn’t have to. Julius had earlier promised to be in solidarity with a jailed Liberian asylum-seeker but never kept his promise. (In Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul writes about the letters he received from Angela, a certain young woman he’d roomed with in a hostel upon arriving in England, and about his simple resolve not to reply to any of them. Angela was in the past and no longer mattered.) He had been irritated into sullenness by the friendly chatter of an African taxi-driver trying to “lay claims on him.” It is therefore not a puzzle that he will make a point of avoiding Terry’s post office. The puzzle is that a cultural-nationalist like Terry can tell that biracial Julius is from the African continent. That would be true of Cole, not of Julius who, like the narrator of Everyday is for The Thief, is “different [from the author] in some other ways.” It would be interesting to speculate if Terry’s insufferable poetry, rather than his simplistic view of African culture, is what puts Julius off.

An idle speculation, perhaps.

 

IV

Thinking of a conclusion, I am reminded of two seemingly incompatible writers, the Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji and the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. “Who could refuse Mudimbe anything?” Hountondji wonders at some point in his book, The Struggle for Meaning, and one can read this question as an attempt to underscore the substantial cultural capital associated with his colleague from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Success has many friends, and although some may be critical of the choices the successful make to advance self-determined goals, most will come to terms with the reality of it. Hountondji goes further to regret that Mudimbe’s career evinces “a certain type of apolitical position, of disengagement from Africa,” but he is also of the opinion that Mudimbe’s work expands the field of knowledge about the continent. I won’t go so far as to assert that Cole adopts an apolitical position as a writer—there is evidence to the contrary in the columns he published in the now-defunct NEXT newspaper published in Lagos, and in some of his recent interventions elsewhere. I will state quite categorically that he has started off his career through a strategic act of disidentification. Yet as Borges contends in “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”, responding to the criticism that his writing lacked national characteristics, anything that an Argentine writer can do with success stands to enrich the tradition she appears to be turning her back on. Cole is sending signals that being African does not, should not, commit a writer to engaging with African themes. I can deal with that because I imagine that he knows what he is doing. He (or Julius?) is in New York. He knows Irewolede Denge as well as he knows Tomas Tranströmer. He is a scholar of Netherlandish art, but he must be aware of the itinerant Yoruba artist, Are Lagbayi who, as contexts go, was better traveled than Delft-bound Johannes Vermeer and produced his work in ex-ile. Cole should be able to put on the authenticity cap, yes, turn on the authenticity tap, if the occasion calls for it.

 

Akin Adesokan is the author of Roots in the Sky, a novel, and a collection of essays, Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics. He is also a contributing editor of Chimurenga. Read his letter from Lagos “A Corpse And Its Jurisdiction” in the print edition of the new Chronic. Get a copy in our online shop or visit your nearest stockists.

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