Teju Cole takes a break from Twitter to speak to Sean O’Toole at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, who struggles to find a compact with an author of “complicated attitudes and responses”.
“Eight press interviews in Cape Town so far,” tweeted author Teju Cole on 10 September 2013, a day after I met up with him at the Townhouse Hotel during the run of the Open Book Festival. “All my interviewers have been great. But every single one has been white. Absurd.”
Well yes, sure. Perhaps it would have been different in Jo’burg. But, as it stands, Cole, whose second novel, Open City, was wildly applauded by mostly white critics following its international release in 2011, ended up in the opposition bastion of Cape Town. South Africa’s unresolved racial compact wasn’t the only thing that struck Cole on his first visit to the country. Unavoidably, given the encounter between literariness and justice that Open City stages, Cole – in the manner of his book’s ambulatory protagonist, Julius – walked around the city’s loneliest suburb.
“What I thought at Robben Island?” he tweeted a few days before his encounter with curious white writers. “That in a half century people will visit Guantanamo Bay and think, ‘How could humans do this?’”
Yes, Cole tweets. A lot.
“Before I had an audience,” he told Kgomotso Matsunyane on the stage of Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre, during the first of numerous solo and group appearances at the literary festival, “I was much more well-mannered and behaved.”
That shifted when he garnered an audience (he currently has 117,000 followers on Twitter).
“It is worthless if I am not saying anything that matters,” he added. “We are not going to be here very long.”
While not immune to humour – “About to speak at the University of Cape Town. Hope I won’t be a disgrace. #coetzeejoke” – Cole’s online voice tends to be sober, incisive, and aphoristic.
“Each penal colony is part of the archipelago of horrors,” reads an exemplary tweet from his Cape Town visit. The seriousness is not an affectation. He has a habit of speaking like this in person.
Cole was in Cape Town for about a week. I spent 27 minutes of that time chatting with him in a corner of his hotel’s lounge. He sat on a chaise longue. Cole is thinner in person than his press photos suggest, dapper too, with a fondness for flat-caps. He is generous with his thoughts, even when his body resists and complains (he yawned frequently during our exchange, his date with David Lurie’s crowd still pending). But Cole’s defining attribute is neither his hipster fashion sense nor his curtain beard; it is his speaking voice. It is deliberate and measured. Because of his hyphenated background – he was born to Nigerian parents in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and spent 17 years living in Nigeria – it is also stripped of that annoying American twang.
Cole uses this voice to urgently and unapologetically speak about the frailty of being human, this in a world of broken ethics and fundamental violence. He makes no bones about his earnestness. My first question to him draws on his sharpened sense of the place and role of ethics in literature.
“What does it mean to be a just person?” he said in his exchange with Matsunyane. “It is a question that goes beyond binaries. It is not about picking sides.”
Opening my marked-up copy of Open City, I read a short passage back to its author. Julius, along with a throng of commuters, has just descended the stairs into Vesey Street. The momentary containment makes Julius think of animals being herded to slaughter.
“Elizabeth Costello’s nagging questions showed up in the strangest places,” he offers. I ask if Coetzee and his “nagging questions” have surfaced during his visit.
“They have,” responds Cole.
No wait, I think.
“Shall we rewind?” I say. “Is Coetzee someone on your syllabus of reading?”
I want to dispense with procedure here for a moment, delay reporting what Cole responded and look for a moment at his breakthrough second book. I first picked up Open City in 2012, during a quiet spell in Switzerland. After wandering with Julius through the chiaroscuro half-light of New York, I finally and decisively gave up on him during a train journey to France, around the time of the death of his interlocutor friend, Professor Saito. Sure, Julius is a smart and insightful narrator, but he is also gauche. Eventually his condition – one of strained profundity and committed editorialising – became too much. He reminded me of Paul Morel, that absorptive looker whose “struggling, abstract speeches” animate D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers (1911). In the end my patience ran out.
Open City is an ambitious novel. It is marked by beautiful passages of crystalline prose, but its central strategy, of collaging essayistic anecdotes onto a grey fictional narrative, strains at the reader’s compact with a writer.
“A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it [the novel],” said Gabriel García Márquez in a 1981 interview. For all his observational prowess and encyclopaedic knowledge of the layered miseries on which New York is built, Julius, unlike Paul Morel, felt less like a character than like a roving consciousness shoehorned into a polite realist narrative. The book required a more inventive form, one equal to the zigzagging consciousness of this solitary walker. Instead Cole offered a psychological novel in the mould of Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man (1944).
In her tough but fair appraisal of the book, Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times book critic, describes it as a “flawed novel”, albeit one marked by flashes of an “eclectic, sometimes electric journalistic eye”. She also described the book as “an ungainly mash-up of W.G. Sebald’s work and the Camus novel L’Etranger”.
Cole reads Camus, that other hyphenated African, born in Mondovi, Algeria, and spending his adult life in France.
“Nobel. Strange feeling of overwhelming pressure and melancholy. At 20 years old, poor and naked, I knew true glory. My mother.”
That’s Camus, in 1957, the year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as tweeted by Cole on the day Alice Munro received the award. Camus, whose writings also ask essential questions about being animate and conscious, offers a useful way to approach Cole, and his book.
The ruminating, confessional style of Open City shares many affinities with La Chute (The Fall), a novel Camus published the year before his Nobel. Well-educated petty bourgeois protagonists, with a good working knowledge of European art, narrate both novels: Julius is a trainee psychiatrist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence a lawyer. Both survey the world from the pedestal of empire: Julius lives in New York, Jean-Baptiste in Paris. Both have a fondness for epigrams.
“Africa,” offers Julius as he heads into a cinema to watch Forest Whitaker play Idi Amin, “was always waiting, a substrate for the white man’s will, a backdrop for his activities.”
And here is Jean-Baptiste: “A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.”
A half-century later we still fuck, although the rustle of newsprint has been replaced by the glow of a screen transmitting push notifications.
Writing for The Atlantic, in 1953, Camus offered this on the predicament of journalistic portraiture of the kind being offered here:
Before being known, a writer in our time must accept having a small number of readers. A healthy condition. But from the moment his reputation begins to boom, when he becomes material for a newspaper article, then he has every prospect of becoming known to a great number of people who will never read him. Then he will be known, not for what he is, but according to the image created by a hurried but infallible reporter.
That image, added Camus, is likely to be false or ridiculous, or both. It is a terminal system, sustained by tradition, delusion, vanity and the lack of a better or workable substitute. So, week in and week out, before and after fornicating, we read interviews with writers, confessing to this and that.
Cole is practised in the demands of book promotion and its confessional routines.
“I love airports, quiet hotel rooms, big cities,” he told Matsunyane. “The only thing I don’t like is being in danger. I’m happiest in big cities.”
Confession light. In a panel discussion a few days later, seated between Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ and NoViolet Bulawayo, Cole offered another admission: “Where are my ashes going to end up?”
The question, he explained, had emerged after he met an Australian writer who showed him where he planned to be buried.
“That clarity struck me.”
It struck him because, at age 38, he cannot imagine with any certainty being buried in either Lagos – “you won’t be able to stay dead, it’s so noisy” – or Brooklyn. This thought, he added, is an “unresolved and stark question” for him.
Is this an insightful take on the predicament of his hyphenated identity? Or was Cole simply performing literary celebrity by sharing a throwaway anecdote from his travels? He rejects binaries; neither is true, or both are. He also rejects the scorn of others, particularly those espousing nativist positions in relation to his mixed identity.
“I don’t give anyone the right to be disappointed in me,” he stated in an exchange with Nigerian writer Tope Folarin.
In a way, Cole is echoing Coetzee here. Coetzee famously avoids interviews; but it wasn’t always that way. In a 1992 conversation with intellectual peer David Attwell, Coetzee spoke of the “violation of propriety” that an interview represents.
“And then there is the casualness and lack of professionalism, and even lack of true curiosity, true interest, that one meets with,” he added. “There is also the question of control, control over the interview.”
As Coetzee notes, recorded statements get taken away, edited, censored, the idiosyncrasies and wrinkles of the spoken word smoothed over so that the outcome “conforms to a monologic ideal… There is a true sense in which writing is dialogic: a matter of awakening the countervoices in oneself and embarking upon speech with them.”
This latter statement pithily encapsulates what Cole achieves in Open City. But a book can never be an interview subject; at best, it is the alibi for an interview.
So, is Coetzee someone on Cole’s syllabus of reading?
“More than that, ,” he responds, “he is someone I would consider one of the essential voices that has shaped the way I think about questions of literature, and by extension questions of justice, simply because, for me, literature and justice are very closely tied to each other. What has occurred to me several times in the time I have been here in Cape Town, is the extent to which one’s initial engagement with a new place can be mediated by previous intense encounters with the world of literature. What I kept thinking about in the four or five days I have been here is my trip earlier this year to the Port of Spain in Trinidad. When I visited it was very mediated by the imaginative space that had been created in the writing of V.S. Naipaul. In a surprisingly similar way, Cape Town has been mediated by John Coetzee’s work.”
Thematically, he adds, “I have a great deal of interest and admiration of the work of Nadine Gordimer, for example, but temperamentally, I am more drawn to Coetzee’s short, somewhat arid novels.”
Coetzee’s Beckettian terseness has earned him many detractors, notably Martin Amis. I ask Cole what pleasure he personally derives from Coetzee as a writer.
“I find it consoling that somebody is making an effort to write in a way that is equal to the seriousness of the predicament. Your situation does not really call for tap-dancing, and he doesn’t do tap-dancing. One would wish a pathologist to be methodical. I mean that is not a fault in a pathologist, it is a virtue.”
Coetzee, he adds, is also important to him as someone who thinks about questions of oppression and the proximity of daily life to torture.
“I am deeply unsympathetic to most of Coetzee’s critics, because they seem to wish him to be other than he is,” he continues. “And what he is already is immensely helpful. But some people have this need to cut him down, break him down. He has a wounded imagination and portrays very impressively a damaged world, and it is true of his world.”
That he might come across as unsmilingly serious – an accusation also levelled at John Berger, another “important touchstone” for Cole – is of little consequence.
“We are here to do a certain amount of work,” he elaborates. “If your work calls for seriousness, do serious work. I just don’t understand this need that some people have to put everyone in the same shoehorn ; that you have to cheer up, you have to get along. No! We all have different intensities of experience of the world, and for some people, in certain works, they need to testify to the woundedness and pain of being in the world. That is quite alright. In 100 years none us is going to be here. There will be people who will be appreciated for doing funny work, and other people who will be appreciated for having provided the consolation of giving us seriousness when what we needed is seriousness.”
I move from my uncomfortable seat on the edge of the chaise longue to another chair. The conversation also shifts. Walking. Open City is a kind of praise poem dedicated to walking shoes. It is a “fundamentally un-American activity”, jokes Cole.
“I have always walked a lot wherever I have been, in part because I don’t drive. This is the first time this has come up in an interview, but I think my strong connection to walking around has to do with the fact that I can’t go rent a car or buy one. I either have to take public transportation or walk. Out of that lag, I started to gain new forms of knowledge about the space around me. Later, in talking about the book and thinking about what kind of activity it was that I engaged in, I became much more cognisant of the literature of walking, everything from Benjamin and Walser to Sonit.”
I ask if he walks through Lagos, the subject of his current non-fiction work. Yes, he responds, but he is also driven around a lot. Cole can be funny on Nigeria. I don’t think he always intends to be, but the hyphen, which is really an umbilical cord, elicits complicated attitudes and responses from him.
“I truly love Lagosians, but I hate Lagos,” he told Matsunyane. “I feel confident enough that I don’t have to romanticise it.” And no, George Packer isn’t the city’s decisive chronicler.
“Lagos is almost uniformly badly reported,” offered Cole. In part, he added, this is because there is a difference between writing factually accurate journalism and bearing out the city’s “intricacies” in prose.
“Oh, Nigeria,” a woman on a flight tells Julius. “Nigeria, Nigeria. Well, I know a great deal of Nigerians, and I really should tell you this, many of them are arrogant.”
To which Julius responds: “We think of ourselves as the Japanese of Africa, without the technological brilliance.”
Nigeria is clearly a work-in-progress notion for Cole, Lagos a lover that he is yet to fully commit to. Fela Kuti is a constant point of return in his narration of the city.
“The great novel of Lagos is the collected discography of Fela Kuti,” he offered during his conversation with Matsunyane. “It is political, sensual and experiential. There is no greater pleasure being in Lagos than blasting Fela Kuti from a moving car. His star is ascendant.”
Responding to an audience question about whether he considered himself an exile, Cole remarked, “Exile is a grand word for people whose governments want to kill them. Fela Kuti could never have come from Lichtenstein.”
Creativity, he added, needs the “friction of the everyday” for sustenance. Lagos offers exactly that resistant feedback.
Cole passes through Murtala Muhammed International Airport at least once or twice each year. When he leaves Lagos, Nigeria, the African continent, he returns to a life of ordered rituals and northern hemisphere assumptions about life.
“I am an art historian, a lover of music, a ‘race man’, a walker in the city, a Yoruba, a political doubter, a devotee of the Anglo-American legal tradition, an apostate,” he told Guernica magazine recently. Cole teaches literature and art history at Bard College, where he is Distinguished Writer in Residence and Achebe Fellow. He is currently completing his PhD at Columbia University, focusing on 16th-century Dutch art.
Camus was also interested in Dutch art, Jean-Baptiste modelling his home on a Vermeer, “without furniture or copper pots”. Similarly, Julius in many ways sees his world as that of a 17th- century artist from the Low Countries. After being mugged, he sits on a pavement bathed in a distinctive glow:
Above me, the evening lights of apartments came on, and there was still a little light in the sky; incoming night was poised between daylight and electric light; the light shining from interiors I could see but not reach seemed to promise that life was continuing.
The book is brimful of such observations. They are both beautiful and repetitious.
“I think in art as well as literature, there is always the hope of extending something out there that can be received to the same degree that you have offered it,” says Cole of his twin interests in looking and reading:
“I think a lot of the work that moves me the most, like John Berger, John Coetzee and many others, comes from people who have a certain hope of reciprocity, usually reciprocity of calmness, of silence. That which is entertaining can entertain en masse, but that which is consoling consoles individually, one by one, one reader absorbing those psychological states. So, it is the least communal activity. It is actually really a kind of dialogue.”
My recording device shows 25 minutes. A nervous-looking white reporter is poised in the wings. I ask Cole if there is a relationship between the remarkable stillness of Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings and the ambition of his second book. In one big breath, without any sense of haste, he responds.
“Sometimes I suggest that maybe a better title for this book would have been “Netherland”. That title was already taken. I do like the way there are parallels between the stillness of Dutch painting, the thoughtfulness of it, the idea of the still life, the idea of the painting of everyday life, and the fact that all of this is happening around the same time that the Dutch East India Company is colonising New York City. I drew that parallel in the passage about the whales. It actually imbues the whole book. Dutch painting is present as a hovering, guiding intelligence over the book, the art of description, as Svetlana Alpers wrote in her book on Dutch painting. I feel like Open City is very much the art of description; that the world is worth describing.”
The recording ends.
Sean O’ Toole is a Cape Town-based journalist and writer. He has published a collection of short stories titled The Marquis of Mooikloof.
Photos by Teju Cole.