New York-based Nigerian writer Teju Cole’s debut novel, Open City, was one of the Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2011. Cole is about to visit New Zealand for a creative-writing masterclass at Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters and a public event at Unity Books. This is a longer Q&A version of an interview in the current print edition of the Listener.
You’re probably sick to death of speaking about Open City… No, it’s still a privilege to talk to people about my book, so don’t worry about that…
I’d definitely like to talk about it later. But I wondered if we could start by speaking about what you’ve been doing in Lagos, Nigeria. I know you’ve been working on a non-fiction piece there. After finishing Open City, it didn’t make sense to move on to another fiction work right away, simply because it takes a bit of time to emerge from the invented world of a novel, and also because I didn’t want to write something that would right away be in competition with something I’d spent the last few years working on. I grew up in Lagos and something about it has impressed itself on me. So I decided to write a narrative book about ordinary life in the city, largely based on interviews with people who live there, but also on my memories of the place and my observations going back there as an adult. When you grow up in a city or a town, you have a sense of how it works for your needs as a child. When you’re an adult and you go back, you realise there are layers and intricacies you never considered when you were younger, which are essential to how the city functions. There was a great deal of nuance I needed to get about how things function in this enormous, and enormously complicated, strangely underwritten city.
You’ve also talked about wanting non-Nigerians to know something about daily life in Nigeria. Is that still a driving factor? It is, very much. If you’re from somewhere, you’re a little hyper-sensitive about how that place is depicted by people who are not from there. And in my American experience, what I’ve found about Nigeria in general and Lagos in particular is that it’s not even so much that they say the wrong things about them; it’s that they don’t talk about them at all. It’s a great big blank. So I am writing for a Nigerian audience so they can see their city, written down, in a particular way. But I’m also writing for a non-Nigerian audience, to give them an intricate sense of the daily, normal lives that are being lived in this city, which – whatever problems it might have – is a contemporary, 21st-century city.
I read recently that in the second half of this century Nigeria will be the major African power, if not a world power, given the speed of its growth. And it’s still a blank. It’s odd, because it’s already a major African power. It is absolutely crucial to the health and balance of the United States, because a great deal of American oil comes from Nigeria. But there’s something about the narration that is just not there. It seems to be sufficient for people to just see it as a source of resources, and not as a place that is integral for its own sake; that has lives, internal disputes, artists and creativity and crime; all the sorts of activity we know happens in cities. So that’s what gives me the thrill of working on this subject not too many people have touched. My last book was about New York, and there was the challenge of writing about a city that’s been written about countless times. There was a pleasure in that as well, because I came at it with my own peculiar perspective. But in the case of Lagos I feel this is a city that could certainly stand to have a couple of dozen new books about it.
Thinking about your own relationship with both cities, I wondered if Lagos now is a little bit like where New York was a hundred years ago. By that, I don’t mean to suggest at all that it’s a hundred years behind, but there is a sense of the two cities at these respective moments being on the cusp of global influence or power, and the electricity that goes with that. Absolutely. You might be aware I’m doing a project on Twitter, called Small Fates. It’s an updating of the fait divers you used to find in French newspapers: weird, everyday stories of mayhem and disaster, that sort of thing. For a long while, I based these on contemporary Nigerian newspapers. More recently, I’ve been basing them on New York newspapers from 1912. I want to be very careful not to say that Lagos of today is like New York a hundred years ago, as though it’s somehow lagging evolutionarily; that’s not what I mean. But it is a society that is somewhat newly urbanised, that is taking in a lot of immigrants, that is not completely in the control of institutional power – so there’s a lot of crime, a lot of organised crime – public services are present but poor, and you have a very large number of people coming from agrarian and non-city backgrounds, with their beliefs and their customs. This particular mixture, I think, actually leads to the kinds of things we see in Nigeria. It reflects a lot in the journalism and the kinds of accidents that happen. It’s very striking to me that in Lagos this year and New York a hundred years ago there was an unusual number of elevator accidents – people stepping into the elevator and the elevator’s not there – that sort of thing. Or people shooting each other in lovers’ quarrels. These things of course happen in contemporary New York. But it seems to have become a much more controlled environment since 1912.
Were those resonances what drove Small Fates back to 1912, or was it a coincidence you started to recognise as you were working on it? It was one of the things that pushed it in that direction. But the other thing I wanted to explore was the uncanny feeling one gets when you’re writing about a place in which you are present, but about a time from which you are displaced. I wrote a Small Fate about two days ago, about an accident at Greenwood Cemetery. During the funeral of a notable Italian citizen, the crowds were so great that 40 people tumbled into open graves. The cemetery is 10 minutes’ walk from where I was sitting writing that. All those people – the survivors, the injured, the man who was buried – they’ve all gone. They represent a way of life that has completely vanished. And yet they live on in the archives.
I came across you via Small Fates before I knew about Open City. What role does Twitter play in your overall practice? How does it interact with your longform literature? Thank you for calling it my longform literature, and not calling it my real work! For me, Twitter is part of my real work. I know this puts me in a very tiny minority. For most people, it’s a distraction. For me, it’s practice in the art of putting together sentences, in shaping stories, in forcing myself to write every day – almost like sitting down and writing a haiku or a poem. But if I were doing poetry on my Twitter stream fewer people would be interested. Almost all of my writing is interested in the sentence as a form of expression, in how a sentence can get into a reader in a psychological way, almost like a smuggling of thought using this particular, simple technology. And I think that’s highlighted by the tweets. They often go through drafts, and I’m very vigilant with my use of commas, and the pacing, and the part of the story that comes in the final phrase. Open City was a book I was completely invested in, and still am. But I quickly wanted to get into a different kind of presentation. Because Open City was told in the first-person and because of the literary techniques I’d used in it, some people assumed that the book was autobiographical, which it’s not, or that the sensibility of the narrator meshes completely with mine. So Small Fates gave me an opportunity to show a very important part of my sensibility – a certain dark humour, which is largely absent from Open City. Irony is something that’s important to my conception of the world.
You mentioned the assumption of autobiography in first-person narratives. Small Fates seems interesting in that regard, in that you’re taking fundamentally factual stories and turning them into little jewels of fiction through your translation. So the line between genres is extremely fluid. It is. Every fact in Small Fates can be verified from the newspapers. But the twist, the irony, the point of view, the slight emphasis on absurdity, those are clearly things that come from me as the writer. So does that fictionalise the story? Though now that I’m writing this Lagos book, I unfortunately have to become one of those very po-faced, serious defenders of journalism, and make sure that everything I write is verifiable. That will probably be the part I enjoy about it the least.
Let’s talk more about Open City. I was surprised so many critics focused on Julius’s solitude. I never quite felt that. I sensed a guy with a fairly complex internal life who was seeking out contact with others, and was often surprised or elated when he encountered something intelligent or generous. Have you been surprised at the way he’s been interpreted? I feel that has been a little over-emphasised. Every now and again, I meet a reader who is genuinely introverted – a reader who feels that Julius is very familiar. They just see him as a person who is perhaps flawed, but otherwise completely normal. But for many other readers, quite aside from plot elements in the book, the mere fact of him thinking in these ways and going on these explorations marks him out as someone who is “off,” who is wrong, who is bad or something. I can’t completely account for that. I’m introverted – not quite as much as Julius is – but the fact is that very many people are like this; they live alone, or even have the habit of keeping people at arm’s length. Yet at the same time they have a sensitive and nurturing attitude towards a certain element of the world. One of the most striking negative reviews was someone who called Julius an autistic Martian, and I thought, “Come now, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.” He’s not quite so far off the mainstream. But I do understand that he’s an unusual character. But then, how unusual is he, really? Is he more unusual that Stevens in [Kazuo Ishiguro’s] The Remains of the Day, or David Lurie in [JM Coetzee’s] Disgrace, or Meursault in [Albert Camus’s] The Stranger? We’ve been living with characters like this for a long time. It’s not such a new thing to have your head be the place where you do well.
That space he occupies inside his own head also enables him to act out very different lives in the public sphere. In Brussels, for example, he has a vigorous political argument with Farouq, and also has a sexual encounter with a much older woman, in which he gives her a false name. It seems like each encounter is a moment of total liberation from his regular life, until you realise his “regular” life is actually just a succession of different lives. The notion of a unitary self is a deception, because we contain multitudes. We’re manifold. We are constantly interleaved with the lives of others. And so I wanted to hand off one thought to another, one connection to another, in an organic way. That’s why Julius has these many different encounters. People hear that this book doesn’t have much of a plot, and it’s about what happens in a man’s mind. So what keeps that from being a blog, or someone sitting down and writing 300 pages about the first things that come into their mind? I think the difference is that the events, and the sensations and the thoughts, are calculated to look as if they are random, but are actually carefully selected. There’s a curatorial instinct driving the writing. So the encounter with Farouq, for example, becomes a kind of reflection, a resonance with other encounters he has in the book.
It’s interesting that you describe this as a curatorial enterprise. That relates to my feeling that Julius’s encounters were actually ways to reflect on 20th-century history, and the legacy of World War II specifically. World War II is a strange one, because I was born long after it and it’s not a war I ever knew in a big way, in part because I grew up in Nigeria. However, it continues to resonate for me as a writer in two ways. One is that New York went through that war, and sent a lot of people to that war, and received a lot of refugees from that war. Sometimes I’ll be on the bus and there will be two old ladies speaking Yiddish. It’s the sort of moment where you think, “So what’s the story there, what lives have they lived?” You meet someone who is Jewish-American of a certain age – and there are very many such people – and the chances are they have some overlap with this frightening event. So that’s one thing. The second is that as an avid reader of literature the central European experience and the American Jewish experience have been very much concerned with the aftermath of World War II. So this becomes part of your mental equipment. But there’s also the proper hesitation that comes with writing something that is not your experience, and so enormous in its horror you run a very real risk of trivialising it with your prose. I wanted to write about somebody who had some kind of personal connection to these things – Julius’s mother and grandmother had to live through World War II and its aftermath – and yet not turn it into another species of Holocaust literature. It absolutely had to be an oblique view.
Hence the subtle way you explore its legacy. For example, there’s Farouq reflecting on Israel/Palestine, the internment of a Japanese-American professor, the idea of Brussels as an Open City, the European project that was the result of the war. And also Julius’s mother, whose own mother had been in Berlin. In most accounts of the war, the mass rape of German women by Russian soldiers in the final days of the war and just after is a minor event, but not for the people who endured it. It’s a big story. It’s only from the perspective of the landings at Normandy and Auschwitz that it becomes less than a big story. So you’re right, I wanted to select these somewhat quieter but no less frightening and unjust events, just as a way of saying that events like this still echo.
That echo was very strong when Julius goes to a nightclub in Brussels and realises he’s surrounded by Rwandans. That’s right. When you’re walking down the street, you don’t know what that other person has gone through. You just don’t know. Farouq’s life, for example, thousands of miles away, is affected by 9/11 even though it has nothing to do with him. There’s someone who you’ve been very good about not naming so far, because he comes up in every conversation about my work: WG Sebald.
[Laughing] I was getting there. [Laughing] He discussed writing about history with a sidelong glance. We have an ethical responsibility in the way we deal with atrocities to make sure we don’t reduce them to a narrative of entertainment. It’s a very tough thing. How, for example, does one separate something like Small Fates from something like the Holocaust? There’s something understandable about irony when we’re describing an accidental death that happens a hundred years ago, because it shows, in a kind of Homeric way, how we’re all subject to the randomness of fate. But if we’re talking about crashing a plane into a building full of people, or people on account of their sexuality or race being marched off to camps and killed in large numbers, or an invading group of immigrants exterminating all of you, as what happened to the Native Americans, things like that defeat language. Individual tragedies come close to defeating language. Mass tragedy does.
It strikes me that if there is a resonance between Sebald’s work and your own it’s what you’ve just described. A lot of reviewers have latched onto stylistic similarities. But it seems to me it’s far more the legacy of traumatic events connecting you than questions of style. Absolutely. I’m very grateful for that, and I completely agree. Stylistically speaking, I take a lot more from poets like Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, and prose writers like VS Naipaul, JM Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje and James Salter. It’s fair to say a lot of the cadences in my sentences are inspired by Naipaul. But few critics pick that up, and somehow end up latching onto the Sebald thing instead. His sentences are completely different from mine. His are long, looping and sort of intoxicated, whereas my stuff reads like court testimony; it’s very laconic. To me, that’s an important difference. I know I shouldn’t read reviews, but I do, and somebody recently wrote that it was absolutely disgraceful how I was picking Sebald’s pocket. And I just think, “Well, I have no response to that…”
I wanted to ask you one last question: about your background in art history, and in particular your interest in early Dutch painting. Seeing as we’re discussing style, it struck me that some of your descriptions have the stillness and fine detail of a Van Eyck or a Vermeer. Absolutely. That’s exactly where that kind of writing comes from for me, from those paintings – but those paintings as filtered through the writings of Max Friedlander, Michael Baxandall and Erwin Panofsky, the great art historians. They wrote this beautifully calm and descriptive form of art history, which I studied. It’s sad to me that this marvellous writing isn’t better known. Baxandall, for example, is one of my favourite writers; the clarity of his thought, and the patience that allows him to spend 20 pages describing a work of art is something we don’t see enough in prose fiction, but that is quite common in art history.
You nod to that tradition when you refer to Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban in Open City. I thought that was a nice touch. [Laughing] I sort of wonder, would Julius know this? But then I think there’s no reason it shouldn’t be part of the mental world of a narrator with a certain kind of interest in this world. And I remember that when they did a Memling show at the Frick Museum a couple of years ago there were lines that stretched around the block. So it’s not that odd after all, is it?
OPEN CITY, by Teju Cole (Faber and Faber, $24.99); Cole is reading at Unity Books, Wellington, June 11.