Teju Cole on the impossibility of being an invisible author, and the need to turn down dinner invitations
Teju Cole is an accomplished art historian and photographer, and the author of Open City, a stirring, meditative novel that earned rapturous reviews and starred in every must-read list at the end of 2011. The Nigerian-born New Yorker is currently at work on a non-fiction book about his hometown Lagos. If you’d like a preview, you have several months’ worth of ‘Small Fates’ to catch up with on the author’s Twitter account. Cole has named the series after the French ‘fait divers’ —news briefs from the popular press colloquially referred to as the chiens écrasés (flattened dogs) genre of reportage. On his website, Cole describes such stories as ‘not simply bad news’, but ‘bad news of a certain kind, written in a certain way.’
Drawn from stories in about a dozen local dailies, Cole’s ‘Small Fates’ present the flattened dogs of Nigerian modernity in all their vivid particularity, with warmth, irony and lashings of often-macabre humour. For instance: ‘Chidi Odor has 99 problems, each of them a neatly wrapped package of cocaine excreted in Lagos on Friday.’ Or, ‘With no protective suit, but aided by a cheering crowd, Sergeant Badang tried to defuse a bomb in Kaduna. The cheers were not enough.’ In an interview over e-mail, Cole discusses his personal canon, the importance of turning down dinner invitations, and the amazing efficacy of overnight deadlines that cannot be evaded.
Q In response to a question on where you’re from at the Jaipur Literature Festival, you said you’re from Araby – “a short story in the middle of Dubliners”. Your sibling Stephen Dedalus famously said, “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Yet the fingernails of today’s authors invite close scrutiny, with most being called upon to attend lit-fests, book signings, and sustain conversations through Twitter or personal websites. Do you view these as occupational hazards with translatable benefits, or do you wish you could hold on to your solitude more?
A A writer friend recently said, “To be called upon constantly to provide answers is inevitably to become answerable.” I loved the phrasing of this and immediately agreed. But after a while, I was less certain. I think there’s a balance to strive for between the distance necessary for work, and the reality that people want to communicate with you as an author. My friend would agree with this quest for balance, I think. It would be quite a performance, and perhaps even an impossibility in these times, to be a completely invisible author, to be magnificently above it all, and to provide no answers beyond the ones hidden in one’s books. The truth must be somewhere in the middle.
Q On a related note, how do you preserve the quietness that helps create?
A That must come from some native sternness, a willingness to disappoint others—to turn down invitations, to miss ‘important’ events—because you know that your work is more important than that. One of the big struggles is how to teach people that your time as an artist is no less valuable than theirs as bankers or nurses or whatever. An artist’s relatively unstructured time is always under threat; people think you’re available for dinner, for readings, to babysit, or whatever. Saying ‘no’ becomes a daily task.
Q Which books do you consider formative ones, part of a personal canon? Which book or author first got you excited about writing?
A The first serious close-reading I did was, I think, of Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Catcher in the Rye, all of which I read one winter in Boston when I was nineteen. That experience altered my relationship to books. I saw that there was more to a book than its story, that there was voice and mood and tone. As for my personal canon, it’s not especially large—maybe it contains 25 authors—but I interact with all of them very intensely, and each of them is my favourite writer. But, just for the pleasure of naming names: I love Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Carson.
Q Which grand literary walker do you most identify with? Walser? Sebald? Benjamin? Thoreau? Who do you suppose Julius (the protagonist of Open City) most identifies with?
A Walter Benjamin, I think, though I’ve actually read very little of him. But you only need to read a few pages of Benjamin to know whether he’s your kin or not. Who would Julius like? All of the above, probably—but I think he’s particularly fond of Barthes.
Q Do you have any writing rituals? A favourite writing spot? A particular brand of pen or coffee? Or, like Julius, are you particular about setting a certain aural atmosphere?
A No particular rituals. For certain kinds of writing, it’s nice if there’s no music. But, in general, I think a lot and then write fairly quickly. Deadlines work wonders. When I have a deadline coming up, I waste the day, and then stay up all night. The less time I have, the better I write, and the more tired and unhappy I am afterwards.
Q Do you believe in inspiration—as in the Kubla Khan-style oracular flashes of illumination? Or do you believe in consistent craftsmanship and toil?
A I believe in living as intensely as possible, in developing habits of scrupulous observation, and in learning to write simply, or at least with the simplest language the ideas would bear. I honour observation over inspiration, should the two ever be in conflict.
Q Has studying Bruegel informed or coloured your approach to writing in any way—apart from the easy intimacy with which you describe scenes in museums?
A Yes, I think art history gives you a vocabulary of description that isn’t limited to art. Describing, if done right, becomes a way of redeeming the ordinary world from evanescence.
Q What are you working on at the moment?
A I’m writing a book about contemporary life in Lagos. It’s a work of non-fiction based on interviews with people who live in the city. I’ve only just started writing it.
Q Were you inspired to write any ‘Small Fates’ while scanning the headlines of newspapers in India?
A I was often tempted. The events there are no less absurd or perplexing than those in Nigeria, of that I’m sure. They are all the things that happen to people on the faultline where modernity shears away from more traditional ways of thought and life.
Q You seem to resist questions of identity or cleverly deflect them. Is that because you reject the literary tropes and stereotypes they come saddled with? Or do you just feel weary of the question?
A I like to give different answers to the same question on different occasions, usually because a given question often has many true answers. It keeps things interesting for me and (I hope) for my hearers. And I really don’t terribly mind questions about identity or where one is from: they provide an opportunity to grapple, once again, with an intractable problem.
Q Part of what made Open City such a success was its resonantly true sense of place. Which work of fiction or poetry do you admire most for this quality?
A Poetry is often deeply concerned with place, and most of my favourite poets—Bishop, Walcott, Heaney, Tranströmer—are wonderful witnesses to specific places. In prose, I greatly admire the way Sebald interlocks place, time and self in every page of his books. But if I had to choose today just one book that most influenced Open City’s sense of place, I’d probably choose Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival. Ask me again tomorrow, though. I might have a different answer.