Teju Cole's Essays Reflect a Global Perspective on Literature and Art

By Rankine, Claudia | International New York Times, August 19, 2016 | Go to article overview

Teju Cole's Essays Reflect a Global Perspective on Literature and Art


Rankine, Claudia, International New York Times


Teju Cole's essays reflect his global perspective on literature and art.

Known and Strange Things. Essays. By Teju Cole. Illustrated. 393 pages. Random House. Paperback. $17.

Teju Cole's captivating and lauded novels, "Open City" and "Every Day Is for the Thief," reflect his identity as a writer with a global perspective -- born in the United States and raised in Nigeria. His international access as an author, art historian and photographer -- one who also teaches and is a photography critic for The New York Times Magazine -- shapes not only his obsessions but, in a chicken-and-egg sense, determines his gaze. He takes in news from African countries and American cities; but also, by necessity and interest, Asian, European and Latin American culture and history. In short, the world belongs to Mr. Cole and is thornily and gloriously allied with his curiosity and his personhood.

"Known and Strange Things," his first collection of nonfiction, journeys through all the landscapes he has access to: international, personal, cultural, technological and emotional. When he feels homesick, he informs us in this book, he "visits" his parents in Nigeria through Google maps -- a sweet if distant form of connection.

In "The Anxiety of Influence," the renowned critic Harold Bloom argued that poets, especially those in the Western tradition since the Renaissance, necessarily negotiate the work of their predecessors as they write. "The precursors flood us," Mr. Bloom wrote, "and our imaginations can die by drowning in them, but no imaginative life is possible if such inundation is wholly evaded."

Mr. Cole shares Mr. Bloom's interest in the fraught and burdened relationship writers and artists have to our ancestors, and he seeks to answer yet another question: How does the imagination cross and recross racial and filial boundaries, and what does this crossing mean? With our ever-enlarging global access to the visions and voices and influences of others, Mr. Cole attempts to untangle the knot of who or what belongs to us and to whom or what do we belong as artists, thinkers and, finally, human beings.

In this light, "Black Body," the opening essay, engages the "question of filiation" that tormented James Baldwin in his essay "Stranger in the Village." Baldwin, reflecting on his stay in the white-peopled Swiss village of Leukerbad, was moved to write that "the most illiterate among them is related, in a way I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo. ... Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory -- but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive."

Mr. Cole, revisiting the terrain of Leukerbad, pairs himself with Baldwin(also echoing, in his parenthesis, the poet Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art"): "I am black like him; and I am slender; and have a gap in my front teeth and am not especially tall (no, write it: short) ... and feel myself in all places, from New York City to rural Switzerland, the custodian of a black body, and have to find the language for all of what that means to me and to the people who look at me. The ancestor had briefly taken possession of the descendant."

But Mr. Cole soon distances himself from Baldwin's feeling of alienation. He states that Baldwin's "self-abnegation" prevents him from embracing Bach or Rembrandt, who Mr. Cole insists do not belong to one race. He might even care more about these artists "than some white people do," Mr. Cole writes.

The first section of the collection, "Reading Things," has Mr. Cole claiming filiation with a number of authors (all male) who prove important to him. In the case of many of them, influence begets influence. Along with Baldwin comes V.S. Naipaul ("The benevolent rheumy-eyed old soul: so fond of the word 'nigger,' so aggressive in his lack of sympathy toward Africa, so brutal in his treatment of woman"); Tomas Transtromer ("It's a good thing I'm unembarrassable about influence, because I realize now how many of Transtromer's concepts I have hidden away in my own work"); W. …

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