Finding My Way into a New Form: An Interview with Teju Cole

Teju Cole can seduce you a dozen ways. As a writer who refuses to be boxed in by the conventions of genre, he blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir, sprinkling in just enough tidbits from his own life to leave you wanting more. His essays cover an astonishing range of subjects, from favorite writers like W.G. Sebald and James Baldwin to photography, travel and the politics of race and nationality. His interests veer between aesthetics and politics, and he writes about both as the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine. The pleasure of dipping into Cole’s work is encountering an extremely fertile mind.  He seems instinctively drawn to creative work that’s fragmentary in nature rather than fully-formed worlds. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he turned Twitter into an art form. But just when Cole developed a huge Twitter following, he abandoned it. “I try to find out what I can do in that space,” he told me, “and then without any compunction or regret I move on.” His latest experiment is Blind Spot, a strange hybrid of photography book and essay collection. Cole has traveled everywhere and come back to tell us what he’s seen, and it’s all filtered through his distinctive perspective - part Nigerian, part American and thoroughly cosmopolitan. He recently came to Madison to speak at the University of Wisconsin, and shortly before his lecture, he stopped by my recording studio for an interview.  Like he always does, Cole was carrying a camera. This one was his small Fujifilm X70 digital camera, one of nine cameras he owns. I asked if he uses them all. “Yeah. It’s helpful to have different tools,” he said. “Each one makes you shoot a little differently and opens up another seam in your head.” We talked about what he likes in photographs, his dislike of artistic boundaries, the complexities of racial identity, and his roots in both Lagos and New York. Steve Paulson: You always seem to be looking around and taking photos of the places you go, but you’ve called your new book Blind Spot. What does that title refer to? Teju Cole: Well, if you're looking a lot, at some point you become aware of the limitations of looking. It's just like being a writer. At some point you understand there are things that words can accomplish and then there's a moment when words cannot help you. Looking has been so central to my way of being in the world that it goes a little bit beyond the conventional. But I was also very much into art as a kid. And I've got three university degrees and they're all in art history. Art history is basically about looking closely and trying to give an account of what you're looking at from the art tradition. Then I got into photography more than a dozen years ago. And not long after that I really got into writing about photography and that entailed even closer looking than just taking photographs because now I have to interpret other people's photographs. SP: It sounds like you're saying the more you look, the more you realize what you don't see. TC: Absolutely. You realize that in everything you're looking at, you're missing something and it becomes a haunting question. The other thing that happened was that sometime around 2011, just after my first book, Open City, was published in this country, I had an episode with my eyes. I woke up one morning and was blind in my left eye. I wasn't in pain. I just couldn't see and it was like a veil had fallen over my vision, and my right eye wasn't doing so great either. So of course this is a nightmare for anyone. SP: Especially for you, since you’re a photography critic. TC: An art historian and a photography guy. This occlusion went away over the course of a couple of days. But doctors could not quite figure out what was going on. Eventually I got a diagnosis from this top specialist on retinal problems. He said I had something called Big Blind Spot Syndrome. It's something I kept thinking about afterwards. Later, I had some surgery. The problem has come back again but only rarely. But I kept thinking about the blind spot. And it changed my photography SP: How so? TC: I was already looking intently, but I started to look more intently, more patiently. My photography got a bit more meditative and mysterious. I began to pay attention to the ordinary in a more focused way. SP: What’s striking when I look at your own photographs - of back alleys, side streets, a tarp hanging over a shack - these aren’t the usual tourist photos we see. TC: That's right. Having eye trouble made the ordinary glorious. It's just the way the sun falls across concrete or, like you said, a hanging tarp. It's almost like William Carlos Williams’s poetry. I'm not the first person in photography to pay attention to such simple scenes, usually devoid of people and excitement. Certainly in American photography we've had pioneers like Lee Friedlander or Stephen Shore or William Eggleston, but the discovery for me was finding out the highly personal way I wanted to do this. Simply to make images out of the ordinary and then to draw the extraordinary narrative that might be lying behind that terrain or city if it was a place I was visiting. SP: Does your approach to photography match how you look at the world? Is seeing the same thing as taking a picture of it? TC: It's getting closer. This aspect of my work -- writing for the public and making images -- has been going on for about a dozen years, and in that time I've understood more and more that all of it is of a piece. I used to think they were really separate. Now I realize that looking at the world, making images, writing about images, writing about things that are not images, all of it is an attempt to testify to having been here and seen certain things, having looked at the world with a kind eye but an eye that is not ignoring questions of justice and history. And that's why Blind Spot is a book of text and images. SP: Nearly every page of this book has one image and an accompanying bit of text that you've written, often just one paragraph. Sometimes you reference the picture you've taken, sometimes you don’t. What's the connection between text and image? TC: I wanted to make a book that was a little bit novelistic but with none of the things you expect from a novel. This book is not made up. These are stories drawn from real life -- personal experience, philosophy, essayistic-type of speculations. Novels usually don't have 150 color photographs. And yet I wanted to give it the energy of a novel or a documentary film, just a very peculiar one. So in one sense it was about the excitement of working in a new genre -- a genre I was developing myself -- the rhythm of text and image. But if you look at just the images all by themselves, they have a common visual language. They’re in color. I shot everything in film in 25 different countries. They usually have streetscapes or interiors, not a lot of people. When we have people, they’re turned away from us, so there's a quietness that connects all the images. And if you read all the text in sequence, they have a kind of philosophical temperature that unites them. So this adventure was finding my way into a new form that I hope has a coherence. So if somebody goes through the book, they feel they've been through something strange and marvelous. It's a strange album, a strange movie, a strange novel, but it's none of those things because it's actually just texts and images. SP: What can text do and what can an image do? TC: Text is very good at being explicit. When you write, you're saying something in particular about the world.  Images are specific about what was seen but not about what it means. When you put them together, you have the opportunity either to explain, which is usually not what I'm doing, or to create a kind of poetry. So you put the semantics of text together with the description of the image and they meet at an interesting angle. And out of that angle, I’m hoping and praying that some kind of poetry happens. SP: And there's a third thing you do. Often you're not just describing the picture. You refer to favorite books and writers and artists. There are layers upon layers. Nothing is ever direct with you. TC: [Laughs] Not really.  Well, it’s all part of my world.  This library contains The Iliad and The Odyssey. It also contains the Bible. I'm very interested in Christian theology. I think this is my most personal book to date and Christian teaching was a big part of my formation.  And the moment I start thinking about how much I am seeing, how much I am missing, all this Christianity just comes in -- not as an explanation but as a lens to understand it. Stories like Jesus healing the blind, and religious faith as a kind of seeing, as a form of prophecy. Religious faith is something I drifted away from because I realized that some of the claims it made about special vision did not hold true. Having believed was a kind of blind spot. SP: Is your project to remove the blind spots, or to acknowledge that we all have blind spots? TC: It’s really about acknowledgement. To go back to these very old texts was also a way to acknowledge the antiquity of these questions. There's something elemental about a person walking down a street, so I talk a lot about walking in the book because walking is connected to photography but photography is connected to seeing. The kind of seeing we do has to do with us being upright creatures whose eyes are flat on our faces. We're not like dogs close to the earth, with eyes on either side of the snout. So these are very old questions. At some point we were on all fours and then we stood up. Of course the book is haunted by frailty, eventually also by death. I wanted this book to be very contemporary but also to deal with what it means to be a human creature upon the earth. Somehow thinking about theology and Homer gave me access to that. SP: You’ve taken these photos all over the world. I started jotting down some of these places: Lagos, where you grew up, Nuremberg, Tivoli, Nairobi, Auckland, Tripoli, Milan, Berlin, Zurich, Copenhagen, Seoul, Bombay, Sao Paolo, Brooklyn, Beirut, Bali. The list goes on and on. You must like to travel. TC: I get to travel a lot. I take a lot of pleasure from it and I get a lot of productive discomfort from it. I only included photos I felt were relevant to the project of the book. I only included places where I made film photographs because I wanted a consistency of effect and appearance. Not because film is better than digital. For example, on this visit to Madison, I've only brought my small digital camera. SP: So I have this image of you. You land in a new place and just start walking with your camera, not necessarily to any particular destination. Is this what you do? TC: That’s pretty accurate. You know, what's missing from this book is I don't have any pictures of Iceland because when I went there, I didn't take a film camera. I took a digital one. I have no pictures from South Africa. I have no pictures from Australia. SP: What does film give you that you don’t get in a digital picture? TC: I think it affords a certain kind of slowness in the thinking.  I have only 36 shots on this roll. Do I really want to take this picture? SP: You have to be more selective. TC:  Yes. But having shot with film for many years now, I think that has also started to affect my digital shooting. I'm not so happy-go-lucky anymore. SP: I know people who deliberately do not take cameras when they travel because they worry they're always going to be looking for the good shot rather than just having the experience. Does that resonate at all with you? TC:  I understand where that thinking comes from. One of the most wonderful writers on photography was the English writer John Berger, who died earlier this year. He was somebody whose work I very much cherished. And I got the opportunity to ask Berger about why he didn't take photographs and he said he tried it very briefly -- maybe in the 80s. He had a photographer teach him how to take and develop photos and then he realized that when he took photos of a scene, it kind of foreclosed the writing he wanted to do about that situation. His attention to detail went to the image rather than to the writing he was able to do about it. So he preferred to observe and draw and write. But I find that I'm able to do both. SP: Do you carry around a notebook as well as a camera? TC: I always have a notebook, a pen and a camera. These are my tools because the world is always giving you various phenomena. You’ve noticed that some of what I'm writing about is different from what I photographed. Sometimes they coincide. I don't want my photography to be an illustration of the text. I want the photograph to hold its own. What is the light doing? How are the colors working? How do things balance?  The narrative also has to meet the demands of storytelling, of obliqueness, of compression. It has to detonate in a certain way that might actually be adjacent to the photograph, not sitting right on top of it. Which is why I don’t really call these texts “captions.” They are voice-overs. They are running parallel. Each has to emanate its own energy. SP: You’ve talked about these elusive and mysterious photos that you like to take.  Is that also what you like to see in other people’s photography? TC: I like a very wide range of things in photography.  This is important for me as a photography critic not to be closed-minded. So I like photos of the kind that is related to my work. I particularly like Italian contemporary photography. But I also like spectacular street photographers who can nail a decisive moment.  I sometimes do that but not a whole lot of it. I also like a good portrait. SP: Even though you rarely take portraits. TC: I love strong portraits. I think it's a challenging art form. Irving Penn was a great portraitist but I would rather look at a portrait by Gordon Parks. It seemed to have more import. And I think Richard Avedon, whose style is not so far from Irving Penn’s, was a more successful portraitist. But Henri Cartier-Bresson was an even better portraitist. There was something about what was happening around his portrait that gave it more energy.  The young contemporary photographer Christopher Anderson is an extraordinary portraitist and he gets a lot of magazine work because of this extraordinary ability to work with color and appearance when making images of people. I like conceptual photography. And at the same time I like photojournalists and spot news reporting. So I like all sorts. But this applies to writing as well. SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory. TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal. SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences? TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way. SP: So you don't want a narrative that's too self-contained and wraps everything up? TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce's short story "The Dead."  Excellent sentences and they're somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings.  But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it's jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It's about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it's about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I've tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences. SP: There's one page in Blind Spot that I want to quote because it raises some interesting questions. It’s about Lugano. You have a photo of a park bench, a statue of a horse and some buildings. And here's the entire text that accompanies that image: She said to me: Europe is getting worse. I still don't understand why you want to move to Switzerland. I said to her: I don't want to move to Switzerland. Quite the contrary. I like to visit Switzerland.  When I'm not there, I long for it, but what I long for is the feeling of being an outsider there and, soon after, the feeling of leaving again so I can continue to long for it. There's so much in that passage: your love of travel, your feeling of displacement, wanting to be an outsider but probably also experiencing the cost of being the outsider. TC: Yeah, but some very profound pleasures in it. Why is that text in Blind Spot? Because it encapsulates a misunderstanding. “Oh, you talk about Switzerland. You must want to live there. You want to be a Swiss citizen.” No. So I’m thinking through that response. What is another possible reason for wanting to be in Switzerland? Well, one way is to enjoy visiting without the desire to live there. It also fits in this book because Switzerland is one of the hidden themes of the book. And I keep going back there. SP: It made me think of an essay you wrote about James Baldwin in Known and Strange Things. He lived in a tiny mountain village in Switzerland in the 1950s, basically in exile. He was the only black person in that village, and that's where he went to finish writing Go Tell It On the Mountain. Maybe he had to go there to be able to finish this book about America. TC: Precisely. There's a way that outsiderness either in your own person or in your location can help you understand what you're an insider to.  Being a Nigerian-American in America helps me to understand Nigeria in a more intense way. SP: Is it easier to write about Nigeria when you're in the U.S.? TC: No writing is easy, but it affords me a certain insight while looking at it from a distance. Being in Nigeria, having grown up in Nigeria, also illuminates my understanding of America even though I'm an American. That outsiderness helps. But the peculiar thing about having a couple of Switzerland essays in Known and Strange Things is that it's a perfect illustration of the way that each of my books hands on the baton to the next book. So Known and Strange Things becomes a kind of prequel to Blind Spot. The final essay in Known and Strange Things is called “Blind Spot.” SP: Which is about the experience of losing your vision. TC: Yes. And then in a weird kind of way this blooms out into an entire book of photographs. But Known and Strange Things takes up in essayistic form many of the concerns that have been raised in novelistic form in Open City. What does it mean to live together? What are the responsibilities of looking at art? What should migration look like?  Meanwhile, Open City itself is a kind of expansion on the out-of-placeness of the narrator who was at the center of Every Day Is for the Thief, which is the first book I wrote.  So I dream of this organic flow of books. SP: Even though the format of each of these books is really quite different. Some are fiction.  Some are nonfiction. One has a lot of photographs. You seem to enjoy playing with form. TC: Not only are they four books in four different genres, but each one is also considered peculiar within the genre that it's supposed to be. Open City is strange for a novel. It's a novel without a plot. And 400 pages of an essay collection that’s curiously personal and still you don't know too much about me [laughs]. SP: There's one other form that you’ve mastered. You turned Twittter into an art form and developed a huge following. TC: Thank you. It was a creative space for me and I enjoyed it very much. SP: You wrote a series of tweets that got a lot of traction called the White Savior Industrial Complex. This was in response to the Kony 2012 video that was all the rage a few years ago, about the African warlord who had an army of child soldiers. TC: So many things were coming together publicly and I wondered, what's my response to this?  It allowed me to think about what we do when we do charity. What do we owe to the people to whom we're doing some kind of mercy or favor? How much of it is tangled up in our own ego for wanting to be the savior? How much of this is actually racialized? If white Americans are going to Africa to go save, how is this related to the history of colonialism? How is this related to racial politics here in the U.S.?  How is this related to being a white person and how you view black people? Does equality have any role to play if we're helping people who are desperate, or does desperation absolve us of the need to treat people like equals? I thought these were good questions to ask.  Yes, the title was provocative. The White Savior Industrial Complex got people's hackles up a little bit. SP: Because you were calling out people, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who writes a lot about this kind of thing. TC: Right. I was calling people out. But the interesting thing about justice is that unless somebody pushes, nothing really happens. If black people don't push and speak out, nothing changes in race relations. If women don't speak out and make a fuss and make things a bit uncomfortable, gender relations don't really move. As we say, it's the person who wears a shoe that knows where it pinches. And so the person whose shoe is pinching has to make the complaint. So there's a space for complaint. And Twitter was an interesting place to put those ideas out there. SP:  Are you still on Twitter? TC:  I'm not on Twitter. I've not tweeted in about three years. SP: Why did you let it go? TC: That's exactly what I do with each of these genres.  I try to find out what I can do in that space. I try to do good work there, and then without any compunction or regret I move on. And I try to find the next place to continue my exploration. SP: What was it about the Twitter moment that appealed to you? TC: An instantaneous public. The conveyance of compression and sentences into the minds of others. How much can we fit into this form? I think what any artist has to offer is really freedom. Freedom can be contagious. I chafe at excessive convention but I love to work within conventions and then try to push them and stop somewhere before the breaking point. So perfectly good English sentences but then I’m pushing against what is permissible. So with this new book, what does the photography book look like? Well, not like this, which has a lot of text. So is it a selection of essays? Is it a memoir? SP: Your personal history has clearly shaped your writing. You were born in Michigan, but within a few months your family moved to Lagos, where you grew up.  How long were you in Nigeria? TC: For 17 years. SP: Why did you come back to America? TC: I came back to the Midwest, to Kalamazoo, for university. My father was deeply unimpressed with the state of Nigerian universities in the early 90s and he wanted me to go back to the U.S.  I didn't mind that, but I certainly did not arrive in the U.S. as a desperate and eager immigrant. We had very little money, but the privilege of choice was there.  I got some scholarships and loans and then I had to start learning what it meant to be here as an American who was Nigerian. It was almost as if for the first time I was also learning that I was black.  That did not need to be stated in Nigeria because everybody else around me was black, but I had to learn the racial politics of the U.S. and then I had to start experiencing in my own body the variegations of racial prejudice. SP: So at first, you did not have the experience of most African-Americans? TC:  I did not. But I've been in the U.S. for 25 years. I'm a black guy in America, so within those first couple of years, there are many things I did not have a narrative for. What does it mean if I'm strolling around in a small town in Michigan and a car slows down, the window is wound down and someone shouts the N-word at me?  And what does it mean in a university setting where somebody says to me, “Oh, you're not like those other blacks”?  All of this stuff had to be understood as a black person in America. In fact, I'm an American African but I'm also an African American. SP: Wasn't it years before you actually went back to visit Lagos? TC:  Yeah. It’s a little bit different from the narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief but there are some similarities. I went back to Nigeria after three years, but then I didn't go back again for another dozen years. There was a big mental distance. I kept not having the money. I kept not having the time. I kept worrying about whether I would be able to go.  I went back in 2005 and I've been back every year since then. It became a priority and I reestablished roots there. SP: But you live in Brooklyn now. TC: I live in Brooklyn. I live in the U.S. SP: Do you consider Brooklyn home? TC: Yes.  That's where my wife is. My brother lives there. My friends are there. My books are there. My office is there. So that's home. I also consider Lagos home. My parents live there. It's where I grew up. If I go to Nigeria, my room is there. The two most spoken languages in Lagos -- Yoruba and English -- are languages I’m fluent in. So there's an at-homeness, but a home is also wherever there's good wi-fi. That connects me to the world in a way that is irreducible and essential to my experience of the world. SP: Do you consider yourself more Nigerian or more American? TC: Neither. Split right down the middle. Or rather 100 percent of both. I feel very invested in Nigeria's future. There's a book I've been working on for a long time about Lagos, so I think a lot about Nigeria. I'm American and America is in crisis at the moment and I feel invested. Open City was definitely an approach to this question but I feel invested in what this country ought to be.  I'm a citizen who is not a patriot.  I'm a citizen in the sense of being invested in what we owe each other. What do we do to protect each other's rights? What do we do about people who break our mutual agreement? What do sanctions and punishments look like?  Those philosophical questions are very interesting to me. Our borders are interesting to me. If my money's being used to kill foreigners in the theater of war, that's my business. So I'm very American and I'm also very Nigerian. SP: The two cities where you’ve spent the most time are Lagos and New York. Are they totally different experiences for you or do they have certain similarities? TC: The commonalities are extensive. It is the experience of cosmopolitanism, which is maybe the fourth definition of home for me.  And this is what I find in spaces in Lagos. And it’s what I find in New York -- restaurants, clubs, bookshops, shopping malls, traffic, crazy people on the street, high fashion. Cities as a kind of problem-solving technology. If there are 16 million people in the same place, then we have to use resources in a way that makes sense in such a compressed space. SP: What are the biggest differences between Lagos and New York? TC:  New York is much richer. Lagos might have 25 buildings of monumental scale and New York has 300. The sheer physical scale of New York never ceases to surprise me. And then there's that thing of New York being a world capital. Lagos is the capital of Africa. Don't let people in Cairo or Johannesburg tell you different. Lagos is the place where the pop culture of Africa is being made.  Lagos is the capital of Africa but New York is the capital of the world.  So there is something about encountering this expansive, complex mutual togetherness in conversation. It's possible in New York. So New York is almost not an American city. It's a city that's a vision of what the world looks like if these borders are not as they are right now. This interview was conducted through the radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge. An edited radio version will air soon.