Teju Cole is a novelist, essayist, photographer, art history teacher, and Twitter aphorist. He approaches each of these roles as an amateur. This is a compliment. He is not trying to master any particular form as much as he is trying to work inside each with the curiosity of a young craftsman.
Open City, his first book to appear in the U.S., chronicled the wanderings of Julius, a Nigerian psychology student living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Julius filters ideas one usually encounters in a graduate school seminar through his own precise diction, as he describes the problems that theory often fails to confront. A Japanese-American professor, his mentor, remembers the internment camps of his childhood but sidesteps the subject of his homosexuality until the very end of his life. On a trip to Europe, he encounters anti-Semitic Muslims who harbor a justified paranoia of American power. And finally he finds himself caught within the tentacles of rape culture.
Every Day Is for the Thief, a work of fiction about a man returning home to Lagos from America, was first published in Nigeria in 2007 and is now making its first appearance in the U.S. Cole’s narrator studies Nigeria’s kleptocratic culture with a melancholy eye and considers the constant threat of violence and poverty in one of the 21st century’s megacities. The new edition includes pictures of street scenes Cole took many years after first writing the book. His prose guided but did not dictate the subject matter of his un-posed photographs.
I met Cole in Seattle on March 26. He had a full schedule for his book tour and he wanted to see the central building of Seattle’s Public Library system, a beautiful Rem Koolhaas structure located in the city’s downtown. We got to the lookout point where his reliable 40-year-old Leica M4 busted. He spent most of the hour of our interview trying to fix it. We spent a good portion of our time together standing by the elevators at the top of the building. We went downstairs to the library café for about 20 minutes and then we returned back upstairs. The following is a condensed version of our conversation.
The Millions: You maintain an essayistic voice in both your novels. You have more freedom with that essayistic voice in a novel than you would in an essay, because you are not as responsible for the ideas that are presented.
Teju Cole: I think that’s right. It becomes a way of exploring other ways that things could be, other thoughts that you might have. The master of this is Coetzee.
TM: You are talking about Elizabeth Costello.
[On the camera.] I’m having such a day with this. Why?
And I think that’s interesting, because it actually allows us to confront those ideas in a way that if someone gave a talk about them from their own reasonable or defensive point of view it would not be as provocative or would not get as far with it. Don’t you agree?
TM: I don’t know if I do. With an essay, you are putting much more on the line by saying, “This is what I’m saying. This is who I am.” When you put those ideas in a character, it’s an act of ventriloquism.
TC: Precisely. But you never know [whether the character or the author is speaking.] And because you don’t know which that sets up an interesting tension between the reader, the author, and the narrator or the leading character. Personally, I find it very intriguing.
TM: Well, it may be one of the reasons why Proust lives on. We read these thoughts filtered through a narrator who is not Proust.
TC: But who may be close enough to being Proust that we’re not sure. And I’m especially interested in those characters who advance ideas that I would find less attractive or a bit less friendly.
[Fiddling with the camera.] I’m sorry. I’m not distracted, but I’m being mechanical and I’m listening to you.
TM: You had a line at the beginning of your essay “The White Savior Industrial Complex” that a good novel does not have a point. How does that apply to the essay as it compares to the novel?
TC: That’s an interesting example to bring up. Because it’s probably my best-known essay, but it’s definitely not my best essay, and I think you know that. It’s an essay that is definitely meant to have a point. It is actually an activist essay. I’ve done long non-fiction narratives that contain ideas in them that I like as much as anything I’ve done that is fictional…Yes, an essay still has a point. It’s also exploratory, but fiction is more exploratory. And the analogy I would give is of people who take a picture of something like that yellow sign over there. [points to sign describing rules of library etiquette.] They say, “This is the frame,” and you take a picture of the object. But what I strive for both in fiction, but also in the best non-fiction that I try to write, is to actually take a photo of a situation rather than an object.
So, if I take a picture of this right now, [points to view of street down below from the perspective of the lookout point] there’s no object I’m taking a picture of. I’m taking a picture of the light on the glass, the vehicles down there, the zebra crossings, how they interact with these crossings over here [points to the railings and the diagonal frames on the windows.] That complexity is the subject as opposed to taking a picture of an object.
I think an essay might do that. I’m interested in how one might break the essay and do new things to it. So, in that particular essay, I made this assertion. An essay has a point and a novel does not. Well, that particular essay had a point, but many essays actually do not. However, I stand by that essay. I thought that essay was necessary. Absolutely. I 100 percent stand by it.
TM: I found Every Day Is for the Thief incredibly depressing.
TC: Could I tell you that many Nigerians thought it was hilarious?
TM: Well, that’s my question. I thought that if Naipaul had written some of those scenes, I would have been laughing.
TC: Interesting. Why?
TM: Well, he wouldn’t talk about the terrible pressures that the environment created.
TC: He would distance it and he would not bring in the personalized pathos of these people’s lives.
TM: You are writing about this kleptocratic culture.
TC: And I try to bring across the hurt of it as well.
TM: Yes, and the constant pressure, the feeling of betrayal over and over again, the inability to have a fellow feeling with the person you see walking down the street.
TC: Right. Right.
TM: Now, when Naipaul writes about it…
TC: He’s straightforward and brutal about it. He’s like, “I don’t give a shit about these people. I’m going to tell you how ridiculous they are.” And he can also be quite funny about it. I find it quite painful to read him when it comes to this stuff.
TM: But I didn’t laugh when I was reading your book.
TC: Except if you were Nigerian you would laugh, because that’s the only thing you could do. That was a very pleasant surprise for me when the book came out in Nigeria, that people really did find it hilarious.
TM: You did not intend it to be that way.
TC: Not so much, because I’m also writing with the sad distance of somebody who doesn’t live there anymore.
[Fidgeting with the camera.] It’s a comic sequence. This has never happened to me before. It takes me one minute to change some film. I’ve struggled with it and I’ve made certain things loose and now it’s not working. It’s not loving me back.
TM: Open City was mostly just as fragmented as Every Day Is for the Thief. You didn’t have a sense of an arc until the last 50 pages or so.
TC: There’s a way in which Open City…is actually a more conventional novel. I don’t call Every Day Is for the Thief a novel. I call it a work of fiction, or when pressed I’ll say it is a novella. So Open City is more novelistic. It does have these instances of continuous drama that have been foreshadowed and all of that interweaving. So there’s a certain sophistication to the way that it is all working together.
What I’m experiencing now that Every Day is for the Thief is being reviewed [are] the normal ways people talk about a person’s earlier work, not that Open City is [earlier]…just [how they talk about] other work that they know. Quite amazingly, almost uniformly, they all like Open City. So this is the benefit of the distance of time. “If all you motherfuckers had shown up when it came out!” It’s now this settled thing that Open City is a good thing…But as the author I know there was a lot of hemming and hawing about that book when it came out. “Oh nothing happens. Or the stuff that happens at the end is not resolved.”
TM: The second to last chapter is what made that novel work for me.
TC: There was a lovely review in The Times by Miguel Syjuco, a really, really positive review, and he thought that the end was an amateur move.
TM: To me Julius was the intellectual 30-something version of a likable narrator in a young adult novel.
TC: Absolutely. Absolutely. The Catcher in the Rye is one of the not-often-noticed shadows of this book.
TM: He’s an interesting person for you to listen to, and you like his observations. But he is capable of committing something so heinous.
TC: And that exactly is the point.
TM: That might be the best defense for the essay in the novel form. I guess it’s similar to what Coetzee does in Elizabeth Costello.
TC: Which, by the way, was panned.
TM: Well, there’s something of a consensus that since he’s moved to Australia he’s not as good.
TC: That’s right. I think that’s a bullshit consensus. He’s making it work. He can’t just sit back and relax on what has worked. That’s not how he got to where he is. He found out how far he could go with conventional forms. Now he has to interrogate those forms, and go farther and farther with them. It’s hard to part ways with an audience that would like to keep liking you in the ways they’ve always liked you. But that’s the way creativity is. That’s why late work is so puzzling.
Every Day Is for the Thief had been widely read in Nigeria. When Open City came out it was met with quite a bit of excitement there and almost total puzzlement. Like, “It’s too bad, he lost it. He had a good thing going there.”
I’m sorry to make you stand.
[On the camera] I’ve brought it all the way across this continent. And I’ll be damned if I can’t use it. And I can see the damn thing. I can see this picture and not being able to take this damn thing. The light’s been changing the whole time we’ve been here. It’s driving me nuts. This is not what I’m here for. This is nonsense.
[Takes a picture with his smartphone.]
To me it’s an interesting image.
This is my friend, this machine. I love it very much and now I’m a little bit worried.
[We go downstairs to the café where he continues to toy with his camera.]
TM: In this work of fiction, Every Day Is for the Thief, you are describing objects that were never there. So when I read this work of fiction and see these photographs, suggesting you are taking pictures of real things…it’s jarring.
TC: Well the thing you are reading was not made out of whole cloth. Already a lot of what you are reading leans toward memoir. But you know a lot of it must have been made up, not just because of the label, but because of some of the texture of the recollection. It is too precise not to be made up in some way. There are a number of coincidences in this book that almost nobody picks up that I’m embedding inside the text. So then you’re struggling. “It’s reading a lot like a memoir, but I want it to be fiction because it says it’s fiction.” And then you see these photos and it seems someone went on a trip and took these photos.
[Points to picture of a goat on the street, which relates to a passage in the book.] I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but…I didn’t have to set that up. It’s a street photo. It was by chance and by patience and just by the way anyone makes a street photograph that’s worth keeping. One thing I’ll say about this photograph is that this photograph appeared about seven years after the text, but it wasn’t posed. It is a street scene from Lagos. [These photographs] are also works of fiction.
TM: [One passage in the book describes a lynching, a filming of which circulated on VHS tapes.] You can’t photograph a lynching.
TC: I could go out and photograph a lynching, but that’s not what I want to do. You see this and you see that.
TM: No, you couldn’t do a lynching. Not in this book.
TC: Well maybe not here in the U.S.
TM: Well not in this book. It wouldn’t be acceptable.
TC: To whom? Maybe Random House would not want to publish it for its own reasons. But I totally could. You don’t understand what it’s like on the street over there. You have never driven down the street and seen a body decomposing for three days. It’s inconceivable. It’s not inconceivable in Lagos. And nothing would stop me from leaning out of a car and taking that picture. And you can go on YouTube and see lynchings.
TM: Yes, but you still wouldn’t put it in the book.
TC: The reason I wouldn’t put it in the book is because it wouldn’t function psychologically the way I want it to function in the book.
TM: Exactly, that’s what I’m getting at. Everything else is much more emotive.
TC: That’s right. Most of the photos in this book are anti-spectacular pictures.
TM: The photographic evidence of a child being lynched here would be assaultive.
TC: That would not keep it from being in the book, and I’ll tell you why. If you look at the work of someone like Sebald there are pictures not of piles of bodies, but of camps and empty interiors of cells or whatever. We have seen pictures of Auschwitz. They do exist. And they have a role that they play in these narratives. So it’s not impossible. It’s just that I was trying to do something different in this book. I was trying to present a series of pictures that if you did not read the text and you just looked at each photograph in the sequence that is presented, there is a kind of psychological mood that I’m building, which is quite similar to the one of the book. I think of it as a slant rhyme. [The photographs] rhyme with the book in a slant way.
TM: Not having that image of a lynching in this book plays off the narrator’s own desire not to look at something like this.
TC: It’s true, except that he does relive it in great detail. I don’t know. There’s definitely an aversion from the horror. When you’re in Lagos, you can’t avert your eyes. I’ve seen people being burnt. You can’t not see it. I don’t know. It’s a little complicated. I don’t know what role photography plays in terms of that particular act of violence. But if that’s what you want to do in a place like Lagos, you can do it because that’s a place where things like this happen and you can see the aftermath.
[He finally fixes his camera.]
Can we stroll up there before we lose the light?
[We head back upstairs.]
TM: There’s this idea that the maximum city is this late 20th-/early 21st-century phenomenon. Your approach to writing about [New York as well as the maximum city of Lagos] is [through the] intimate view of the flaneur, or stroller. Why?
TC: I think it’s because I believe in small-scale stories as a thing that can be revealing about what is true of a place. You don’t need to be that guy [Kenneth] Jackson, the guy who does those big New York books. You could do it that way, as an encyclopedia. Do we need that? Nobody needs to read a 1200-page history of New York.
Now I’m writing a non-fiction book about Lagos. It’s more panoramic. It’s going to owe a lot to Every Day Is for the Thief, to Open City, [but also to] [Orhan Pamuk’s] Istanbul, to [Michael Ondaatje’s] Running in the Family. It’s going to have a lot of those essayistic/memoir-ish aspects but it also will have lots of interviews.
TM: Do you love Lagos?
TM: Do you love New York?
TM: I sensed that in both books.
TC: It’s funny. When I was writing Open City I thought I hated New York. As I was writing it, I saw it was a love letter. When I was writing Every Day Is for the Thief, I had a love/hate relationship with Lagos. But then afterwards I realized that I love Lagosians, but I hate Lagos. Because I hate what the city does to the people who live there.
[Problem with the camera] Once again. Unbelievable.
TM: Are you drawn to write about Lagos from a feeling of responsibility?
TC: That’s how it’s being sold, but even if you don’t love the place, it’s an interesting subject. You don’t become a war reporter because you love war. You report on war because it expands and complicates our idea of what war is. As a Nigerian-American who lives in the United States, I would like to complicate our sense of what Nigeria is, of what Lagos is, of what Africa is like. So that’s why I write about it. Not because I hate it. Not because I’m from there. I’m working on my second book on it, and it probably won’t be my last.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
“It’s like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, circling…at those familiar moments of emotion,” writes Anna, the literary historian who narrates Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje’s last novel. “We live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.”
The kaleidoscope as a metaphor for the concinnity of memories, the process by which an adult narrator frames and makes sense of her past is, I venture, the cornerstone of Ondaatje’s fiction. Coming Through Slaughter married biographical and sonic details from jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden’s career and tales of louche Storyville portraitist E.J. Bellocq’s mutilated photographs of prostitutes with fictionalized accounts of internecine love affairs that drove Bolden’s character to paranoia and death. In the Skin of a Lion and its sequel, the Booker Prize-winning The English Patient, introduced readers to the chthonic world of Caravaggio, a morphine addict and thief notorious for art heists, and his friend’s daughter, Hana, a Canadian Army nurse and caretaker for a burn victim whose scars and stories, recounted while he recovers in an Italian villa in the wake of the Second World War, belie his identity and his past as a Hungarian desert explorer.
Ondaatje’s distinctive signature — the use of metanarrative; the graceful integration of historical filaments and intertexts; the quiescence, compassion, and ardor resonating from within luminous yet temperate prose — has won him a broad international readership, as well as doyen status on prize shortlists. In tenor, his new novel, The Cat’s Table, evinces a similar elegance. Its masterful rendering of time and memory, too, echo the part-fictional memoir, Running in the Family, and the novel Anil’s Ghost, in which a forensic anthropologist returns to her native Sri Lanka for the first time since adolescence to investigate crimes perpetrated by pro- and anti-government factions alike.
The life experiences of Michael, or Mynah, the narrator, dovetail with the author’s. Both were born in Ceylon (presently known as Sri Lanka), raised in England, and are now naturalized Canadian citizens and novelists. Mynah deftly weaves the novel from a series of vignettes, character sketches, and episodic journal entries drawn both from his voyage, at the age of eleven, from Colombo to England on the ship Oronsay in the early 1950s, and from present anecdotes and reflections.
This is no mean feat with a cast of characters ranging from Mynah’s equally lowly neighbors at the Cat’s Table, to the middling passengers, to the blue-blooded characters aboard Emperor Class, noble enough to be seated at the Captain’s Table. We meet Emily de Saram, his beloved, enigmatic seventeen-year-old cousin, en route to England to finish secondary school; Mr. Daniels, an admirer of Emily’s, who cultivates a secret garden aboard the ship; Mr. Mazappa, the ship’s pianist, who impresses Mynah with his knowledge of musicology and jazz history, his “ongoing mythology,” and, in memory, the recognition that “the future would never be as dramatic and joyous and deceitful as the way he had sketched it”; Mr. Fonseka, an English teacher who gently ministers to Mynah’s loneliness and intellectual curiosity; Niemeyer, a manacled prisoner whose crimes the passengers try to surmise; and his deaf daughter, Asuntha, a former acrobat of whom Emily grows increasingly fond and protective. Mynah’s two closest friends are Ramadhin, a sensitive but effete boy who takes precautions for his weak heart, and Cassius, a guarded rogue who renounces his past and masterminds the boys’ antics, including tying themselves to the ship with rope so that they can experience a storm from outdoors, and sneaking into the ship’s hold.
While the autobiographical contours enrich the novel’s sense of realism, its most beautifully wrought element is the integration of time present with time past — Mynah’s arrangement of shards of kaleidoscopic memory, of the atavistic with the prophetic, the hazy with the crystalline, the childlike with the adult. Mr. Fonseka and Emily are its most vivid embodiments. Visiting the former one night, Mynah observes:
It was the anonymity of the stories and poems that went deepest into me. And the curl of a rhyme was something new. I had not thought to believe he was actually quoting something written with care, in some far country, centuries earlier…He had a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live…I am aware of the pathos and the irony that come with such a portrait…I did realize that people like Mr. Fonseka came before us like innocent knights in a more dangerous time, and on the very same path we ourselves were taking now.
This evocative sketch nicely refracts what Mynah learns of human character both on the voyage, and, broadly, in his adult life. The precise histories, traumas, experiences, and dreams of his fellow passengers are ever discernible, yet partially opaque, anonymous, accessible only through subtleties of physiognomy and gesture, which Mynah sagely intuits and weds to his own sense of foreboding. When, in a later chapter, he reflects on the fate of a ship being destroyed in a breaker’s yard, there are echoes of his depiction of Fonseka, and of the other characters whose lives he discerns through impressionistic, deductive understanding: “in a breaker’s yard you discover that anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or railway carriage, or a shovel blade. You take that older life and you link it to a stranger.”
This form of linking, the reshaping of metal, or the mapping of observations onto lives, is one way to understand the valences of Emily’s character, too. Mynah’s only kin, she offers him security, enfolding him in her embrace and letting him fall asleep in her bed when an inexplicable grief seizes him. Yet darker sensibilities inflect even this fey moment: Emily’s allure, Mynah’s nascent attraction to her, the palpability of secrecy and danger as she becomes part of the underbelly of maritime life, engaging in criminal activity to protect Asuntha, and channeling her own yearnings into romantic involvement with a disreputable performer. “Who or what caused this darkness in her? At […] times she had an unreachable face. But when she returned to you, it was a gift,” Mynah lovingly recalls. She is a quintessentially Ondaatjean character, an Anil or a Hana, whose nature and grace one can only understand by suturing details.
Like Salman Rushdie’s narrator in Midnight’s Children, Mynah is “a swallower of lives,” navigating both the intimacy of and the demarcations between passengers, the ship the apposite vessel on which to experience the picaresque joys of childhood, the vertiginous beginnings of adolescence, and the furtive discoveries of the nuances of adult behavior. Seeing his reflection in a mirror early on in the novel, he recognizes only “someone startled, half-formed, who had not become anyone or anything yet,” but stochastic glimpses and profound emotions heighten his sensitivity to human frailty and strength, to the “story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.” So beautiful a novel, drawing these phases of life into a web of prose calibrated and lyrical, phlegmatic and passionate, could only flow from the hand of Michael Ondaatje.
“No story is ever told just once… We will return to it an hour later and re-tell the story with additions and this time a few judgments thrown in. In this way history is organized.”In 1978, and again two years later, Michael Ondaatje left his Toronto home and embarked on an ancestral odyssey – destination Ceylon. Now Sri Lanka, it was Ceylon in his youth. It was his childhood. It was the courtship of his parents, the setting for endless hours of family stories, in all their re-tellings. Ceylon was his history, and echoes of it are captured in his 1982 memoir Running in the Family.Asia. An ancient whisper of a word. Wrapped around the island of Ceylon, the seducer of all of Europe. Dutch, English, Portuguese have all fallen for its charms. Ceylon has been “the wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything with the power of their sword, or bible, or language.”More than traveling from Canada to this storied land, Ondaatje journeyed back through time, through generations. It was a journey to 1970s Sri Lanka, but also to his childhood in the 40s and 50s, and back further still to the land of his parents in the 20s and 30s.To Jaffna in the north he traveled, to the Dutch-built 18th century fortressed home of his Aunt Phyllis and his improbably named Uncle Ned. Phyllis was the keeper of the family stories and she held court telling and re-telling tales of eccentrics long gone. “We are still recovering from her gleeful resume of the life and death of one foul Ondaatje who was ‘savaged to pieces by his own horse.'”In Nuwara Eliya in the 20s and 30s everyone “was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations.” There was Francis, who once attacked his wife in an alcoholic haze. Riddled with guilt, he tried to drown himself in a lake. And he might have succeeded if that part of the lake had more than one foot of water. Francis was the social pivot around which Ondaatje’s father’s society swirled. He hosted parties on the rubber estate where he worked, and lived on a steady diet of Gin and Tonic. Around him, the charmed group was part of a lost world. And when he died, the party was over. “What seemed to follow was a rash of marriages.”Ondaatje’s father Mervyn had a thing about trains. There was the drunken occasion when he stripped naked and leapt from a moving train as it entered a tunnel. And another time when he stopped a moving train by threatening to kill the driver with his army pistol if he didn’t wait for his friend who was stranded in Colombo. But none of his train escapades matches the tale of Mervyn’s ongoing feud with someone through the pages of “comment/complaint” books at a succession of roadside rest-houses.Ondaatje’s mother Doris, whose patience with Mervyn eventually reached an end, could take the smallest incident or reaction and explode it into a myth-making epic. With a husky, wheezing laugh, she could turn one into a footnote to one’s own action. But this kept their generation alive, this oral mythologizing.Running in the Family is storytelling from all angles. There are Ondaatje’s narrative accounts of his visits. There are tales told by his aunts sifted through Ondaatje’s narrative pen. There are direct first person accounts from friends and family who remember the events in question, told in their voices, sometimes vying for the reader’s attention. There are poems and photos to flesh out the picture. But at its heart, this is oral family history. Its focus is small, direct. It’s not meant to be an expansive travelogue of a foreign land, though so strong is Ondaatje’s narration that your senses will be filled with the heat. With the breezes and monsoons. With the luxurious wafting aromas from the kitchens. But it’s the people that linger the most, and we fully understand the effect that all these voices, conjuring up all these ghosts, have on Ondaatje.”During waking hours, at certain times in our lives, we see ourselves as remnants from earlier generations that were destroyed.”See Also: A new novel from Ondaatje, Divisadero, has just been published.