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Open City

by Alain William van Heerden / 19.09.2013

I find it very hard to write an adequate introduction to the interview that follows. Earlier this year, I was led to the work of Teju Cole through comparisons that his work received to W.G. Sebald. Being one of my favourite writers, I picked up a copy of Open City, followed him on twitter, and have since been captivated.

Teju Cole is a writer, a photographer and among many other things an art historian. All of these interests and aptitudes create complexity in his work, both stylistically and thematically. From architecture to alienation, imperialism to misogyny, many themes are discussed throughout Open City‘s New York-based walkabout, the result being a rich, moving and rewarding debut novel (not counting an earlier novella of his, Every Day is for the Thief) for which he received a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.

When I found out that Teju Cole would be at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town this year, I jumped at the opportunity to discuss some of these topics with him and what follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Mahala: First, I’d just like to say welcome to Cape Town! I was wondering if you’ve spent time here before at all and if not, what are your first impressions of the city?

Teju Cole: This is my first time here and I find it very interesting because I grew up in Africa (in Nigeria) and it’s interesting to be in what feels like to me a very different Africa. Even though I know things about South Africa, experiencing it in person is quite interesting. I think it always takes time to assess what one is looking at and what it means; what one is seeing. So for now I’ll just say it’s really interesting. The CBD of course is very beautiful. It’s spectacularly located. You know, you go out into the outlying areas and you see a lot of poverty and there’s a lot of segregation but I’m assessing what I’m seeing and I’m understanding.

I was part of the walkabout that you had with Hedley Twidle on Saturday and I remember that you mentioned that people would often say that a place like Cape Town and a place like New York is very different and you mentioned that they aren’t actually so far apart, that there are similarities. In Open City, you talk about Brussels and about Lagos and New York and I was wondering if you find that there are, despite the obvious differences, characteristics of a city that are common within all of them?

Absolutely. I think that there’s a kind of continuity of structure and there are solutions that people come up with for city life you know? Because all cities are spaces where hundreds of thousands of people or millions of people have to live together in a small space and there’s always a need to solve some problems: of transportation, of security, of water-supply and electricity and all of those things are solved, better or worse in various places. But what they have in common is that effort to solve those problems. Problems that people living in a village would not need to solve.

In Open City there’s a passage where you talk about Julius’ neighbour and living in such close proximity to other people and how something so major can happen in their life without you being aware of it, that you can live so close to someone else in terms of proximity but know so little about what’s going on in their life. I think that’s something that anyone living in a city can relate to. Your work seems to be quite focused on cities, is there something specific that inspires you about cities or do you find that you’d be able to be inspired by more rural areas, too?

Well, the answer is both; I could write about the countryside but I am more inspired by the city because of its complexity and because of what I said earlier: the way in which it can solve problems; the way in which it has so much history in such a small space and so many different kinds of life in such a small space. So, cities fascinate me, however, I like to believe myself to be somebody who could be interested by anything, you know? The theme is not what matters to me, it’s the sensibility with which one approaches it. I can see myself writing a story that’s about nothing but the open sea: even a story that’s devoid of human presence. But more naturally I am drawn to the kind of dynamism and complication and solitude of the city.

In the way you mentioned now and in the walkabout on Saturday, you spoke about how cities have layers of history. I was lead to your work because of a comparison to W.G. Sebald’s work, who uses photos in his work, and you are a photographer. The way I always saw his work, and I see it in Open City, too is that it comes across like a literary form of a multiple exposure photograph. Do you feel that photography inspires your writing and vice versa or do you feel that the mediums complement each other in any way? Are there things you feel you can do in one and not in the other?

I definitely have a sense of these two things speaking to each other and I like your concept of the multiple exposure picture. There’s a German artist called Michael Wesely who does very long exposures of cityscapes. He could do an exposure from a building looking down on a scene, he could do an exposure that lasts for 18 months onto film on a large format. Sometimes, he would do a long exposure of a construction site so that in the final image you just see this ghostly thing of the building going up and I find that actually a very convincing analogue for the kind of thing that I like to do with cities, which is to see its various pasts and present at once. This also interests me because I’m a photographer and what is the relationship between looking and time, you know? Every time we’re looking at something, a) we’re looking at it in the present, but b) we’re also creating a memory of it in our looking, in our sensory apparatus. Can we get into certain psychological states where we have many different layers of looking that are happening? In many different ways I evoke that in Open City. Looking directly at things that were built a long time ago or thinking about what used to be and is no longer there or even a direct encounter for example with a shoeshiner, the bootblack who is literally from another time who has a conversation with Julius. So, there is magical realism, there’s hallucination, there is archaeology, there is history and all of that hopefully to create a multi-layered work.

Something else I wanted to ask about and in my reading online it seems to be a bit of an issue of contention amongst readers. Open City is written from the perspective of Julius who is a Nigerian man living in America and studying to be a psychologist. A lot of the themes throughout the book focus on exploitation, colonialism, immigration etc. and of course these are all discussed from the perspective of an African man living abroad. Later on in the book, he is accused by a woman of raping her while he was still in Lagos. Around the time that I was reading this I read a tweet of yours that says: “I learn more about privilege from what I get wrong about misogyny than from what I get right about racism” and I wonder if that ties into the theme you were exploring in the book of how oppression goes so unnoticed by those not experiencing it directly: how a white male will be unaware of the oppression that other races feel in the same way a man is unaware of the oppression that a woman can feel?

Yeah, I mean, the question is so well-expressed that almost all I can say is ‘Yes’, but what I will say is that the people who think that perhaps it was a false accusation are responding to clues that I’ve put into the book and they’re not completely wrong to think that. The majority of people who think that the accusation was actually correct are also responding to things I’ve put in the book and they’re not wrong to think that. The doubt and ambiguity was intentional because that’s actually often how it plays out in reality. It’s not always stone-cold fact. There’s always some point of contention around, ‘Well, is this person really telling the truth?’ and I mean, not being believed doubles the trauma of having been violated. And so for many people it’s not a single trauma, it’s a double-trauma and yet not being believed comes out of not only male-privilege but also of the reality of false accusations which do exist. So I just wanted to evoke that complexity. But actually that tweet you read, I think is a pretty good sort of summary of what I was trying to do. There are very, very few critics that I think have understood that for me, as the writer of this book, the question of misogyny is a more pressing one than the question of racism. But, to read it through the lens of racism is a much easier read because a lot of the questions of misogyny are matters of omission but if you read it through that lens you see that it’s actually a pretty central theme.

Speaking of twitter, I was wondering what initially drew you to that, as a platform and over time, has that changed? Has your use of it morphed along the way as you’ve discovered new potential in it?

I had a pretty good sense about it right from the beginning actually because it was clear that this was a way of disseminating sentences and to put thoughts in the public mind. I mean, I’m sort of fortunate in the way that my use of it got really popular but right from the beginning I believed in the intensity of what can be expressed in one or two sentences if you shape them very carefully and think very closely about what you’re doing. And of course, part of the fun of it is that most people are using it in a very sort of casual and throwaway way so that if you… in a way, this is cheesy but it reminds me of those awful moments in those television song contests, you know, X-Factor or whatever: people are coming and singing out of tune and then suddenly some strange-looking woman or strange-looking man shows up and starts singing and it sounds as if it’s the Metropolitan Opera House. Then they edit this video in a way that it catches your heart like, ‘Wow, oh my God where did that voice come from?” Such a voice might be objectively pretty good but might not be good enough to actually sing at the MET but what makes it really, really powerful and what gives it 3 million views on YouTube is the fact that it shows up in this completely unexpected context where a lot of people are like, “Oh, I sing pretty good in the shower, I’m gonna try out for X-Factor or American Idol” and I think there’s a little bit of that kind of thing for me with twitter, which is if you have the instinct of doing very seriously what most people just sort of do for jest. Tthere’s a way in which that kind of voice will draw attention to itself. But now, of course there are many many people who are doing serious work on twitter. But that was something I saw from it right in the beginning, that you could find a way to write in an arresting way in what seemed like a bullshit medium.

Teju Walkabout

A little while ago I actually tweeted about that saying that I go through so much nonsense on my timeline that every time I come across something serious, I have to reread it looking for a punchline. And those are the ones that grab your attention, because they’re so out of place.

This question of reading again, saying: “Wait, did I miss something? How did this happen?” is precisely also what I try to do. In long form work, it’s exactly what I try to do, also in photography which is a bit harder to do because you just have a picture so how can you do something that’s a little bit arresting and not merely beautiful but that creates a capacity for a doubt and for rereading. But that’s the interest: to capture that surreal lyric moment.

So do you feel that there’s a separation then, from when you work on things that you know are going towards a book and do you place one at all higher in terms of literary value? Because a lot of what you tweet has received a lot of attention and seems to me to have strong literary weight behind them and as much as they are tweets, they do have literary value?

I don’t have that separation, I think that separation comes naturally to a lot of people. For me, it would be kind of silly because why do we write books and publish them? Is it because of the prestige of that form? That it’s published and in a library? Well, it could be sitting in a library and nobody touches it. The reason to write is to be read. Let’s even say that a fair number of the people who follow anybody on twitter are bots, fact of the matter is that I’m still followed by thousands of real human beings on twitter. Why would I not say what I wish to say to them the best way that I could? The vast majority of people I will never meet. The whole point of writing is the wish to say something and to put it into the world. That’s the point of writing books and publishing them and this does not mean that every tweet has to be serious. In fact, sometimes the most provocative and interesting way to get across states of being is through humor. But taking it seriously just seems like the natural thing to do: if thousands of people are reading you then you might as well do it right. I take it seriously, which of course annoys many people.

I think it’s great, I saw the other day that Lydia Davis was talking about possibly wanting to open a twitter account and I thought that would be great, because she just won the International Man Booker Prize and a lot of her stories could be tweets in themselves.

That’s right, absolutely.

And to break down that barrier, I think would be great. I think a lot of people have that sentimental attachment to a book that…

Well, not just to a book but also to the idea that an author is somebody who is a priest and is completely inaccessible and they’re saving their deep thoughts for the pages of a book and they’re not gonna waste it on mere mortals who are not paying for it. And I think this is kind of a goofy idea. I think it’s actually more important to just say, ‘Look, we’re all here, and there’s a family of ideas that does not discriminate between people who’ve been published by major publishing houses and those who do not publish at all, but let’s all be present here on this platform with our idea. No coasting on past glories.’ You’re only as good as your last thought.

I think what also drew me very much to Open City and the format of it is that it doesn’t rely so heavily on plot and I think what initially drew me into reading was that I found things like that: I found John Berger’s Here Is Where We Meet and that really wasn’t strictly plot-based, it was about ideas and that’s what I think drew me into Open City as well is that you’re using this novel as a platform to discuss ideas.

Here Is Where We Meet is actually one of my favourite books, it’s actually something that influenced me very strongly and I really love his writing. I love Berger’s writing much. And you know, not only is there a space for it, there’s a hunger for it and publishing houses don’t always understand that. There’s a space for the lyrical exploration of ideas that is not about hammering on one particular point but just saying, ‘Look, can we just open this space where we can think through our situation and maybe arrive not at a solution, but at some solace.’ And this idea of creating a space where we can even just speak out what we experience. Creating that space is something that’s very important to me and I hear back from a lot of young people, especially young people of colour who in the mainstream public sphere are not seeing much that reflects their own experiences of hybridity and wondering about what it means to belong. As my twitter bio says: “We who?”, always putting that into this question of saying ‘What is this ‘we’?’

Having lived both in New York and Nigeria, what have you found are the most common misconceptions that people have about Africa?

Basically, the refusal to take seriously the complicated humanity of the people here. Simple. You know, the preference for the caricature to the reality. And the reality is that people here are just as complex and as human and humane and confused and evil and good and loving and aggressive as anybody else, anywhere on earth. That denial of complexity is probably the biggest and it’s part of a big impetus behind my writing. Even though I’m not out there trying to be a political writer, but just to say, ‘Look, this complexity exists’ and if you’re gonna take a question of human rights and address it seriously it has to start at believing that other people are just as human as you are. And I think for a lot of people, there’s still this doubt. They expect to be bombed, and they expect to be ignored and they expect to have oil spills; things that we would never have ourselves. Particularly on twitter, a lot of what I’m doing is corrective to the things that I hear about what African life is like, or Middle-Eastern or what Muslims are like. Anyone who’s not like a standard mainstream American.

In the piece that you wrote about the First World Problems hashtag that was trending on twitter, your problem with it was that it disregards that people living in what’s considered the Third World also deal with those same problems. Do you feel like the opening up, and the multiculturalism that’s able to start happening because of the internet making everyone more accessible to each other will start breaking down that idea?

I don’t think that it will, and I think that prejudice is like bed-bugs: it just won’t die, it’s there. But you know, Jimmy Kimmel did a whole sketch where they had Kenyans, who don’t have twitter, read out ridiculous things tweeted out by American celebrities. And of course, you know the whole gag of it was how ridiculous it is that some Kenyan person in a slum is reading out Lady Gaga or Kim Kardashian’s tweets with their funny accents. That these celebrities are living frivolous lives while other people don’t have twitter. Except that it’s immensely stupid, you know? There are thousands and thousands of Kenyans on twitter and they use the hashtag #KOT (Kenyans of Twitter) and they’re always discussing politics, technology, life, television, music, love, the ICC elections… But it’s so easy for an American to just say: “Kenya, they can’t possibly have internet over there.” Because the default mode is to think ‘They’re all nice and good and I don’t have anything against them, but obviously they’re not as complex as we are’. And it’s this sort of coerced consent of ‘Well, we all know that Africans are not literally equal to us’, I mean, that’s the really dark thing, that’s the really offensive thing and I hate to use the word offensive because it sounds like a whine but it’s not just offensive, it’s vicious. Because if you denigrate the full humanity of other people then you can allow yourself to do all kinds of things to them: economically, politically, humanitarianly. So, is it gonna change? You know, probably not. Not unless Africans themselves assert their presence more and more in a more and more unapologetic way.

Sorry, do we have time for one last question? I know that you have a background in art history, and in writing and in photography. I’m sure that all of these things must form a sort of filter through which you perceive the rest of the world? And that you can use all of those things to understand what you see? In the walkabout on Saturday there was talk about the Situationists and them wanting to find things that were completely random, do you ever feel the need to separate yourself from the knowledge that you’ve accumulated and view things as contextless as possible?

Yeah, I mean, definitely. I know what you mean – trying to find ways to escape the brain, basically. I mean, this is part of my interest in cliche. To try and find a way to find the fresh in the everyday; to try and escape the ways of thinking. This is part of my interest in street photography which is very much about me taking my camera out in the street and trying to find something that I don’t even know I’m looking for; what it’s going to present itself to me as. I never go out thinking that I’m going to go and shoot that thing but it’s like I’m waiting for it. And I’m waiting for surprise. And those are just some of the ways that I let it slip out of what is standard and what I thought I was going to do. And then the other thing that happens is in the course of editing the piece, I will often find a new way to recast a metaphor or to reshape something. The first thought is often not the best thought, it’s the thought that comes later. Not through thinking, but through mis-transcribing something or through mishearing it creatively or reconsidering it or taking whatever it is you did and flipping it completely on its head. I mean, that’s the practice of it in my artwork. And then the practice of it in my personal life is dancing. Going out to a club, anything that keeps you in the body and not too insistently in the mind.

Teju Book Cover

Teju Cole’s Open City is available at most decent book stores. He is currently working on a non-fiction narrative of Lagos.

* Illustration © Alain William van Heerden, image © Jacques Kleynhans

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