I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
One day in early October 2011, I was waiting outside the hotel across from the New York Public Library when Teju Cole walked down the street. He advanced in long strides, like someone comfortable getting around the city. This was the first time we met, and it was to share a car ride to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to take part in Pages and Places, a literary festival dedicated to books and cities.
The conversation in the back seat of the car started, I believe, with soccer—never a bad beginning—and then it went on for hours, touching on religion, Miles Davis, Sarajevo and Lagos, New York and Chicago, Sebald, soccer, writing, Hitchens and Dawkins, more soccer, faith, and many other things, including soccer. By the time we took part in the panel we were meant to share, there seemed nothing left to talk about. And then we talked some more, in a church with bad acoustics, and it seemed nobody could hear anything. By the end of the day, I felt I’d never talked so much in my life. But more importantly, I felt that I’d never listened so much ever before. We’ve been friends since, and I’ve been regularly looking for ways of listening to—and reading—Teju Cole. The man knows a lot, and knows what to do with it.
Open City (2012), Teju’s first book published in the US, is one of the most impressive debuts in recent literary history. I can’t remember whether I read it before or after we met, but it is entirely continuous with our Scranton dialogues. What makes Open City a great book (to call it merely a novel diminishes its range) is precisely the sense that Teju and his narrator are in constant conversation with the world inside the city around them. That exchange is endless, as are cities, sparkling with curiosity, intelligence, and visionary attention to detail, and laid out in precise prose, shamelessly and ceaselessly dipping its toes in poetry. It is one of the great books about New York, but also about space and language and memory.
And now we know Teju has done it before (or again) in Every Day Is for the Thief, a book that came out of blogging about his visit to Lagos, the city he grew up in. First published in Nigeria in 2007, and now appearing in a revised edition in the US and the UK, it expands and reinforces the accomplishments of Open City, confirming along the way that Teju is one of the foremost—for the lack of a better term—bicultural writers.
Salinger’s Holden Caulfield made a distinction between writers you would like to call on the phone and those you wouldn’t care to talk to at all. Teju Cole belongs to the former group. I grab any occasion to talk to Teju Cole: in person, via Twitter or, as in this case, by email.
— Aleksandar Hemon
Aleksandr Hemon I’ve always found the insistent distinction between fiction and nonfiction in Anglo-American writing very annoying, indeed troubling. For one thing, it implies that nonfiction is all the stuff outside of fiction, or the other way around, the yin and yang of writing. Another problem: it marks a text in terms of its relation to “truth,” a category that is presumably self-evident and therefore stable. But narration cannot contain stable truth, because it unfolds, and it does so before the narrator in one way, and before the listener/reader in another way. Narration is creation of truth, which is to say that truth does not precede it.
In Bosnian, there are no words that are equivalent to “fiction” and “nonfiction,” or that convey the distinction between them. This is not to say that there is no truth or falsehood. Rather, the stress is on storytelling. The closest translation of nonfiction would really be “true stories.”
You declare Every Day Is for the Thief a work of fiction. Why?
Teju Cole I made a sideways move from art history into writing, and I think this, in part, is why I also find the stern distinction between fiction and nonfiction odd. It’s not at all a natural way of splitting up narrated experience, just as we don’t go around the museum looking for fictional or nonfictional paintings. Painters know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard, and what’s been done before. Is Monet a nonfiction painter and Ingres a fiction painter? It’s the least illuminating thing we could ask about their works. Some lean more heavily on what’s seen, some more on what’s imagined, but all draw on various sources.
Writers know this too, but I think they knew it a lot better before the market took such a hold. Would Miguel de Cervantes have considered himself a writer of fiction? Would François Rabelais? Would Robert Burton consider his activity (let’s telescope the eras here) essentially dissimilar to Rabelais’s? They all pretty much understood themselves to be spinning narratives out of whatever was at hand. And let’s not even get into Daniel Defoe, who played devious games with the emerging genres.
But these days, a work has to be clearly marked “fiction” or “nonfiction,” and Every Day Is for the Thief is called a work of fiction because it has quite a number of things in it that are made-up. But when I’m reading Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, or W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, or those short stories by Lydia Davis, the last thing on my mind is whether they are a literal record of reality. Who cares? All I want is to be dragged down into a space of narrative that I haven’t been in before, into a place where, as you say, a truth is created. And let’s be frank: even the most scrupulous New Yorker article is an act of authorial will and framing, and is not as strictly “nonfictional” as it suits us to think it is.
In any case, you are right, this is an Anglo-American obsession. The Rings of Saturn was originally published in German as “Eine englische Wallfahrt” (An English Pilgrimage). Make of that what you will.
AH Sebald is pertinent here, for a number of reasons. As far as I know, none of the books published while he was alive were labeled as fiction or nonfiction, novel or essays. And he made sure that storytelling was at the heart of it. In Austerlitz, for example, he does what I term (for personal use) “concentric narration” (he said that she said that he said … ) whereby whatever comes from the past passes through people. The only way to have an organic connection with the past is by way of narration, while the knowledge of (as opposed to information about) history has to be shared in language. I always thought that Sebald used photographs in his books in order to expose their failure as documents. He places photos to interrupt the narration so as to show that they mean nothing unless they are inside storytelling. Photography might be self-authenticating (as Roland Barthes thought) but their authentic truth is available only in language, as practiced in narration.
What prompted you to include photos in Every Day Is for the Thief? What kind of work do you want the pictures to do?
TC For sure, Sebald was up to something sly with his photographs. His writing tested, much more than that of most other writers, the boundaries of what we consider fiction. I think the photos, many of which were found photos, and many of which were intentionally worn away through repeated photocopying, were there to create a mood. But they were also there to propose a dare. “Look, this is all testimonial,” he seems to be saying. And we almost believe it—until we notice the slight fracture between the claim in the text and the photograph, or until we look so closely at the text that we realize there are elements in it that came into being because he had a certain photograph on hand for which he made up a story, and not the other way around. As you say, the pictures “mean nothing unless they are inside storytelling.” So, I think of his photos as helping create the uncanny, destabilizing mood of his books: it must all be true, we think, but we know it can’t all be true.
My interest in Sebald came late, only after I had written Every Day Is for the Thief, and some friends who read it said, “Hey, you should check out Sebald.” My idea of putting photos in a book came from elsewhere: the fact that I happened to be interested in both photography and writing, the fact that I was a blogger. But, also, I had read Ondaatje (The Collected Works of Billy the Kid), Orhan Pamuk (Istanbul: Memories and the City), and Barthes (Camera Lucida)—the latter two of which are not fiction, but used photos in a non-textbook way. And then, later on, in the time between the writing of Every Day Is for the Thief and its American publication now, years later, I became aware of other interesting uses of black-and-white photos. Many writers were using images in a way that had imprecise connections to the text: Julio Cortázar’s From the Observatory, Catherine Taylor’s Apart, Carole Maso’s The Art Lover, and a certain Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project.
Add to all this the fact that I was being trained as an art historian, and that writing a paper and leaving out the images was unnatural to me: in a way, I was destined to put photos in Every Day Is for the Thief. And though I love Sebald to the point of tears, it’s important to me to push back a little against the idea that there’s this vacuum in which he alone ever put pictures in works of fiction. Also, I’m not completely sure of this, but I might be the most obsessed photographer of all the people I mentioned; I think almost everyone else is using other people’s photos, found photos, or (in Sebald’s case) sometimes snapshots. In my case, I have for sure spent more time in the past decade taking pictures than writing.
I know that your friend, the immensely talented Velibor Božovic, did the photos for The Lazarus Project. Other than the sheer beauty of his pictures, why was it important for you to have images in that book?
AH It started with two images of the dead Lazarus Averbuch sitting in a chair, being triumphantly offered by a blazingly white policeman to the American public. In 1908 these photos were supposed to show that his alleged anarchist proclivities were visible in his body and that the foreign life in said body was successfully terminated by law and order. I’d come upon the photos before I read Sebald and, more importantly, before the Abu Ghraib photos were released. When I saw the images from Abu Ghraib, they were instantly recognizable, because I’d seen and studied the Lazarus photos, which were structurally and ideologically identical to them.
In The Lazarus Project, I wanted to engage the reader into confronting the history as signified by the photos in the story. And I wanted to stretch the book between the (arbitrary) poles of subjectivity and objectivity (which some would equate with fiction and nonfiction), so I wanted the photos to cover the same range too—but only to complicate reader’s ideas and perceptions.
What always interests me—indeed obsesses me—is the way we engage in history. Except there is no “we.” Americans do it differently, and, often, irresponsibly and without particular interest. Abu Ghraib is long forgotten now; no lesson seems to have been learned. Specialist Lynndie England and ten others went to prison and are now out of it—with no officers among them, let alone anyone from Bush’s court of sociopaths.
On the other hand, I (and the people like me, whoever they may be) engage with it perforce. There is no way to leave history. There is no other place to go. As a diasporic person I’ve learned that it’s in fact really easy to leave your country. What is difficult is leaving its history, as it follows (or leads) you like a shadow. That kind of history is in your body (as it was in Lazarus’s) and cannot be relegated to a museum or, as in America, to entertainment.
I loved the chapter in Every Day Is for the Thief in which the narrator visits the National Museum, which is nearly devoid of art, while the historical wing consists of a mention of slave trade and narratives of recent dictators. What is Nigeria to you? What does its history mean to you, as a writer, and as a citizen?
TC Nigeria is an ideal for me in two ways. One, it’s a space of possibility, an opportunity for its people to move beyond the pressures of tribe or ethnic group. This opportunity is often squandered. Two, it’s a soccer team, one that could be one of the world’s best—there’s certainly enough talent to be, at least, on Uruguay’s level. This opportunity, too, is often squandered. So, Nigeria haunts me in terms of being a space of unfinished histories. But my identity maps onto other things: being a Lagosian (which is like a city-state), being a West African, being African, being a part of the Black Atlantic. I identify strongly with the historical network that connects New York, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, and Lagos. But, as a subject, Nigeria won’t let go of me.
Like you, I am now in a country where people (convinced of their innocence) sleep well; and like you, I’m still one of history’s amnesiacs.
TC I meant to write “insomniacs”! But the error is illuminating.
AH You not only identify with but also write about—and in—cities. Open City is one of the great city books, it’s also a great wandering book, as is Every Day Is for the Thief. It seems to me that it is impossible to write in a linear way about and in cities—they’re necessarily nonlinear places. This is the case with a city like Lagos (though I’ve never been there) perhaps even more so than New York with its orderly grids and spatial hierarchies. To my mind, the ultimate city-wandering book is Ulysses, radically devoid of linear narration and plot, built of fragments that exist simultaneously and often conflictually. What attracts you to cities? What connects the four cities in “the historical network”? Is it that cities are more conducive to nonlinear narratives, or is it that nonlinear narrators end up in cities?
TC Thank you. Halfway through writing Open City, I thought to myself that I should learn some of New York history “properly.” So I bought a stack of worthy books and started to read them. But, you know what? Doing that offended the sense of drift I relied on for my novel. The books were too systematic, too knowledgeable. So I just went back to my previous method: relying on the things I already knew, walking around aimlessly, and filling in facts and figures later as needed. The thing had to breathe, it had to drift, and it had to pretend not to know where it was going. (A dancer in mid-dance can’t think too much about her legs.)
As for cities in general: I think they might be our greatest invention. They drive creativity, they help us manage resources, and they can be hives of tolerance. In a village, you can’t stick out too much. In the city, if anyone judges you, you tell them to go to hell. So, there’s that positive side. But the other side is that they are simply so congested with material history and the spiritual traces of those histories, including some very dark events. Your contemporary Chicago is haunted by the Chicago of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Chicago of innovation and of systematic exclusions. Rural landscapes can give the double illusion of being eternal and newly born. Cities, on the other hand, are marked with specific architecture from specific dates, and this architecture, built by long-vanished others for their own uses, is the shell that we, like hermit crabs, climb into.
The four cities I listed are simply four that were important nodes in the transatlantic slave trade and in black life in the century following. They are the vertices of a sinister quadrilateral.
AH Cities do offer spaces for uncontrollable exchanges, but then there is always controlled commerce, which not so long ago included slave markets. But cities also erase and reshape themselves in ways that are different in different places. American cities tend to erase their pasts, particularly the conflictual parts, just as they marginalize the inconvenient and unjust parts of the present—the killing and the greed are always elsewhere. Take the Bloombergian New York, the Vatican of entitlement, where glamour conceals the greed that drives (and destroys) it all.
Cities like Lagos, Sarajevo, Rio, or New Orleans, do not project a harmonious version of themselves, because they cannot—the conflict is ever present and indelible. Hence they’re uncontainable, like language or literature—no experience or interpretation can be final, no delimiting or closure ever available.
Reading your books, I have a sense that, had you taken different routes in your wanderings, a different New York (in Open City) or Lagos (Every Day Is for the Thief) would’ve emerged. Or to put it another way, there is no way to impose a self-sustaining narrative upon any city—only multiple, simultaneous plots/stories are possible. Could it be that cities are therefore more conducive to poetry, which allows accumulation of fragments and does not require narrativization? You invoke Ondaatje a lot, a great poet and wrangler of fragments, as well as Tomas Tranströmer. What does poetry do for you? Do you write poetry?
TC I rarely sit down to write a poem, not the kind you can submit to Poetry magazine or the New Yorker. But I think poetry and its way of thinking does infect a lot of my work. I certainly read a lot of it—there’s a discipline and tightness in the language that very few prose writers can achieve. So, yes, people like Tranströmer and Ondaatje and Wisława Szymborska are touchstones for me. It’s a long list: George Seferis, Anne Carson, Charles Simic, Sharon Olds, Seamus Heaney: anyone who has found a way to sidestep conventional syntax. And for this reason, I take pleasure in reading those writers whose prose also contains the elusive and far-fetched. I imagine in reading you, for instance, that you must make notes of the odd and remarkable ideas or moments in a way similar to a poet. Is poetry important to your reading?
AH Actually, I don’t make notes. I rely on memory and its failure. I do think in language and I imagine that is what poets do, except in tighter spaces, closer to the language, indeed inside it, wrangling its rhythms, uncovering its dormant possibilities. When I was coming up in Bosnia the most common distinction in literary discourse was between poetry and prose, and it was not unusual for writers to write both poetry and prose (stories/novels/essays). Consequently, if you were an invested reader, you would read poetry as well as prose. Whatever the reason for that, it foregrounded the notion of literature as made of language. The distinction was founded upon the different uses of language, and not, as in fiction versus nonfiction, upon the relation between representation and “truth.” Poetry is, as far as I’m concerned, essential to the field of literature, it is its purest form. Sadly, I’m not good at writing it (I’ve tried), but I love reading poetry.
Now, you say you don’t write poetry, but you’re one of the great tweeters of our time. Is it fair to suggest that you exercise your poetic instincts in tweeting? And didn’t much of Every Day Is for the Thief appear online first, in a blog? How do you see the future of literature? What are the possibilities in practicing literature in the context of social media? How are people going to read fifty years from now? What are they going to read? Will there be poetry?
TCNow that’s a real surprise: I could have sworn you were an inveterate note-taker. It leaves me even more impressed with your writing then, because whenever I come across one of your intriguing turns of phrase, the little genie of writerly envy in my head says, “He must have been saving this one for a while.” (First time I read The Question of Bruno, every couple of pages I would think, How the hell did he arrive at this phrase? He must have scribbled it down and saved it for this moment.)
Anyway, notes or not, I do get your sense of fascination and discomfort with language. The writers that interest me all have this wide-eyed amazement at what words can do. And since language is fresh in them, since they don’t take it as a boring, settled thing, they can deliver it with corresponding freshness on the page.
The Twitter thing is interesting. “Great tweeter” is a term that would have literally been gibberish to anyone but an ornithologist five years ago. Now, apparently, there is such a thing.
I’m not active on Instagram (though, in theory, it should be great for me), I couldn’t connect with Vine, and I’m not sure I even know what Snapchat is. But Twitter has been a real part of my creativity these past couple of years. For sure, there’s a poetic impulse there in me, perhaps not one disciplined enough to write finished poems, but still unwilling to let go of the intensely localized effect that poems can have. So, Twitter has been good for humor, for provocations, and for thinking about new ways to deliver the ideas that are important to me. Indeed, even new ways to find out which ideas are important to me. I should also mention that I’ve gotten more attention (maybe because of my more conventional published work) than lots of the other people who are doing seriously interesting work on Twitter. So, there’s that element of luck and randomness as well.
Every Day is for the Thief appeared online in January 2006, as a limited edition experiment. I wrote one chapter each day. In effect, I was blogging on this weird project eight hours a day for an entire month. Months later, after I had erased the blog, a Nigerian publisher showed interest, and the project was edited and found a second life as a book. But, yes, I believe in life online, the way a person in 1910 might believe in aviation, or a person in 1455 might believe in movable type: with excitement and apprehension.
But who knows where it’s going to go? For sure, some of the smartest and most interesting literary minds of our generation and the generations to come will work in areas that are not “books” as we currently think of them. That’s a given. But I think some of these people will also write books. It’s the way that, say, 200 years ago, the most celebrated composers in Europe were all “classical” composers. Now, some of the best composers are still writing so-called classical music, but others are writing rock, jazz, electronica, or other weird things. In writing, at the present moment, books have a near monopoly on the literary reward system (if not on actual literary production). I think that’s going to change very fast. I’m not saying there will be a Nobel Prize for tweeting, but I expect that the rewards of literary production will inevitably include people whose work is embedded inside these newer technologies. The Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Work In Snapchat. Whatever the hell Snapchat is.
AH Yes, rationally, I agree with you. But it may be the function of my age that I increasingly find myself considering the possibility that the whole project of humanity is winding down and the end of it all is on the horizon of possibilities. For one thing, extinction of humans is one of the possible outcomes of climate change.
It is possible that we might have to rethink nearly everything in the light of the possibility that 200 years from now there will be no one around to give a flying fuck about what we’re doing at this time. Our ethical and philosophical underpinnings—to the extent that we share any of them—will have to be reevaluated against the ultimate failure of humanity to outlive individual human beings. If we cannot continue our individual humanity in the collective project of humanity, if we cannot imagine a world better than this—and not by means of some spiritual opiate—this world is over. In that case, literature, which is always sent to some reader in the future, will have to renegotiate its modes of participation in human experience. If we ever find ourselves writing only for the present—which would essentially mean that tweeting is all we can do—I would feel absolutely defeated as a human being and a writer.
I was particularly struck by the last chapter in Every Day Is for the Thief, taking place on the street of carpenters who make only coffins. There is a devotion to their work of packing people away into the void, never questioning the meaning of it all. That perhaps redeems all the other failures in Lagos, in the world, in literature. And the photo that ends the book is not only sublimely beautiful but suggests a transcendence that is beyond death, something that might be available to the carpenters/writers if they maintain their devotion for the work.
The questions: Where do you stand in relation to transcendence? Do you pursue it? Must we pursue it? Is that a way to imagine better worlds?
TC Well, open up yourself to our new overlords, Sasha. But, yes, I’m with you, particularly on the cataclysmic climate change that’s coming into view and which will cause so much needless suffering.
As for faith: I don’t believe in the Christian god, or the Muslim one, or the Jewish one. I’m sentimentally attached to some of the Yoruba and Greek gods—the stories are too good, too insightful, for a wholesale rejection—though I don’t ask them for favors.
What do I believe in? Imagination, gardens, science, poetry, love, and a variety of non-violent consolations. I suspect that in aggregate all this isn’t enough, but it’s where I am for now.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee