Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Known and Strange Things: Essays by Teju Cole

This book of essays by Teju Cole aren’t always essays: they might be scraps of thought, well-digested and to an immediate point. They are fiercely intelligent, opinionated, meaningful in a way that allow us to get to the heart of how another thinks. And does he think! Let’s be frank: many of us don’t do enough thinking, and Cole shows us the way it can be done in a way that educates, informs, and excites us.

The work in this volume are nonfiction pieces published in a wide variety of outlets and that he chose from an eight-year period of travel and almost constant writing. The emphasis in these pieces, he tells us in the Preface, is on “epiphany.” We can enjoy kernels of ideas that may have had a long gestation, but have finally burst onto the scene with a few sentences but little heavy-handedness or any of the weight of “pronouncements.” This reads like a bared heart in the midst of negotiating life, as James Baldwin says in The Fire Next Time, “as nobly as possible, for the sake of those coming after us.”

Cole references Baldwin in all these pieces in his unapologetic gaze, but he does so explicitly in several pieces, notably “Black Body” in which he tells of visiting the small town in Switzerland, Leukerbad (or Lo├Ęche-les-Bains), where Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain found its final form. Cole expands on his time in Switzerland in “Far Away From Here,” which might be my favorite of these essays. Cole tells how he was given six months to work and write in Zurich and though he did precious little writing, he was totally absorbed every day, gazing at the landscape, walking the mountains, photographing the crags, trails, and lakes, thinking, unfettered. This is someone who carries all he needs in his head, and I loved that freedom as much as he.

But how can I choose a favorite from among these pieces when each spoke of ways to approach a subject with which we have struggled—or haven’t yet…About race and class: “how little sense of shame [Americans] seemed to have,” he writes, looking at America from his upbringing in Lagos. Cole echoes Baldwin again in “Bad Laws” about Israel and its laws concerning the rights of Palestinians:
”The reality is that, as a Palestinian Arab, in order to defend yourself against the persecution you face, not only do you have to be an expert in Israeli law, you also have to be a Jewish Israeli and have the force of the Israeli state as your guarantor…Israel uses an extremely complex legal and bureaucratic apparatus to dispossess Palestinians of their land, hoping perhaps to forestall accusations of a brutal land grab.”
Earlier Baldwin reminded us that “…few liberals have any notion of how long, how costly, and how heartbreaking a task it is to gather the evidence that one can carry into court [to prove malfeasance, official or not], or how long such court battles take.” Americans looking at Israel and Palestine should be able to discern some outline of our own justifications and methods, and vice versa.

Photography is one of Cole’s special interests and he is eloquent in Section Two "Seeing Things" in discussing what makes great photography as opposed to the “dispiriting stream of empty images [that the] Russians call poshlost: fake emotion, unearned nostalgia.” And then he discusses “Death in the Browser Tab,” wherein he tells us what he sees and what he knows after retracing the steps caught by the phone footage recording Walter Scott being shot in the back by eight bullets from a .45-caliber Glock 21.

Politics is what humans do, though “the sheer quantity of impacted bullshit in politics” is clearly not something Cole relishes. In "The Reprint" Cole admits he did not vote until sixteen years after he was eligible, and when he did vote finally, for Obama, “like a mutation that happens quietly on a genetic level and later completely alters the body’s function, I could feel my relationship to other Americans changing. I had a sense—dubious to me for so long, and therefore avoided—of common cause.” He notes that Obama was “not an angry black man, the son of slaves” but a biracial outsider who invisibly worked his way to the center of the political establishment piggybacking the experience of American blacks by hiding in plain sight. The night Obama won, Cole was in Harlem.
“There was as exuberant and unscripted an outpouring of joy as I ever expect to see anywhere… Black presidents are no novelty for to me. About half my life, the half I lived in Nigeria, had been spent under their rule, and, in my mind, the color of the president was neither here nor there. But this is America. Race mattered.”
Cole will speak out in "A Reader's War" against Obama’s “clandestine brand of justice” and his “ominous, discomfiting, illegal, and immoral use of weaponized drones against defenseless strangers…done for our sakes.” He admits that Obama believes he is trying “to keep us safe,” and writes “I am not naive…and I know our enemies are not all imaginary…I am grateful to those whose bravery keeps us safe.” It is one of the most difficult questions about political and military power that we face today and Cole wrestles the issue heroically. Not any of us have yet answered this question well, and until we do, the disconnect between justice and drone strikes will continue to plague us. We have unleashed a terrible swift sword on far away lands while we continue to suffer the brutality of a thousand cuts from our own citizens. Cosmic justice?

When Cole talks about literature I experience a frisson. There is nothing quite like someone very clever and well-spoken addressing something about which one cares deeply. His insights add to my pleasure, and detract nothing. His description of the poetry of Derek Walcott remind me of the first time I encountered Walcott’s work: “This is poetry with a painterly hand, stroke by patient stroke.” I have forever thought of Walcott in this way, in color and in motion: turquoise and pale yellow, cool beige and hibiscus pink, the palest gray and an ethereal green I am not sure is water, air, or sea grass. The ocean creates tides through his work, and it seems so fresh.

When Cole writes of his visit to V.S. Naipaul in “Natives on the Boat," we sense how Cole’s initial reserve is eventually won over by Naipaul’s deeply curious and wide-ranging questions. In the very next essay, “Housing Mr. Biswas,” Cole writes an ecstatic celebration of Naipaul’s accomplishment in creating the “smart and funny, but also often petulant, mean, and unsympathetic” Mr. Biswas in Trinidad,
“an important island in the Caribbean but not a particularly influential one on the world stage…the times and places—the farms, the roads, the villages, the thrumming energy of the city, the mornings, afternoon, dusks, and nights—are described with profound and vigilant affection…it brings to startling fruition in twentieth century Trinidad the promise of the nineteenth century European novel.”
He’s right of course. Naipaul is a beloved writer of a type of novel no longer written, and perhaps now not often read.

Reading all these essays in one big gulp was a lot to digest so I am going to recommend a slower savoring. This is a book one must own and keep handy for those small moments when one wants a short, sharp shock of something wonderful. By all means read it all at once so you know where to go back to when you can dig up copies of some of the photos he talks about or want to recall how Cole manages in so few words to convey so much meaning. His is a voice thoughtful in expressing what he sees and yet so vulnerable and human I want to say—read this—this man is what’s been missing from your lives.


These collected essays will be published August 9, 2016. I read the e-galley provided to me by Netgalley and Random House. I note that some of the essays about art or photography that were initially published in newspapers sometimes were accompanied by examples of the work he discusses. In a perfect world, these would be included in the final book, but truthfully, his writing is clear and compelling enough to not make that nicety strictly necessary. Apologies to the publisher for quoting from a galley: my excuse is that the work is previously published and therefore no surprise.


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