Teju Cole: Even breathing is a political act

Nigerian-born writer Teju Cole is emerging as a pop star African thinker. Charl Blignaut cornered him at the Open Book fair in Cape Town

Teju Cole has just appeared on a panel at Open Book. Responding to the old literary-fair chestnut “Is the novel dying?” he offered a sleek and gentle acceptance of new technologies influencing form.

The form of the novel has already changed because of e-readers and audio books, he told the packed room.

“I fully expect to see photos and videos appearing among the pages of the novel I’m reading any time now.”

While others on the panel clung to the therapeutic act of reading, Cole proposed a different vision.

“People fear that multimedia is manic. But the novel as we know it was a manic form at first. Every form finds its own spaces and silences.”

In thick-rimmed glasses, the slight, bearded young man wears a flowing purple African shirt and turquoise scarf. We settle in a corner to discuss his first-ever visit to South Africa. We have just 10 minutes because he has a date with some locals to visit Gugulethu to discover the joys of Mzoli’s tavern and butchery.

How’s South Africa treating you?

I’ve been in South Africa for four days now. It’s a beautiful place with a very intense history.

Don’t the contradictions slap you, as an observer, especially in Cape Town?

It’s almost disorienting how contradictory a place it is. It’s extremely intense.

Because you’re surrounded by white luvvies and they’re the people buying your book?


You’re a star at this book festival. And your fans, your screaming fans, are genteel ladies with knitted scarves.

To be fair, I’ve got young black fans here as well. But the audiences are majority white. And that is uncomfortable. That is something that needs to be addressed. It’s two different things.

One, it’s societal, it’s a divided society where privilege accrues very much to people who are white and who have money.

But then the other thing is probably the organisers could be making more of an effort to make this thing a bit more open to people of different racial backgrounds. I think a festival like this would benefit so much if they made a concerted push to get young black audiences in.

The room was just packed now, though. I mean, they’ve sold the tickets they needed to sell.

That’s right. But there’s much more to a book fest than selling tickets. Everybody knows that.

So, bouncing off that discussion, I’m interested in your options when you wake up, in terms of where you can write. I have no feelings of purism, either way. I love a novel, I love a tweet. How does that work for you?

When I wake up, especially if I’m in a foreign country, I wake up before sunrise, I wait for the sunrise and take a picture from my window because the sunrise is different in different places. This is definitely one of the more spectacular.

And I think for the first twenty minutes of this morning I was just taking pictures from my room, through the curtains, and the sun coming up on the mountains, the fog on the mountains, the lights of the buildings down below. So that puts me in place.

If I have a sentence that is swirling in my head that is not really part of a book project that is an active linguistic intervention, I might write something on Twitter. But unless I actually have stretches of free days, I can’t really work on a book while I’m travelling.

I can, but there’s a challenge. Even at home, unless I have a stretch of days, it’s hard to really dive deep into a book project.

Where is home?

I live in Brooklyn, New York. And definitely that’s the most comfortable place for me in the world, not just for writing, but just in general.

But in addition to writing books, you know, I’m doing articles a lot, having to edit books, editing my work, and a lot of that stuff I can do on the road. I can work on a plane, I can work in a hotel room. And, of course, if it’s a tweet, I can write it on a bus, I can write it in a field.

Twitter’s become very important to you? I mean you’re storified, making the big papers regularly.

It’s sort of become important to me, in part because people have taken it seriously in a way.

I cannot pretend to be an innocent on Twitter, because I know that if I do a series of five tweets, or seven tweets, there’s a fair chance somebody is going to want to collect them and discuss them, or put them in a paper of whatever.

To other people on Twitter, that probably seems a bit excessive, it’s just tweeting right? Why put them in the paper? But on the other hand, there are the op-eds that don’t have a chance to be in the New York Times.

My issue is that we seem to lack irony all round, especially. We’re all very offended. We tend to define ourselves by how offended we are. If we’re not pissed off then we don’t exist.

We have a kind of seriousness that is a lack of playfulness. It’s an excessive seriousness that, in itself, undercuts the necessary seriousness of talking about the absurdity that’s around us.

I think Salman Rushdie said the other day that we used to define ourselves by the things we loved and…

…now we define ourselves by the things we hate. I partly agree with that argument, and I partly disagree with it, because there is a lot of anger these days, a lot of opposition and all of that. But a lot of that is simply democratic.

A lot of it is, there’s 7 billion people on the earth, in the world. And more and more of them are realising that they are equal to the people who are in power. And so there is actually a lot of contention and a lot of fractious interaction in the world, but that is the price of democracy.

And the whole world, when everybody was so well-behaved, and there was no access to noise making, that wasn’t a great world. However, it has also led to a rise in people being nasty and oppositional, just for the sake of it. Just as a way of getting attention.

What I was really saying is I like the irony in the tweets. Very often you’ll tweet something deeply sarcastic in the nicest possible way and you’ll be taken very seriously.

That’s right. I also love the fact that … You know the funniest thing is, whether they’re sarcastic or not, everything I tweet is taken the wrong way by somebody. Every single thing.

So really this is the new reader.

Yes, in a way.

The death of the novel?

Because the readers are there. And the people who are getting it are there, just on the basis of favoriting a tweet and things like that. But there will always be a significant minority who will attack. So when we went to Robben Island yesterday and I said being there made me think ... you know, of course when you’re on Robben island you are sort of overwhelmed with the cruelty of the place.

That’s a normal reaction. Because even the devil would be overwhelmed with the cruelty of Robben island. But in addition to being overwhelmed with the cruelty of the place, I was also overwhelmed by the idea that this actually still goes on.

We still have penal colonies. We have people who are confined indefinitely, having been accused of a crime, in situations of torture or quasi torture. I’m talking about Guantanamo Bay. That’s a further thought. And most people immediately got the example I was making.

But in the meanwhile, I got idiotic responses such as ‘you’re comparing Mandela to al-Qaeda?’ That’s a reading you could impose on something else I’m saying. And this happens with every tweet I put up.

I added one this morning that was about the disciplinary society. How we don’t make war any more, we have punitive strikes. As if the US is everybody’s daddy and it’s like ‘I’m going to punish you’. And to that somebody responded that I need to shut my trap. Why am I against intervention if I don’t have a better idea?

Does this filter into the writing in any way, this sense of unlocking a much broader set of ears?

I think that both the attentive readership, which I’m now aware of in a new way, and the oppositional readership, which I was not as aware of before, they have both sort of made me politically bolder.

Not in terms of aligning myself with a particular political movement, but in terms of having a stronger sense of my own independence, and having a more troubled sense of how dangerous language can be; how necessary it is to know what it is you’re saying.

The precision of language, that is going to affect all the other writing I do. The idea that people are not used to language being used in a very intense and a very serious way.

It is a weapon. The question then is, is the act of writing political for you? Is Open City a political book? Do you regard your career as a political one?

Yes, but not partisan politics. The politics of internal decolonisation. And, I think, the politics of liberation and consolation. That kind of politics, of digging through history and having a sense of what our predicament is, but not partisan in terms of signing on to somebody’s political platform.

The act of breathing in a black skin, is it a political act to you?

Yes. But to be alive as a human being, it has certain privileges, and has certain losses of privilege. That is absolutely political. Do you know how I realised how political it was to simply be alive as a black person who speaks, is that I realised that certain of my critics will only be happy when I’m dead and I stop speaking.

That’s the only thing that will satisfy them. You cannot alter what you are saying in order to satisfy them. It is the very act of your speaking that is an offence, because you’re supposed to be silent. So even without wishing to be political, you are political.

How are you feeling about the fact that you’re a bit of a pop star on the literary scene? Was that expected? You’ve worked hard to get to a place where you have a platform?

No, it’s not expected. The first thing I should say is that I’m not a pop star. Young writers know me.

But you are. People get hugely excited about you. Maybe it’s the South African reader. But you know what I mean.

It’s not expected. It’s not comfortable. I’m a private individual. Most of my life is actually taken up by enthusiasm, by the things I love. I’d be perfectly happy just tweeting playlists. Just being a radio DJ.

So what are the enthusiasms that drive you?

I sound like one of those terrible newspaper ads: long walks on the beach and puppy dogs. I will come back to the music I love. My life is mostly enthusiasm and finding a way to console myself over the things that are difficult in the world.

However, having an audience has also intensified my sense of responsibility to people who do not have an audience, but who experience life in similar ways to me. So when I’m talking to an old white audience, they don’t get voices like this at all.

They live inside their status quo. And they’re comfortable in there. And they don’t have somebody who has access to their language, who can actually bring them news from the other side. That’s one.

For the young black reader: to see one of us testifying to our experience of the world. I’m always grateful to see it in the artists and musicians I love, and the writers I love. And I’m grateful for the people who see that in me. That’s the way it affects my life. Otherwise, in my house I still have to take out the trash, do my laundry, pay my rent. I don’t own the house I live in, whatever.

But the music I love, it’s a broad range. I love Brahms and Beethoven, and early music on original instruments. I love minimalistic jazz and drum and bass. I like Radiohead very much and I love Vijay Iyer … I love old jazz and new jazz.

I’m not religious, number one, and number two I’m not the kind of person who likes to quote inspirational quotes and wisdom literature. But there was something Rumi said about how the grace of God moves from vessel to vessel and you just have to catch it where it is. I feel very much the same way with musical intelligence.

I went to a house party somewhere in Cape Town and what they were doing was really slowed-down hip-hop. I was there for a couple of hours. And I just thought: this is fantastic, this feels like home to me. And I was just as happy there as I am when I’m in Carnegie Hall.

Your words … Is it a joy or a pressure to use big words and do you try to pull them together in a certain way? Where did you read about these words?

I would rather be a good photographer than a great writer. I don’t trust language that much.

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