Teju Cole delights in following his curiosity to unexpected places. He is lively, funny and more of a rambler than his concise writing would suggest, prone to amusing tangents — about, for instance, his ability to detect whether someone prefers Rihanna or Beyonce.
“I am cool on the page and animated in person,” Cole writes in his new essay collection, “Known and Strange Things” (Random House: 416 pp., $17 paper) and it’s hard to disagree with his assessment.
In the book, the Nigerian American author darts with acrobatic ease among subjects as wide-ranging as Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Transtromer, Black Lives Matter, Malian portrait photography, ’20s blues singer Bessie Smith and the plight of undocumented immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
“There's a lot in this messy and difficult world that I love,” said Cole, 41, in an interview at his Brooklyn office. “I'm just trying to talk myself through that love.”
Cole rose to prominence in 2011 with the publication of “Open City,” a meditative novel narrated by a young Nigerian medical student as he roamed the streets of New York that earned him comparisons to W.G. Sebald, James Joyce and Zadie Smith. He now writes a photography column for the New York Times Magazine, where many of the essays in “Known and Strange Things” originated, and will also publish a collection of his own photographs, called “Blind Spot,” next year.
Propelled by what he calls a “naturally digressive character,” Cole has traced an unlikely path to becoming one of the most vibrant voices in contemporary writing. As an undergraduate at Kalamazoo College, “I spent all my time just reading books that I should not have been reading, watching films, and listening to music in the music library,” he said.
Cole then spent, as he puts it, “10 years borrowing money,” dropping out of medical school and pursuing two graduate degrees in art history before trying his hand at fiction. A Lagos-set novella, “Every Day Is for the Thief,” came out in 2007 and was followed by the widely acclaimed “Open City,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The novel’s success “showed me that this was something I could do for a living,” Cole said, “not writing novels, but engaging with the world as somebody who wrote, thought about art, made pictures. Stitching all those things together became my life.”
Cole stitches these passions together throughout “Known and Strange Things,” which is organized into three sections. The first, focused on literary criticism, opens with the essay “Black Body,” in which a visit to the Swiss village where James Baldwin wrote parts of “Go Tell It Oon the Mountain” prompts Cole to reflect on his identity as a black man — a recurring theme throughout the collection. “To be a stranger is to be looked at, but to be black is to be looked at especially,” he writes.
In the middle section, Cole contemplates visual culture, including not just film and photography but also videos of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and other African Americans killed by police. (True to Cole’s intertextual style, the book is illustrated with many of the photos he writes about.) The final third of the book finds Cole on exploratory journeys — or, as he puts it self-effacingly, “going to places far away from home and being cranky about it.”
Aesthetics clearly matter to Cole, who is slight of build with a jovial, gap-toothed grin. His high-ceilinged office is decorated with thoughtful precision, a single wall covered in wallpaper resembling engraved clouds. Even Cole’s outfit — dark jeans, gold-trimmed black high-tops, and a navy-blue button-down patterned like a nighttime sky — shows a quiet flair.
Cole’s willingness to embrace — or at least experiment with — new forms extends to social media. On Twitter, he published “Seven Short Stories About Drones,” tweets that reimagined the opening lines of famous novels with drone strikes. (“Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.”)
“Known and Strange Things” also includes “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” a scathing essay about patronizing Western attitudes toward Africa that began as a series of tweets in response to the “Kony 2012” documentary (it initiated an awareness campaign hoping to arrest indicted war criminal Joseph Kony; he remains at large).
Cole’s inventive use of Twitter earned him a following of more than 250,000 and gushing media attention (“Teju Cole is Way Better at Twitter Than You” read a Vice headline), but he quit the site in 2014, a move he ascribes to self-preservation.
Social media “can really amplify our collective weaknesses,” said Cole. “You just have to have clarity about how you want to engage with the public for the sake of yourself and your work.”
These days he’s more excited about Instagram, where he posts his often sparse, depopulated photographs, and Facebook, where he recently shared a playlist, featuring Whitney Houston and Beethoven, for “Known and Strange Things.”
Largely absent from “Known and Strange Things” is traditionally autobiographical writing; personal details are scant in Cole’s essays, as are mentions of his parents, wife and family. “I don't necessarily want to talk to you about what's happened inside my bedroom,” he concedes, saying that what passes as personal is often just prurient. That’s not to say his writing lacks intimacy or insight into his passions; indeed, Cole focuses on what he calls “the really secret stuff” -- the art, ideas and images that bring him pleasure.
“After all,” he said, “this is all about what’s really deep and close to me.”
Although he has proved his talent for writing fiction, Cole said that he’s “relatively unlikely to sit down and write 5,000 well-structured words of a short story for the New Yorker.” But he is content to keep experimenting. “I've found that I don't really care too much about the genre; there are just energies I want to put out there.”
Cole is a highly associative thinker whose diverse interests allow him to make unexpected, illuminating connections, as in an essay using an obscure art theory devised by the 19th-century Italian writer Vittorio Imbriani to explain Google’s Search by Image function.
For his part, Cole doesn’t think such eclecticism is so exceptional. “You like literature. And that does not seem to conflict with the fact that you like TV, or the fact that you watch films,” he reasons. “It is true that when it comes to writing, people specialize, and I just sort of missed that memo, right?”
Asked whether he has any cultural blind spots, Cole reveals he is “that guy who skips the business section” and, like most of us, doesn’t know much about coding, though he calls it “the language of our time.”
“It's OK not to be the smartest boy in class,” he said, “because knowing how much you don't know can then be the starting point for engaging with the world.”