By Tahirah A
I first heard of Teju Cole at the Farafina writers workshop held five months ago in Lagos. Oddly, his name came up when Binyavanga Wainaina was critiquing a story I had written and he asked me what I was trying to accomplish. I gave a garbled unsatisfactory answer and he listened intently, trying to glean some sense out of it. Finally, he mentioned a few authors and novels I should look into that had achieved much more spectacularly the things I could barely hint at with my story. The thing around your neck was one, and Teju Cole’s Open City was the other.
So, like a diligent student, and with my esteem at half-mast I googled and tried to find out more about him and his novels. I found out that he is much more than a novelist, that he is a photographer and is passionate about art, and with his small fates on Twitter about Nigerian life culled from our newspapers, something of a social commentator too.
Months later, I was asked to write a few interview questions to find out more about him and the following is what ensued;
You briefly studied medicine before abandoning it for art. When did the love affair with art begin?
Very early. Certainly by the time I was six, and on until my early teens, I was interested in drawing and painting. My brother and I used to set up objects in our bedroom and draw them. I don’t know where that came from, as neither our parents are artists. Later, in secondary school, I got drawn into art history. I would have a chemistry textbook on my desk, and an art book of some sort on my lap.
I’ve seen from other interviews that you are partial to Pieter Bruegel? Can you discuss your abiding affection for his art?
There’s something vernacular about his art. It doesn’t feel 500 years old. It feels fresh and contemporary. Imagine someone walking through the streets of Lagos with a camera, a place where everything is on display right there in public: cripples, children, disputes, animals, the joys and sorrows of regular life. Depicting such subjects on such a large scale, in large panel paintings, was quite a radical break in the history of Western Art.
You are a keen and skilful photographer and you are a lover of paintings, what are the limitations of either form? Where do they diverge or meet for you?
That’s an intriguing question. In a way, photography as an art developed out of the limits of painting. By the mid-nineteenth century, artists had come as close as possible to reality, but that still wasn’t close enough. So, photography was a kind of solution. They thought of photography as “engraving done by Nature’s hand.” But what’s interesting now is that both painting and photography are in crisis. Both are too common, everyone has a camera, everyone can by a cheap painting of a landscape. The challenge is to find something interesting to do with these forms, something that goes beyond mere imitation.
Writing and photography are your chosen forms of expression. Which of the two began first for you?
Photography is much newer in my life, as I’ve only been doing it for seven years. I’ve been writing since I was ten, but most of it was quite terrible until a few years ago. In that sense, I feel like a beginner in both arts.
Place in Lagos
We once lived in a white house with a quiet leafy compound in GRA, Ikeja. That’s a place full of beautiful memories for me. But at the moment, when I go to Lagos, I like visiting Bogobiri and Terra Kulture, those are the places where you always meet interesting people. The funkiest and most creative Nigerians always seem to be passing through them. There’s undoubtedly a bit of an elitist element, but I think it’s more about art than about money. The lobby of the Eko Hotel, for example, is pure money. You can’t wait to leave.
Memory of Brooklyn
I love Brooklyn. Probably my favorite memory is the night Open City was launched here, at Greenlight Bookstore, followed by a party at Buka, the best Nigerian restaurant on this side of the planet. About a hundred people showed up for both. Unforgettable.
Piece of art
“Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” by Jan van Eyck.
Quote or saying.
“The human imagination, however, has great difficulty in living strictly within the confines of a materialist practice or philosophy. It dreams, like a dog in its basket, of hares in the open.”–John Berger
The small fates you capture on twitter can be very moving, humorous and revelatory. Which is your most memorable or affecting one?
“A man from Chad, stopped in Badagry, was carrying nine tusks from which the elephants had been removed.”
Thus far, you have published a novella set in Lagos, Nigeria, and a novel set in New York mainly and partly in Brussels. Is it fair to say your writing is partly influenced by cities?
Very much so. That’s where the people are, that’s where the histories and conflicts are embedded. Cities are inexhaustible.
The New Yorker review of Open City says that you’ve written a novel as close to diary as a novel can get, we’ve also established that you find a way to capture small fates in 140 characters on twitter. How much of the minutiae of day-to-day living would you say inspires your writing?
I’m trying to understand what “realism” in writing looks like beyond the usual confines of fiction. I like a certain kind of detail. I like my work to contain poignant everyday facts, faces, and situations that are usually removed from fiction. I guess that’s my experimental streak, but I write this way because it actually feels more natural to me. I like my characters to read books and to go to the bank, even if those things are not advancing the plot. There’s a lot more to writing than plot.
Julius is a solitary figure, as was the protagonist in Everyday for the thief, quintessential observers on the outside of things. Is this your primary outlook on life too, or a style you have cultivated in your writing? Is there a line between yourself and these characters?
I have a large family, my parents, my siblings, my wife, many friends, many relatives. I am not as isolated as the protagonists of my books. I do have to retreat into my own space in order to work. But that raises the question of why my narrators so far are these difficult lone-wolf guys. I suppose part of it comes from the literature that influences my writing, which is full of isolated men (Camus, Coetzee, Sebald, Naipaul, and so on), but part of it must come from my own skeptical nature, so that even when I’m an insider in a situation, I’m able to detach myself from it and become an observer. But one big difference between my characters and I is that I usually have a pretty dark and ironic sense of humor. That sense of grim irony comes out a lot more in the “small fates.”
Psychiatry featured in your last novel, Open City. How do see the approach to mental health in Nigeria where it can be said to be given little prominence, and in, say , New York, with its therapy culture?
Even in the US, the approach to mental health is not great. It’s still a lot easier for people who have physical ailments to be taken seriously that someone who is mentally. I’ve heard mentally ill people say that they’d rather have a broken leg, or cancer, or some other thing that has physical symptoms. In Nigeria, we’ve got even farther to go. There are a lot of people suffering from undiagnosed illnesses, who think maybe it’s somehow their own fault. We can do better meeting these people’s needs. People should understand that there’s nothing wrong with being depressed, or seeking help for it.
This interview was originally published on www.guerillabasement.com