Books · Features · Writers

AN EVENING WITH TEJU COLE

By Akumbu Uche

Recently, the Abuja literary community flocked to the 22nd Infusion event at JB’s Bar and Grill, Maitama to hear Nigerian-American writer, Teju Cole read from his new work of fiction, Open City.

The New Yorker, the New York Times, the UK Guardian and many more, have all reviewed the book. On those pages, Cole has been likened to Gustave Flaubert, W.G. Sebald, Zadie Smith, J.M. Coetzee and it would seem almost every great writer.

“If Baudelaire was a young African, wandering the streets of contemporary New York”, enthuses British Indian novelist Hari Kunzru on the book’s jacket, “this is the book he’d write.”

Asked about the influences these authors have had on his work, he replied, “Influences are manifold. You could either acknowledge it or claim you came, fully formed. I love being influenced”. In addition to writing, Cole is a professional art historian and a street photographer.

Wishing to change the topic and get to the agenda of the day, he added, “It’s very easy to draw parallels but in the end, this book is about an intellectual young man”.

Like the protagonist in the novel, Julius, Cole was born in America to a Nigerian father and German mother, raised in Lagos and has been resident in the US since his university days. Julius is a psychiatrist. In his adolescence, Cole dreamed of becoming a psychiatrist. But that, he maintains, is where the similarities end.

Open City, ‘a haunting novel about national identity, race, liberty, loss, dislocation and surrender’, was just a vehicle that enabled him, he says, “to delve into the human psyche”.

“Every kind of writing is an exploration of the writer’s psyche” he mused. “I am a melancholic person and this book is an exploration of my dark side”.

The Q&A session, moderated by Patrick Okigbo revealed different facets of his personality. Here are a few questions asked of him and the responses he gave:

Do you see yourself and your work as being activist?

“Activism is difficult. I am allergic to exclamation marks. I don’t like to be too loud.”

What is it about urban landscapes that get your creative juices flowing?

“Cities are where I live. There is a diversity [in them] that presses people together and a natural conflict that emerges.”

Would you consider setting a novel in a rural area?

“Many great books have been written about rural areas but they don’t have the [kind of] texture I’m interested in. However, I am open to anything. I have an idea of setting a book in Iceland.”

Twitter or Facebook?

“Twitter – it’s a creative space. I only use Facebook to promote events. I’m scared of Zuckerberg – he wants all my information.”

Republican or Democrat?

“Republican?!”

Boxers or Y-fronts?

“Commando.”

At this, the crowd erupted in laughter. Roaring away were writers, Ken Wiwa, Chuma Nwokolo Jr, Chike Ofili, Carmen McCain, Felix Abrahams Obi, Hajo Isa and the singer Chioma aka C-Flow.

Lola Shoneyin, warm, vivacious and friendly as ever was the perfect host.

Who knew the folks in charge of PHCN were book lovers? They made their presence known by blinking a few times.

Another distraction was the Bar Activity. One would expect the atmosphere to be hush-hush but it seems the audience was a thirsty lot and kept the waiters in constant motion.

Undeterred, Cole related to the audience, anecdote after anecdote. “A woman came up to me and said, ‘My psychiatrist recommended it to me’. It turns out the book was recommended to the psychiatrist by his psychiatrist”. More laughter.

He also disclosed he had another book in the works. A non-fictional narrative that would take him back to Lagos, the setting of his first book, the novella Every Day is For the Thief. “It will be out in 2015.”

A few attendees who had actually read the current book praised the author for his “descriptive skills” and his ability to capture “the complexity of the point of view”. Architect Jerome Okolo, of TEDx fame, even likened reading the book to “looking at pictures as the words are cast in frames”.

Teju Cole is doing well. Having visited Canada earlier this year, the next country on his promotional book tour is India. From there, he would traverse the US and then head back to Bard College, New York, where he is a Chinua Achebe Fellow and Distinguished Writer in Residence.

In the mean time, hundreds, thousands and perhaps millions will buy Open City, have it autographed and proceed to read. To anyone expecting a page-turner, Cole warns, “Oh, you’ll put it down often, but it will haunt you.”

Not all will like it, not all will understand it but we can only hope that in the end, Open City turns out to be, as it was advertised, a novel.

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