Looking with the Eyes of Teju Cole

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

It all started on Twitter — I was scrolling through my feed and noticed the most ingenious tweets retweeted by folks I followed, which called out to me immediately. They were by a certain Teju Cole, whose work nor name I haven’t heard before. Not long after clicking the “Follow” button, I became privy to the thoughts, words and photos of one of the most prolific human beings of our time.

What drew me even closer to Teju was his ability to make connections with literature, culture, art, politics, photography — and literally every facet of human existence — to give his readers (or fans) a perspective on life like no other.

I’ve been an avid fan since then, as I read his books Open City and Everyday is for the Thief. I was lucky enough to catch him at a reading in San Francisco too, as he talked about the trans-Atlantic slave trade while white people in the audience told their own stories of being in Africa. In his new book Known and Strange Things: Essays (Shop your local indie store), he wrote an essay called The White Savior Industrial Complex. 

I usually try to finish a book in a week or two but I stayed with Teju’s new book for about a month, as I processed each essay and its significance differently, in the context of a queer Filipino immigrant experience in the United States.

It was in these thought processes that I discovered how and why I kept close to his work — because of our shared histories as immigrants.

In his essay Home Strange Home, it felt like I was reading my own migration story at 17 years old. He was coming from Nigeria, and I, from the Philippines, at the rough and tender age where identities are questioned, challenged and formed:

The journey to Kalamazoo seemed like a journey of return, the opposite of exile. A direct flight from Lagos to JFK, followed by a daylong train journey across the Midwest, had brought me to the town where my parents were married, the town where I was born and baptized. I had no anxiety about legal documents. Picking up my Social Security card was an afternoon’s errand. I got a job at McDonald’s, and banks gladly loaned me money for college. But, my first evening on campus, as I wandered around in what seemed like intolerable cold, it suddenly struck me that everyone I loved on this earth was almost six thousand miles away. I was flooded with panic, like a young boy in a helicopter being pulled away from all he’d ever known. Seventeen years of invented memories abandoned me. A sob ascended my spinal cord.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve had the feeling of kinship with Nigerians, especially after reading Everyday is for the Thief and also Chimamanda Ngzozi Adichie’s Americanah. Maybe it is the fate of third world immigrants like myself to feel kinship towards other immigrants fleeing post-colonial societies, in search of better lives elsewhere.

This theme of migration reverberated in other essays too, like in The Reprint where he wrote about voting for Obama in the presidential election. This essay was unlike others I’ve read before from black writers because as always, Teju has an eye and an ear for unexplored aspects of historical moments:

The argument could be made that he wasn’t really “the first African American” to be voted into the office, because he was African American only in a special, and technical, sense, the same way I was African American: a black person who held American citizenship. But the history of most blacks in this country — the history of slavery, reconstruction, systematic disenfranchisement, and the civil rights movement — was not my history. My history was one of emigration, adaptation and a different flavor of exile. I was only a latter-day sharer in the sorrow and the glory of African American experience.

His work as a photographer and writer might take center stage but it is here in this book that I understood that beyond the words and the photographs is someone who is looking, intently looking at the implications of everything we read and everything we see. Or rather, everything we fail to read and everything we can’t see.

I write this in the context of his essay about Obama, also published in The New Yorker magazine. As I have written in this blog previously, his essay A Reader’s War captured my own sentiments about a black president who at one hand symbolizes hope, but whose actions have further compounded Western imperialism.

The essay begins with a contextual narrative of Obama’s disposition towards literature, something that speaks volumes here in this blog. That it thrilled Teju, to think of the President’s nightstand looking similar to his. His words: We had, once again, a reader in chief.  

The elation wasn’t for too long, as we witnessed the onslaught of the “war on terrorism” on different fronts, the drone strikes, the secret “kill lists” from this New York Times piece.

How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? In Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie 1979 masterpiece, “Stalker,” the landscape called the Zona has the power to grant people’s deepest wishes, but it can also derange those who traverse it. I wonder if the Presidency is like that: a psychoactive landscape that can madden whomever walks into it, be he inarticulate and incurious, or literary and cosmopolitan.

He takes us beyond what most would not publicly acknowledge, in spite of the increasing and damning evidence. Complicated as he is, Obama is still, for many folks, a symbol of racial progress in the country. Perhaps it is the experience and the perspective of an internationalist such as Teju, can one then really see the implications and reverberations of a messed-up foreign policy.

In his essay Bad Laws, he writes about the oppression of Palestinian people.

Another thing one sees, obscured by distance but vivid up close, is that the Israeli oppression of Palestinian people is not necessarily — or at least not always — as crude as Western media can make it seem. It is in fact extremely refined, and involves a dizzying assemblage of laws and bylaws, contracts, ancient documents, force, amendments, customs, religion, conventions, and sudden irrational moves, all mixed together and imposed with the greatest care.

The impression this insistence on legality confers, from the Israeli side, is of an infinitely a patient due process that will eventually pacify the enemy and guarantee security. The reality, from the Palestinian side, is of a suffocating viciousness.

In A Piece of the Wall, he sees the wall that separates U.S. from Mexico, a “wall that goes on, with gaps, for more than six hundred miles, in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.” He sees the land, sees the people, sees the fear.

Citizenship is an act of the imagination. I was born American, but I also had to learn to become American. I have had to think for myself about “the systems, the arguments, and the poetics” of this complicated country. These thoughts took me deep into the history of the Black Atlantic. My understanding of American experience has mostly been from the point of view of a recent African immigrant.

In Tucson, witnessing the ongoing crisis in the borderlands, I have to revise my understanding of my country to include this, too.

It all made sense to me: a man whose work spans literature and photography will have something to say about our political, economic and social realities. Every time Teju posted a photo from somewhere around the world, I would always feel a pang of wanderlust (just as when other photographers I follow would). But his photos aren’t the types you’d see on travel website or magazines, but the kind that makes you ask: What is this?

And then you find out that it’s a photo of a parking structure; the way light refracts on a yacht; the county morgue at Tucson.

This I learned from Teju: look deeper.


Lagos, 2015. (Teju Cole)

How not to link it all together? Selma and Ferguson, New York City and Cleveland, torture by the CIA and mass murder in Gaza, the police state and slave patrols: no generation is free of the demands of conscience, and no citizenry can shrink the responsibility of calling the state’s abuse of power to account.

* * *

Known and Strange Things: Essays (Shop your local indie store) by Teju Cole
Random House Trade (385 pages)
August 9, 2016
My rating: ★★★★★
Known and Strange Things: Essays

7 thoughts on “Looking with the Eyes of Teju Cole

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