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.