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.

Sunday Spotlight: To Choose What to Never Forget

Sunday Spotlight

I woke up pained and heavy this morning, with the weight of a sprained ankle slowly clearing the fog of my senses. A headache that was all too familiar arrested my attention, with the mere thought of caffeine temporarily soothing the pain. The trek to the kitchen was unsuspectingly laborious but the sound of drip-drip-drip was gratifying like no other. I checked my phone. Pained or not, this reflex of checking in with the world through social media was a constant.

The first picture on Instagram that popped up was Teju Cole’s:

teju

Source: Teju Cole’s Instagram

Never forget.

But the truth is that we forgot instantly. The pain of loss would always be remembered. The wounded know their wounds. Who in our open city did not wake up heavy and sad this morning? Memory is permanently dyed with any personal experience of horror. And the State, meanwhile, reliably organizes its pieties.

What we forgot was that meaningless violence—counterviolence, strategically misdirected violence—was the one thing to never forget. We forgot that defending the principle of the equality of human life was the core meaning of never forgetting. We forgot that to forget this principle was to obliterate both the Other and the Self. Never forget, more than the transparently false operation this and operation that military slogans, has been the vengeful motto under which this obliteration continues incessantly. Never forget, with its moral weight and ethical force, became the shield for any and every forgetting.

We forgot instantly, are still forgetting, because callousness is no less contagious than courage. The infamous day was not the culmination of a certain phase of mercilessness. It was its beginning. Weeping, mourning, me, mine, our, ours, but not them, not them, forgetting, forgetting, and all the while saying: never forget.

It wasn’t until I saw this photo that I was reminded of what day it was. The phrase “Never Forget” instantly conjured up images of Americans panicked in New York City that day in 2001, as I watched from a small television screen in our kitchen at Apalit, Pampanga. My dad was sipping his coffee while my mom was sitting at the kitchen table, both their eyes glued on the video loop of planes crashing onto the towers that the local cable news kept playing.

It didn’t make sense to me then that the benevolent United States of America would be the bearer of such horrific blows to its people, its honor, its dignity.

And then I moved here three years after that. My formative years in the Bay were filled with anti-war protests and literature by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. While the tragedy of the American lives lost to 9/11 was imprinted in my mind, I was slowly  becoming more aware, more alarmed by the implications of what followed after.

There were memorials, conspiracy theories and more protests. It wasn’t too long before the ‘U.S. War on Terror’ became a norm, used to justify every military offensive and operation by the country. As these wars increased, so did the number of civilian lives lost around the world.

I’ve been reading Cole’s book Known and Strange Things for a while now, savoring every essay as much as I can. In one essay he also published on The New Yorker, he wrote about the drone attacks authorized by Obama that his Cabinet goes over weekly. I read this essay yesterday, before I sprained my ankle, while sitting in a car that was making its way through coastal California.

I was in New York City on 9/11. Grief remains from that awful day, but not only grief. There is fear, too, a fear informed by the knowledge that whatever my worst nightmare is, there is someone out there embittered enough to carry it out. I know that something has to be done to secure the airports, waterways, infrastructure, and embassies of our country. I don’t like war; no one does. But I also know that the world is exceedingly complex, and that our enemies are not all imaginary. I am not naïve about the incessant and unseen (by most of us) military activity that undergirds our ability to read, go to concerts, earn a living, and criticize the government in relative safety. I am grateful to those whose bravery keeps us safe.

Reading this a day before the 15th year anniversary of 9/11 was uneventful, but the blaring truth of Cole’s words are searing. And this truth, the horrible truth that I am a part of as a citizen of this country, is what I choose not to forget.