Known and Strange Things: Essaysby Teju Cole Published 01 Jan 2016
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The 40-plus essays will span art, literature, and politics, with topics from Virginia Woolf and James Baldwin to President Obama and Boko Haram. The collection will include pre-published essays that have gone viral, like “The White Industrial Savior Complex,” first published in The Atlantic.
"Known and Strange Things: Essays" Reviews
This book of essays by Teju Cole aren’t always essays: they might be scraps of thought, well-digested and to an immediate point. They are fiercely intelligent, opinionated, meaningful in a way that allow us to get to the heart of how another thinks. And does he think! Let’s be frank: many of us don’t do enough thinking, and Cole shows us the way it can be done in a way that educates, informs, and excites us.
The work in this volume are nonfiction pieces published in a wide variety of outlets and that he chose from an eight-year period of travel and almost constant writing. The emphasis in these pieces, he tells us in the Preface, is on “epiphany.” We can enjoy kernels of ideas that may have had a long gestation, but have finally burst onto the scene with a few sentences but little heavy-handedness or any of the weight of “pronouncements.” This reads like a bared heart in the midst of negotiating life, as James Baldwin says in The Fire Next Time, “as nobly as possible, for the sake of those coming after us.”
Cole references Baldwin in all these pieces in his unapologetic gaze, but he does so explicitly in several pieces, notably “Black Body” in which he tells of visiting the small town in Switzerland, Leukerbad (or Loèche-les-Bains), where Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain found its final form. Cole expands on his time in Switzerland in “Far Away From Here,” which might be my favorite of these essays. Cole tells how he was given six months to write while living in Zurich and though he did precious little writing, he was totally absorbed every day, gazing at the landscape, walking the mountains, photographing the crags, trails, and lakes, thinking, unfettered. This is someone who carries all he needs in his head, and I loved that freedom as much as he.
But how can I choose a favorite from among these pieces when each spoke of ways to approach a subject with which we have struggled—or haven’t yet…About race and class: “how little sense of shame [Americans] seemed to have,” he writes, looking at America from his upbringing in Lagos. Cole echoes Baldwin again in “Bad Laws” about Israel and its laws concerning the rights of Palestinians:
”The reality is that, as a Palestinian Arab, in order to defend yourself against the persecution you face, not only do you have to be an expert in Israeli law, you also have to be a Jewish Israeli and have the force of the Israeli state as your guarantor…Israel uses an extremely complex legal and bureaucratic apparatus to dispossess Palestinians of their land, hoping perhaps to forestall accusations of a brutal land grab.”Earlier Baldwin reminded us that “…few liberals have any notion of how long, how costly, and how heartbreaking a task it is to gather the evidence that one can carry into court [to prove malfeasance, official or not], or how long such court battles take.” Americans looking at Israel and Palestine should be able to discern some outline of our own justifications and methods, and vice versa.
Photography is one of Cole’s special interests and he is eloquent in Section Two "Seeing Things" discussing what makes great photography as opposed to the “dispiriting stream of empty images [that the] Russians call poshlost: fake emotion, unearned nostalgia.” And then he discusses “Death in the Browser Tab,” wherein he tells us what he sees and what he knows after retracing the steps caught by the phone footage of Walter Scott, shot in the back with eight bullets from a .45-caliber Glock 21.
Politics is what humans do, though “the sheer quantity of impacted bullshit in politics” is clearly not something Cole relishes. In "The Reprint" Cole admits he did not vote until sixteen years after he was eligible, and when he did vote finally, for Obama, “like a mutation that happens quietly on a genetic level and later completely alters the body’s function, I could feel my relationship to other Americans changing. I had a sense—dubious to me for so long, and therefore avoided—of common cause.” He notes that Obama was “not an angry black man, the son of slaves” but a biracial outsider who invisibly worked his way to the center of the political establishment by piggybacking the experience of American blacks -- hiding in plain sight. The night Obama won, Cole was in Harlem.
“There was as exuberant and unscripted an outpouring of joy as I ever expect to see anywhere… Black presidents are no novelty for to me. About half my life, the half I lived in Nigeria, had been spent under their rule, and, in my mind, the color of the president was neither here nor there. But this is America. Race mattered.”Cole will speak out in "A Reader's War" against Obama’s “clandestine brand of justice” and his “ominous, discomfiting, illegal, and immoral use of weaponized drones against defenseless strangers…done for our sakes.” He admits that Obama believes he is trying “to keep us safe,” and writes “I am not naive…and I know our enemies are not all imaginary…I am grateful to those whose bravery keeps us safe.” It is one of the most difficult questions about political and military power that we face today and Cole wrestles the issue heroically. Not any of us have yet answered this question well, and until we do, the disconnect between justice and drone strikes will continue to plague us. We have unleashed a terrible swift sword on far away lands while we continue to suffer the brutality of a thousand cuts from our own citizens. Cosmic justice?
When Cole talks about literature I experience a frisson. There is nothing quite like someone very clever and well-spoken addressing something about which one cares deeply. His insights add to my pleasure, and detract nothing. His description of the poetry of Derek Walcott remind me of the first time I encountered Walcott’s work: “This is poetry with a painterly hand, stroke by patient stroke.” I have forever thought of Walcott in this way, in color and in motion: turquoise and pale yellow, cool beige and hibiscus pink, the palest gray and an ethereal green I am not sure is water, air, or sea grass. The ocean creates tides through his work, and it seems so fresh.
When Cole writes of his visit to V.S. Naipaul in “Natives on the Boat," we sense how Cole’s initial reserve is eventually won over by Naipaul’s deeply curious and wide-ranging questions. In the very next essay, “Housing Mr. Biswas,” Cole writes an ecstatic celebration of Naipaul’s accomplishment in creating the “smart and funny, but also often petulant, mean, and unsympathetic” Mr. Biswas in Trinidad,
“an important island in the Caribbean but not a particularly influential one on the world stage…the times and places—the farms, the roads, the villages, the thrumming energy of the city, the mornings, afternoon, dusks, and nights—are described with profound and vigilant affection…it brings to startling fruition in twentieth century Trinidad the promise of the nineteenth century European novel.”He’s right of course. Naipaul is a beloved writer of a type of novel no longer written, and perhaps now not often read.
Reading all these essays in one big gulp was a lot to digest so I am going to recommend a slower savoring. This is a book one must own and keep handy for those small moments when one wants a short, sharp shock of something wonderful. By all means read it all at once so you know where to go back to when you can dig up copies of some of the photos he talks about or want to recall how Cole manages in so few words to convey so much meaning. His is a voice thoughtful in expressing what he sees and yet so vulnerable and human I want to say—read this—this man is what’s been missing from your lives.
These collected essays will be published August 9, 2016. I read the e-galley provided to me by Netgalley and Random House. I note that some of the essays about art or photography that were initially published in newspapers sometimes were accompanied by examples of the work he discusses. In a perfect world, these would be included in the final book, but truthfully, his writing is clear and compelling enough to not make that nicety strictly necessary. Apologies to the publisher for quoting from a galley: my excuse is that the work is previously published and therefore no surprise.
I am a novelist, and my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn't have a point.
This past Saturday my wife and I viewed the Parts Unknown episode devoted to Lagos. This viewing was obviously burdened with grief. What did my mourning betray? I spent much of the weekend lodged in such contemplation but alas Saturday I watched Anthony Bourdain traipsing the frenetic streets of the Nigerian capital.
He made allusions to the improvisational nature of the city, how it self-regulated. There was only a casual gloss to the idea that the city "policed itself". This minor point was the subject of essay late in Cole's collection. Lynching or popular justice is still somewhat common in Nigeria. Apparently it is often documented on Youtube. I told my best friend who was about to fly back from the Netherlands I wish I could unread the graphic essay. This is Cole's gift: he makes us uneasy, not expectedly like when discussing racial politics but about the reality of the fleeting human experience.
Cole name-drops, but with a deadpan air. He introduces figures, like Peter Sculthorpe of whom I wasn't at all aware. He cites lines of poetry and ruminates on why in Brazil the wait staff ignore him in a restaurant. Much of this volume is on photography which offers minimal interest to me. There is also some excellent journalism. Cole went to Harlem in 2008 the night of president Obama's election. Cole looks at his unlikely origins born in Michigan, raised in Nigeria and back to the US as a plethora of challenges and opportunities. He is haunted by his own doppelgänger: W.G. Sebald. He parses Sebald's work and reflects. there is a rich vein of estrangement in his work. perhaps in my own life. Maybe that's why even when in deep disagreement with the author, Teju Cole feels like home.
An impressive collection of elegantly written essays!
I have read a couple of fiction books by Teju Cole and was interesting in reading his essay collection to see if his nonfiction writing would shed light on his fiction writing. Not only did I gain a new appreciation for his fiction writing but was treated to a thoughtful contemplative journey of timely and informative issues.
While this enthralling collection covers a diverse range of subjects it is the sincere honesty in the writing that had me in a thoughtful mood after each essay. I highly recommend this collection to readers looking for an intelligent thought-provoking read
I just get to know this writer a few days ago. It seems to me that he is very popular among university students. This book deals with a range of essays. So no matter what is your taste, you will find something interesting in this book. I particularly liked his essays on James Baldwin, Naipaul, but the one that I really enjoyed reading is titled 'Bad Laws.' In this essay, he writes about what happens to (or being done to) Palestinian people in the name of Law. Even though my understanding of that part of the world is limited, what I see in the essay that how Laws, so often, irrespective time and place, are used against the weak.
His essay on Baldwin about race in parts reads as if, by default, he is 'essentializing' ideas about race. This is very often the case especially in the case of black writers, (except for Toni Morrison). Most Black writers about race in ways that further add on to the already existing knowledge banks that keep the Blacks firmly in their place. So I do not want to rewrite Cole's well-intentioned words here. These essays on race also read as if he were saying what the 'white men' want him to say.
There are too many essays on Photography. Since I am not so keen on them, I skipped them. The book is an easy read even though it is a long book.
Teju Cole is master of his crafts. His extensive knowledge, deep understanding, and detailed explanation of them are startling. In this collection of essays, Cole discusses topics ranging from literature to photography to art, music, travel, the Black Lives Matter movement, world politics, social media, Boko Haram, mob lynchings, and so much more.
Reading this book felt like fine dining, or like a journey around the world. The places he takes you may be breathtaking or unexpectedly ramshackle, but rest assured that the view is worth the journey. The end result will be a sound education of the mind and an awakening (poking and proding at the least) of your conscience. This book had me deeply in thought, smiling, and sometimes even giggling.
Not everyone will enjoy it as much as I did, but I recommend that everyone at least pick it up and read, if only for the beautiful, beautiful writing.
Might be kind of in love with Teju Cole now. A beautifully engaging and readable collection of essays, spanning so many subjects (and so many that I am so delighted by: W.G. Sebald, Anne Carson, Virginia Woolf, just to name a few). His style and logic worked on me in a powerful way. I feel kind of like a fangirl?? Like I might drive an unreasonable distance just to hear him speak for an hour??