Born in the US to Nigerian parents in 1975, Teju Cole was raised in Nigeria and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Cole attained international fame in 2011 with Open City, an innovative and powerful first novel set in New-York, USA. Before that, he wrote “Everyday is for the thief” (2007), a novella depicting joys and ordeals of everyday life in Lagos, Nigeria. He is also famous for the small stories he crafts on “Small Fates”, a Twitter project he initiated. A writer, art historian and passionate street photographer, Teju Cole contributes to important literary publications such as “The New Yorker” and “Qarrtsiluni”. In this interview with Africa Book Club, he explains why this double identity gives him freedom, how limits are actually an opportunity for the writer and why big cities are so interesting.
“Open City” (2011) has been described as a novel with “free-flowing form and no plot”. Where did your idea of this story narrated by a solitary character come from? Did it draw on any influence?
At first I was interested in the form of the city itself, where things are happening in a sequence but with no obvious logic: looking at it in retrospect you realize how everything is going to fit together, as some kind of complicated puzzle. That is one of the book’s main drivers. It came out of my own wandering around the city and my feel for the space of the city. Of course it is not autobiographical; that just sets the frame.
Strangely enough I was also very influenced by film making, for example, “Eight and a half” by Federico Fellini, which is a series of linked episodes united by one solitary character who is very confused in his life. So, although “Eight and a half” is nothing like Open City, it probably influenced it more than most books did.
Your website says that you are now working on a “non-fictional narrative of contemporary Lagos”. Could you tell us a bit more?
There is not much I can say about it now. I am still figuring out how to voice what that means: to tell a particular story about Lagos.
“Open City” is built upon a wandering in New York, and one could argue that you make of the city a character in itself. Now you are working on this project about contemporary Lagos. Is there something that draws you to big cities?
In terms of sheer numbers, cities are more important because there are many more people living there than in smaller places. But also, in terms of the planet, we are becoming a more and more urban species. I think the city is where we put all our contradictions on display, and for a writer this is interesting. The city is where our histories are, but it is also where our dreams are: it is the most visible demonstration of our contemporary situation and at the same time it is also the repository of our past. The city contains the newest architecture that was designed last year and built this year, and it also contains monuments that testify our past.
You are renowned for the compact stories you craft on “Small Fates”, a Twitter account you created. Last year, you were a member in the jury for the first Twitter fiction festival. What does the compact form bring to the creative process?
Limits are always interesting, whether you are limited because you are writing a story that does not have much of a plot and unfolds from one point of view only, or whether you want to tell a story in just three lines. Because when you have a limit, then you can force yourself to see where your creativity can make a difference.
For me as a writer, the question is always: how do I hold the reader? It does not mean that I am trying to write something everybody will like, but something a certain kind of reader will look at and say: OK, this is very well put together. And whether it is a three line story written for Twitter or a 300 pages novel written for very patient readers, the problem is actually the same: how do you hold readers’ attention?
You were born in the US , raised in Nigeria and went back to the US at the age of 17. What role does your mixed identity play in the creative process you are engaged in?
The most important role it plays is that it gives me freedom. I do not like to be over emphasizing identity but it gives me the freedom to know that, wherever I am, my experience is a valid part of my narrative responsibility. So for example, if I am writing an article about US politics or about President Obama, it is not because I am an American with African origins. It has nothing to do with it but I feel free to do it because I am American. If I am writing about Nigeria, it has not always to be from the point of view of an American because I can also write from that of a Nigerian. It is not so much about legitimacy, rather more about freedom: I feel free to do what I wish to do. Sometimes that will also include questions about identity, but not everything I write has to be split. I could be writing an article about jazz, because I love jazz, but this is a thing identity has nothing to do with.
Did you always know that you would be a writer? What sparked your interest in writing?
No. I did not know, although I always have been creative. When I was younger I used to make some paintings, then when I grew up I had thoughts about becoming a doctor. At 19, I started to read literary texts more seriously – “seriously” in the sense of trying to understand how there were put together. I was busy then with Hemingway and James Joyce and J.D. Salinger. At the age of 29, I was finally able to find out a literary voice that was mine. It all started from there, and I think my voice has to do with representing complex ideas in a simple language. I think that is where I am right now.
Is there, or will there be one day, a market for an African literature written in languages more indigenous to Africa? On a personal level, how do you feel about writing in English?
This literature already exists. Books and newspapers are published in several indigenous African languages – everything from Swahili to Igbo and Wolof has its own traditional literature. For two reasons however, English, French, and I would add Portuguese and Arabic are dominant literary languages because the global networks of publishing definitely make it easier to write in those languages.
But even more importantly, the readership tends for the most part to be in those languages. So it is not so much a question of the novelist not wanting to publish a book in Yoruba, it is the fact that the readership for Yoruba novels is itself tiny and very rapidly tending towards non-existence. But I could add to that that I also believe that English, French, Portuguese and Arabic are all African languages.
Africa Book Club is about books coming from and talking about Africa. As for you, do you think there is such a thing as an “African literature”? How could one define it?
African literature is anything written by an African. That is it. An African of any colour, about any subject, set in any place. If it is written by an African, it is African literature.
African literature is going through a resurgence with an unprecedented number of African writers emerging. What is your take on this trend?
Well, it is good. I think it is important we get stories from all over the world so that we get the full complexity of the picture. The question of the economics of publishing is always complicated but we do know that all stories matter. The full humanity of Africa and the full humanity of Africans has not been taken for granted in the past, it always had to be argued for. Making our own strong narrative interventions is a part of that process of saying: we are just as complex as you are, our lives are just as busy and interesting. So, this surge of African writing is inspiring because we tend to get a fuller picture of the African emotional complexity.
The narrative about Africa is changing in the global media and the “African optimism” is on the rise. Do you also think that you have to change the narrative about Africa?
I am not interested in African optimism, I am interested in African realism. That is what it should be all about: realism.