“There are walks in which we tread in the footsteps of others, walks on which we strike out entirely for ourselves.” – Thomas A. Clark
As I write I have open in my browser Teju Cole’s review (“Peter Funch Sees the Patterns in the People on the Street”, New York Times, 20 March 2018) of Funch’s photography in which Cole deftly quotes Clark. Playing in the background is one of Cole’s many playlists, titled “Known and Strange Songs”, a musical companion to his 2016 essay collection Known and Strange Things (Faber and Faber). Author of two novels Everyday is for the Thief (2007) and Open City (2012), Cole’s relatively slim fictional oeuvre is complimented by a formidable online presence on Instagram as well as his regular contributions to Granta, The New Yorker, New Inquiry and more. His potent social commentary in essays over the past years have been compiled in this wide-ranging collection, carefully selected to capture: “what I have loved and witnessed, what has seemed right and what has brought joy, what I have been troubled and encouraged by, and what has fostered my sense of possibility”. (“Preface”)
Nothing is off limits in this collection, split into three sections: “Reading Things”, “Seeing Things” and “Being There”, reflecting on (where these might be considered separate categories); literature, photography and travel/politics respectively. Having first encountered Cole in the meandering and soft-spoken Open City, I wondered about his ability to sustain a nearly 400-page long exercise in discursive thought. I thought wrong however as what strikes the reader over the course of Known and Strange Things is the sheer breadth and corresponding depth of Cole’s reading, experiences and interests. Cole does not just look up the answers to questions that occur to him, but muses, digs and excavates the complexities behind surface reality.
In “Reading Things”, Cole traces the steps of his literary forebears including James Baldwin (“Black Body”), dialogues with other writers (“A Conversation with Aleksander Hemon”) and reads the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer, Seamus Heaney as well as W.G. Sebald. Published by the powerhouse that is Faber, Cole is painfully aware of the footsteps he walks in, pointing out the portraits of “Auden and Eliot frowning from their respective photographs in the entryway” (“Two Weeks”). This humility or “imposter syndrome” as Cole himself calls it, makes for an apparently shaky beginning in “Natives on the Boat” as Cole lightly criticises yet tries to impress the “old master”, V.S. Naipaul. This reverence and self-effacing, hyper-reflexive posture might plant the idea that Cole is less of the artisan that reviews from Harpar’s Bazaar, Time and so on, claim him to be. Reading on however, cancels any such suggestion.
Cole’s academic prowess (he has a a doctorate in art history), shows in “Seeing Things” discussing work by various photographers. Cole discusses topics as varied as how to photograph dark skin (“A True Picture of Black Skin”) to the implications of Google Earth and the use of Flickr in curating art. The essays are accompanied by two sets of photographs, with selections from Cole placed alongside works by other artists – encouraging comparison. Cole appears most comfortable where he directs his readers towards the work and lives of others, inviting us to think with him, rather than about him. That is no fault however, and any aspiring thinker on photographic art might do to add Cole next to Sontag and Barthes on his or her shelf.
What ultimately impresses most is “Being There”, the final section that is politically charged and refreshing in its lucid commentary on topics ranging from the Obama years (“The Reprint”, “The Readers” War”), to apartheid in South Africa and Brazilian racism. Cole’s writing pulses with the flexibility of the chameleon-like diaspora dweller (his experiences are captured in “Home Strange Home”), demonstrating the impressive abilities of a mind trained in “constellational thinking”.
I left Known and Strange Things inspired to pursue some of the topics Cole discusses with such carefully sceptical open-mindedness. The work harnesses Cole’s deep interest in society, his talents and range of interests, and turns it into an essential collection that arguably surpasses his novels in accessibility. In a time where it can be difficult to resist solipsism, Cole reminds us how beautiful, how strange our world can be.
Teju Cole. Known and Strange Thing. London: Faber and Faber, 2017.
Chloe Lim is a graduate student reading literature from the 20th century to present at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on trauma studies, and diaspora.