Cole delights in following his curiosity to unexpected
places. He is lively, funny and more of a rambler than
his concise writing would suggest, prone to amusing
tangents — about, for instance, his ability to detect
whether someone prefers Rihanna or Beyonce.
am cool on the page and animated in person," Cole
writes in his new essay collection, "Known and
Strange Things" (Random House; 416 pages, $17
paper), and it’s hard to disagree with his assessment.
the book, the Nigerian American author darts with
acrobatic ease among subjects as wide-ranging as Nobel
Prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer, Black Lives
Matter, Malian portrait photography, ‘20s blues singer
Bessie Smith and the plight of Mexican immigrants trying
to cross the U.S. border.
a lot in this messy and difficult world that I
love," said Cole, 41, at his Brooklyn office.
"I’m just trying to talk myself through that
rose to prominence in 2011 with the publication of
"Open City," a meditative novel narrated by a
young Nigerian medical student as he roamed the streets
of New York that earned him comparisons to W.G. Sebald,
James Joyce and Zadie Smith. He now writes a photography
column for the New York Times Magazine, where many of
the essays in "Known and Strange Things"
originated, and will also publish a collection of his
own photographs, called "Blind Spot," next
by what he calls a "naturally digressive
character," Cole has traced an unlikely path to
becoming one of the most vibrant voices in contemporary
writing. As an undergraduate at Kalamazoo College,
"I spent all my time just reading books that I
should not have been reading, watching films, and
listening to music in the music library," he said.
then spent, as he puts it, "10 years borrowing
money," dropping out of medical school and pursuing
two graduate degrees in art history before trying
fiction. A Lagos-set novella, "Every Day Is for the
Thief," came out in 2007 and was followed by the
widely acclaimed "Open City," a finalist for
the National Book Critics Circle Award.
novel’s success "showed me that this was
something I could do for a living," Cole said,
"not writing novels but engaging with the world as
somebody who wrote, thought about art, made pictures.
Stitching all those things together became my
stitches these passions together throughout "Known
and Strange Things," organized into three sections.
The first, focused on literary criticism, opens with the
essay "Black Body," in which a visit to the
Swiss village where James Baldwin wrote parts of
"Go Tell It On the Mountain" prompts Cole to
reflect on his identity as a black man — a recurring
theme throughout the collection. "To be a stranger
is to be looked at, but to be black is to be looked at
especially," he writes.
the middle section, Cole contemplates visual culture,
including not just film and photography but also videos
of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and other African Americans
killed by police. (True to Cole’s intertextual style,
the book is illustrated with many of the photos he
writes about.) The final third of the book finds Cole on
exploratory journeys — or, as he puts it
self-effacingly, "going to places far away from
home and being cranky about it."
clearly matter to Cole, slight of build with a jovial,
gap-toothed grin. His high-ceilinged office is decorated
with thoughtful precision, a single wall covered in
wallpaper resembling engraved clouds. Even Cole’s
outfit — dark jeans, gold-trimmed black high-tops, and
a navy-blue button-down patterned like a nighttime sky
— shows a quiet flair.
willingness to embrace — or at least experiment with
— new forms extends to social media. On Twitter, he
published "Seven Short Stories About Drones,"
tweets that reimagined the opening lines of famous
novels with drone strikes. ("Call me Ishmael. I was
a young man of military age. I was immolated at my
wedding. My parents are inconsolable.")
and Strange Things" also includes "The White
Savior Industrial Complex," a scathing essay about
patronizing Western attitudes toward Africa that began
as a series of tweets in response to the "Kony
2012" documentary (it initiated an awareness
campaign hoping to arrest indicted war criminal Joseph
Kony; he remains at large).
inventive use of Twitter earned him a following of more
than 250,000 and gushing media attention ("Teju
Cole is Way Better at Twitter Than You" read a Vice
headline), but he quit the site in 2014, a move he
ascribes to self-preservation.
media "can really amplify our collective
weaknesses," said Cole. "You just have to have
clarity about how you want to engage with the public for
the sake of yourself and your work."
days he’s more excited about Instagram, where he posts
his often sparse, depopulated photographs, and Facebook,
where he recently shared a playlist, featuring Whitney
Houston and Beethoven, for "Known and Strange
absent from "Known and Strange Things" is
traditionally autobiographical writing; personal details
are scant in Cole’s essays as are mentions of his
parents, wife and family. "I don’t necessarily
want to talk to you about what’s happened inside my
bedroom," he concedes, saying that what passes as
personal is often just prurient. That’s not to say his
writing lacks intimacy or insight into his passions;
indeed, Cole focuses on what he calls "the really
secret stuff" — the art, ideas and images that
bring him pleasure.
all," he said, "this is all about what’s
really deep and close to me."
he has proved his talent for writing fiction, Cole said
that he’s "relatively unlikely to sit down and
write 5,000 well-structured words of a short story for
the New Yorker." But he is content to keep
experimenting. "I’ve found that I don’t really
care too much about the genre; there are just energies I
want to put out there."
is a highly associative thinker whose diverse interests
allow him to make unexpected, illuminating connections,
as in an essay using an obscure art theory devised by
the 19th-century Italian writer Vittorio Imbriani to
explain Google’s Search by Image function.
his part, Cole doesn’t think such eclecticism is so
exceptional. "You like literature. And that does
not seem to conflict with the fact that you like TV, or
the fact that you watch films," he reasons.
"It is true that when it comes to writing, people
specialize, and I just sort of missed that memo,
whether he has any cultural blind spots, Cole reveals he
is "that guy who skips the business section"
and, like most of us, doesn’t know much about coding,
though he calls it "the language of our time."
OK not to be the smartest boy in class," he said,
"because knowing how much you don’t know can then
be the starting point for engaging with the world."