Most readers know Teju Cole as the photography critic for the New York Times. Others know him as the novelist who explores, through his narrative gestures, the various ways in which one comes to build an identity in an environment that makes prejudice and binaries rules of thumb. But to assign Cole a trade would be undermining his entire practice. A better term might be “cultural producer.” Born in Michigan and raised in Nigeria, Cole has crafted a multimedia practice that includes photography, writing and theory. In his first work of nonfiction, Known and Strange Things, Cole functions as the flâneur who not only observes and meanders, but the flâneur who looks at you and makes you look back at him.
“I realized that a body of work was developing where I was looking carefully at a subject matter, in this case photography, and was trying to do serious long-ish essays about certain aspects of it,” Cole says. And in fact, he is prolific. With countless articles published across numerous platforms, Cole has quite the insight to share. Having been brought up in an international environment, Cole developed a striking sensibility to the infrastructures—ideological, political, and social—that produce city living and the people who, for lack of a better term, stubbornly persist to populate them.
“So many of the essays are in one way or another about bearing witness, about saying that I’m coming at this material, place, subject, not as an expert but as a citizen, a civilian who is thinking carefully through this,” says Cole. He’s not a vigilante looking out for the wrongdoings of societies. Rather, he’s a human experiencing the biases that come from the very societal gestures that have for centuries now formulated our notions of community.
What is particularly engaging about Cole’s essays is that his writing isn’t just a directionless musing along the page, nor is it an idea that arbitrarily enters language in a specific order. He starts from the body. “The fact that you inhabit a particular body becomes the basis of other people’s interpretation of you. The intellect also has to come to terms with the body. This is what I don’t like about academic writing. An academic will write something as though it is a view from nowhere. I always want to embody what I am writing,” Cole points out. So then he starts from the body and moves into reflection. The body, here, is a political tool; it is the lens through which you are seen and understood. “I am a black man living in America and that means certain things,” he says. It is clear that tolerance and assimilation is difficult, despite some people’s idea that things have changed tremendously. Cole is aware of that, though he doesn’t necessarily ask for change. He simply asks his readers to look within themselves and think about what they could do better. “Known and Strange Things is a political book, except it’s not about partisan politics. It’s more about how one being thinks one’s way to a personal politics that then could have a partisan aspect to it,” Cole explains.
Involvement in political, societal, and cultural life on a personal scale is precisely what draws Cole to these meditations. He not only takes to writing but also to social media, where personal aesthetic and branding is focal. Cole has an active Instagram account, where he systematically posts his own work with ekphrastic fragments. He is currently working on a book of photographs. “Like any other art form, photography becomes a way of including, excluding, asserting power, and those are all political questions,” he says.
This is an exciting nonfiction debut for Cole, who surely has a lot more in store for us. “I can think about how each thing we read, watch, engage in, support or oppose, are bits of the jigsaw that is helping us answer the question of how we should live,” says the author. Hopefully, with these essays, some questions will be posed and maybe even answered, and, hopefully, change might be on the horizon sooner than we think.
Michael Valinsky is an editorial assistant.