Teju Cole is a master chronicler of passage, crafting firsthand accounts of narrators wandering not just through physical space, but through remnants of history seen and unseen, through television lights reflected on windows and fragments of prayer, through anonymous lives observed on the street and the forgotten curses of those who have died. His short novel Every Day Is for the Thief focuses on his nameless narrator’s return to Nigeria after having been in the U.S. for many years. True to Cole’s style, the journey reveals not only the narrator’s internal reaction to returning to his family and his homeland, but also profound lessons about a place like Nigeria’s relationship to technology and economic development, as well as the resilience of the suffering and the poor.
“The love is very deep,” Cole says of the bustling capital city of Lagos, the heart of the novel. “But there is an unwillingness to pretend that everything is fine. Lagos is very hard on people who live there. It’s not simply tough; it’s just a little bit too far beyond the threshold of comfort.”
This discomfort is existential and pervades the novel, from the narrator’s early tangles with Nigerian bureaucracy as he attempts to secure his visa in the New York consulate office, to the ongoing attempts of the yahoo yahoo (online scammers) to extort money from easily suckered Americans, to a terrifying scene in which he and his family are held up and physically threatened by roving young men. It’s also a discomfort that Cole knows firsthand, as he spent much of his youth in Nigeria before moving to the United States (where he was born) to attend college in 1992.
Like the narrator, Cole returned to Nigeria after having been away for a number of years, and it is that process of getting reacquainted, of being simultaneously native and foreign, that permeates the book: again, the discomfort. In every interaction, in every attempt to get from point A to point B, there is the need to pay the usual bribe, to circumvent touts and somehow maneuver a way to safety. Still, in the novel’s most moving scenes—a moment when a child appears to the narrator while he is shaving or a late scene in which the narrator recalls a street full of carpenters working on coffins—there is a sense of the country’s larger history. There is the awareness that the narrator, like Cole himself, is not simply observing Nigeria in the present, but is breathing the collection of presents that have piled upon themselves in one place.
“I don’t know why it is, but there are some of us who are haunted by history,” Cole says. “Whether this is rooted in childhood psychology or something, some kind of inner loss, I don’t know. It is something that I experience every day….I love reading old newspapers and discovering lives that overlap in the exact same geographical space.”
This deciphering of the historical phantoms that linger in contemporary spaces is common to Cole’s work beyond Every Day Is for the Thief. His novel Open City, winner of the 2012 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Debut Fiction, memorably features a narrator named Julius who is part flâneur, part cultural interpreter. In both works, Cole uses brilliant wit and a sharp sense of irony to deconstruct what he describes as “the dividends of democracy.” In Open City, that means coming to terms with the hypocrisies and anxieties of a post-9/11 New York City as the United States rushes to war, in no mood for critical thinking or an examination of the blood in its own history. For the narrator in Every Day, it means examining a post-military rule Nigeria, which is simultaneously full of promise and shackled by its own habits. For Cole, as it is for his narrators, it is in the act of passage, in walking and breathing and observing, that these worlds reveal themselves.
“The weird thing that happens is that I have an epiphany where I am not 100 percent in the present,” he explains. “If I am walking on the Lower East Side, I don’t feel like I am in 2014 all the time. I am aware of the fact that there are immigrants, Italian families, always slipping into those spaces all of the time.”
What is perhaps most compelling about Cole’s work is that, despite his near obsession with the historical, he is very much a voice of the present, reflecting, for example, both the uncertainty of its unfolding narrative and its reliance on technology. He is a prolific user of Twitter, posting several times a day and using the medium to broadcast everything from brutal political observation to deft humor (“Please, ‘writer’ is so offensive. I’m a text worker”). He also fashions miniaturized, but no less powerful, literary experiments, from ghazals to what he calls “small fates,” brief and knifelike summaries of often tragic and true events (“Joining the fight against AIDS, armed men in Edo carted away a shipment of anti-retroviral drugs”).
“You can still find a way to make your voice heard by the way you shape your sentences,” he says of his attraction to Twitter. “There is a potent energy if they have the right shape.”
Perhaps that is ultimately true not only of Cole’s presence on a medium like Twitter, but of his work in general, with its shaping not just of language, but of images (Cole is also a successful photographer who has exhibited internationally) and of historical notions and voices. There is a constant sensibility and consciousness in his work that manifests itself across different media as it not only captures history, but becomes history itself.
“I think that there is such a thing as the creative human element that will never go away. It allows us to read the Iliad with pleasure and listen to Beethoven with enlightenment and allows us to enjoy Radiohead and Kanye West,” he says. “However, it is a guarantee that the forms will change.”
David Garza lives in New York City.