TO Young Gambian, let’s call him D, wait in Syracuse. He had arrived in Italy eight months earlier, having been smuggled into the country by boat from Libya. D has an intelligent and calm manner, an unexpected grace given what he has endured. On a date with his afternoon partner, Teju Cole, D confesses that he has never set foot in a church – he was raised a Muslim. When the two enter Santa Lucía alla Badia together, he is surprised that no one questions his presence. What a rare taste of unimpeded movement. The couple gaze in awe at Caravaggio’s early 17th-century painting, The Burial of Saint Lucia. It’s huge: 10 feet wide, over 13 feet tall. Centuries have passed and the effects of time are manifested in the damage to large surfaces of paint, but the work is no less magnificent for that.
This vignette takes place in the first rehearsal of Cole’s amazing new collection. Cole is famous for his novels, Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief. But his resume contains much more: a doctorate in art history from Columbia, opinion pieces on culture and politics in the New York Times, photography exhibitions, and most recently, the Gore Vidal Chair of Creative Writing Practice at Harvard. . These jewel-like essays, developed from a series of lectures Cole delivered at the University of Chicago in 2019, are testament to both his many talents and the astonishing keenness with which he observes the world. His writing intertwines travel journal, art criticism and meditations on the cruelty of 21st century politics. But perhaps it is ultimately about humanity’s struggle for meaning and belonging.
Raised by Nigerian parents between Lagos and Kalamazoo, Michigan, Cole moves comfortably between places, towns and cultures. At one point, he sees Edward Said on 116th Street in New York. This must be in the early 2000s, as Said is still with us, albeit in the twilight of his career as an intellectual, activist, bandleader, Palestinian rights negotiator, and one of the latest medium’s most transformative thinkers. century. Cole, by contrast, is a shabby graduate student. It’s easy to see why he’s in love with the humanist icon in front of him. Said is, as Cole says, “the word made flesh, the books in human form.” In the same essay, Cole takes us from New York to Ramallah where he faces the “insult to human dignity that is military occupation.” His outrage consumes the page. He rightly insists that we must repudiate anti-Semitism and end the suffering of the Palestinian people. Anything less is inconceivable. We moved to Beirut and then to Berlin in just a few passages. Cole interprets these urban landscapes as vivid fragments, the urban quartet that brings together the places that marked Said’s life. The result is truly an elegy for Said; it is poignant when Cole describes the deceased scholar as a “navigational aid” that guided him into his own style as a writer and thinker.
Said’s influence emerges again when Cole addresses the power of imagination to organize beliefs about Africa. “Have you ever heard something so absurd?” asks, “Africa, Africa dazed by the sun and flooded with light, described as the ‘Dark Continent’?” The poverty and prejudices of the colonial imagination have a long and dishonorable history. Where can we find new perspectives of appreciation for Africa in all its complexity? This question prompts an essay on the hit movie Black Panther. Despite all he did to establish a new mythology around African superheroes, Cole remains uncomfortable with the way he covers the African experience with simplistic grandeur meant to delight American eyes. However, as with everything Cole writes, there is more to his criticism. Rather than being a movie, this essay is an interrogation of what it means to be African and black in different settings. Cole pokes fun at Blackness’s diversity; its ever-changing, contingent, and cultural meaning; its broad and dissident potential.
Cole’s attention to the texture of things makes the writing extraordinarily vivid. It evokes doom in Caravaggio’s paintings and imaginative abundance in photographs by Marie Cosindas and Lorna Simpson. He evokes the sensory pleasure of having a human body when he writes about nature, nowhere more exuberantly than in his essay Experience: “With my eyes I see the bright light in the water, with my ears they hear the buzzing and splashing of the water , with my nose I smell the grass and the alpine flowers. I put water in my mouth and I can savor its mineral intensity … My fingers touch the rough and smooth stones, the bed-like grass, the pebbles like marble, the runaway water. “For Cole, those moments in art , literature and nature are, in the words of Seamus Heaney, like a “rush through which known and strange things happen.”
In other places, talking about water has a different meaning. A recurring motif in this work is migration. In several essays, Cole reflects on the border between the United States and Mexico. It bothers him like a sore wound that won’t heal. The violence inflicted on desperate travelers is heavy and heinous. Those fleeing conflict, drowning in the Mediterranean, or being sold as modern slaves face similar treatment. He rejects our use of “watery language” (a “flow”, “wave”, “flood”) when we speak of refugees. They are people, not inanimate objects whose movement is an aberration. It reminds me of Liisa Malkki’s analogous critique of botanical metaphors —soil by nation, uprooting by displacement— that conceive the natural / national order of things as sedentary. Of course, only certain bodies (usually dark) whose movement tends to be punished and watched.
Despite all the rage justified in these pages, Cole recognizes the limits of literature in changing the political world. Still, I find it appropriate for you to use lyrical essays to write about dark times. For me, the beauty, the hope and the power of that form lies in its lack of rigidity, in its defiance of preconceived notions. What we see is an individual taking stock of his environment, a way that Cole has mastered. To read this book is to enjoy the generosity of his thought, to be invited to contemplate your inner life, to embrace the complexity of others and to see in the dark not only despair, but also understanding and even refuge.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism