May 21, 2017

Teju Cole in 'Known and Strange Things' at AWF17

Karel from Central Library contributed this post on Teju Cole's first session at the Auckland Writers Festival, "Known and Strange Things", from the title of his 2016 essay collection. 



I'm only a recent convert to the work of Teju Cole. I'd seen his name in various publications, usually rapturous critical plaudits from people I admire - just recently Ockham book award winner Ashleigh Young referred to Cole as a 'strobing light of intelligence and a deep comfort' - and friends would berate me, often quite ferociously, for not having read his books. Yet it wasn't until I stumbled across Cole's tribute to the late John Berger, one of my literary heroes, that I felt compelled to delve into his growing canon. This connection with Berger now seems entirely appropriate. It could even be said that Cole is ostensibly picking up where the great art critic left off. He shares Berger's ability to explore well-worn topics with unique & challenging perspectives & they both have an unwavering curiosity in other human beings, especially the migrant experience.

Thus it was with a giddy kind of fervor that I went along to see Teju Cole at the Auckland Writers Festival. There was a palpable sense of expectation inside the ASB Theatre when Cole came on stage. He was wearing a pale blue suit jacket with a scarf neatly tucked into the pocket & wouldn’t have looked out of place in a high street menswear catalogue. He started by reading a passage from 'Black Body', his essay on James Baldwin that examines ideas about race, identity and the nature of historical burden. It points to Martin Luther King Jr, John Coltrane, Bessie Smith; 'people just on the cusp of escaping the contemporary, and slipping into the historical - people who could still be with us but who feel, at times, very far away, as though they lived centuries ago' before later referencing Drake, Beyonce & Meek Mill. It feels like a microcosm of Cole's oeuvre, presenting the human experience as both singular and intertwined, exploring this dichotomy with distinct moral clarity and eloquence.

He also spoke about how he came to writing, having originally pursued a doctorate in Art History but finding himself driven by an insatiable need to pursue an outlet for ideas that had built up over a lifetime. His first book, Every Day is for the Thief, began life as an online blog before being published in a more traditional format. Sometimes youth can present confusion in its capacity for endless possibility but as the book slowly morphed from something autobiographical into more fictional terrain it also became more authentic to the creative voice that Cole sought. 'Art is a lie that brings us nearer to the truth', as Picasso once said.

He mentioned some of his influences, writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez & Berger but also Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colors Trilogy), Edward Said & even passing mention of Jacques Derrida. Photography is a vital ingredient in Cole’s creative mix & he talked about how it compliments and enhances his prose. A side note, his Instagram page, where he posts a lot of his photos, is a work of art unto itself & well worth checking out. In fact the online world looms large for Cole, especially in his public persona, and he discussed the difficulty in having a social media presence in the knowledge that the medium can be both an incredible opportunity for direct communication & a void for absurd myopia.

At one stage there was a strikingly confronting moment where he read to the audience from an online piece in which he took the opening lines from a myriad of famous novels, Moby Dick & Mrs Dalloway amongst others, and followed each of them with a reference to death by drone bomb. It was horrifying and comical all at once and highlighted the political edge that runs through all of his books.

There was a short amount of time for questions. If I’d felt bold enough I might have asked Cole to elaborate on his decision to boycott PEN America’s freedom of expression award given to Charlie Hebdo a couple of years ago, perhaps the only point of contention where his ethical compass has left me a little disappointed, but it seemed that maybe the best place to find that answer would be within his work itself. 

The afternoon finished with Cole speaking of his love for New Zealand, marveling at how the natural world’s majesty is only a short drive from anywhere & everywhere, giving everyone a chance to view themselves with some sense of cosmic perspective. It was a charming & endearing note to end on.

As I walked out of the ASB Theatre I sensed electricity permeating through the Aotea Centre, as though the audience had been given an opportunity to free themselves from self-imposed shackles and begin lively, animated discussions about Cole or indeed about all kinds of questions that had been gestating inside of them for the past hour. John Berger once referred to his readers as 'co-conspirators', joining him in breaking down established ways of thinking & sabotaging the oppressive conceits of societal hierarchies. Cole engages his readers in that same way, illuminating those more elusive parts of life that seem mysterious and unquantifiable and taking Berger's conspiratorial dialogue to new & exciting places. I strongly recommend you delve into the work of one of contemporary literature's greatest new voices.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 19:55
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