Teju Cole gives ‘Lagos the upper hand’ in his new novel

BY Ruth Tam  March 25, 2014 at 3:00 PM EST
Courtesy Teju Cole

Courtesy Teju Cole

Three years after novelist Teju Cole penned the highly acclaimed “Open City” about a young man’s meditation on post-9/11 New York, he returns with “Every Day Is for the Thief,” a reflection in words and photographs on the city of Lagos. For Cole, storytelling goes beyond the page. He recently captivated online audiences on Twitter with his short stories and longer essays published entirely in tweets.

The new novel comes out Tuesday, although it was previously released in Nigeria in 2007. The book’s unnamed narrator is a young Nigerian returning home after 15 years abroad. He struggles to embed himself into Lagos and his efforts give way to an examination of the city, its characters and himself. Born in Michigan, Cole composes Lagos with some authority, having grown up in Nigeria before returning to the U.S. for college and most of his professional life.

Art Beat recently spoke to Cole about his new novel, taking photographs in Nigeria and composing stories on Twitter.

ART BEAT: You share several biographical similarities between the narrator in “Every Day Is For The Thief” and Julius in “Open City.” For readers who see connections between your work and your life, what is the biggest difference between your characters and you?

TEJU COLE: Well the differences are numerous that’s for sure. In all sorts of important ways. Not just biographically but also in terms of the attitudes and opinions of these characters. The similarities have to do with the extent to which I try to draw these characters as complex characters who have a complicated and unsolved relationship to the world in which they find themselves. But I think in part, it has to do with a certain interest I have in exploring interior complexity as opposed to inventing out of whole cloth certain things that do not need invention. In the case of “Every Day Is For The Thief,” the main character of that book is the city of Lagos. And we certainly get some of (the narrator’s) inferiority for sure. The focus in the book is on his reaction to the city and the effect it has on him and other people who live there. It is an encounter of place. I think a reader coming to this without any sort of preparation will read this book and will feel an immersion into this strange, exciting and somewhat frightening city. I wanted it to be an immersion in a place that you don’t necessarily know well.

ART BEAT: You understand the city by his reaction to it?

TEJU COLE: Absolutely. In “Open City,” there were these dueling characters. It was Julius and it was new New York City. But in “Every Day Is For The Thief,” I think Lagos as a place has an upper hand.

ART BEAT: This novel was first published in Nigeria in 2007. Did you expand the book for American audiences?

TEJU COLE: Very lightly. I wanted to protect the integrity of the original text. There’s a natural temptation to go in, change it and turn it into the book that I would write today. But it’s not a book I wrote today; it’s a book I wrote some years ago. It’s interesting on its own account because the intensity out of which I wrote it is not something that is mentally available to me now. I added, maybe two or three pages? The main difference is the audience to which it’s available now — an American audience as opposed to a Nigerian one. And the photographs have all been changed.


Listen to Teju Cole read an excerpt from his new novel “Every Day Is For The Thief.”


ART BEAT: Let’s talk about the photographs. When I see the images in “Every Day Is For The Thief,” I’m reminded of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work and his idea of a decisive moment. How do you approach a scene?

TEJU COLE: I often say I’ve spent more time with photography than I have with literature just in terms of hours. Cartier-Bresson is a huge influence. He’s an important part of the work that I do, the way I think about this part of the world, understanding the art of it and the labor that goes into it. How can he not be for a street photographer? If you think about some other people who use photographs in their books, generally they have used photographs that are not theirs. They use archival photographs. Unlike all of those people, I actually have a serious photographic practice of my own so I am looking at people like Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander as influences. It involves a lot of waiting. If you see a theme that you might want to take a photo of, you sort of stand there for an hour waiting for it to resolve, waiting for the geometry of a theme to be exactly what you want them to be. That was my process to get photos. To complicate matters, Nigeria is a difficult place to take photographs.

ART BEAT: Why? How do you shoot in Nigeria?

TEJU COLE: Defensively. For one thing, it’s not as popular in Nigeria though a lot of Nigerians are now shooting with smart phones. Photography has changed the whole world over. But when I go out there, if I walk down the street and start taking pictures of some building, somebody’s liable to walk up to me and say, “Who gave you the right to take a picture of that?” And it can very easily become a hostile interaction. That means a lot of street photography has to be done surreptitiously and for years, it was just impossible for me to do any good work there as far as photography went until I started to learn. Number one, I got bolder and number two, I learned how to take more surreptitious sorts of photos. And my own priorities in photography have also changed. I’m not trying to be in your face and take a picture that is like a journalistic kind of image. I got interested in a kind of complicated, compiled, visual field.

ART BEAT: Not too long ago, Nigerian literature was narrowly defined by Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” Now the Nigerian literary experience is expanding across continents with work from you, Chimamanda Adichie, Chris Abani, and others. How does your new novel relate to the latest wave of Nigerian and Nigerian-American literature?

Courtesy Teju Cole

Courtesy Teju Cole

TEJU COLE: Well, it is true that there is a boom or at least, a boomlet. But even if you count all the people you’re talking about, there’s still going to be less than ten Nigerians who you would say have made a recent mark internationally. I suppose that’s quite a boom for African literature from our own country but when you consider this is a country of more than 150 million people, that is really a pretty small showing. On one hand, I want to recognize that things have changed and things are changing. But on the other hand, I certainly feel that we are very much underrepresented. My role between that is simply what the role of an author always is, which is testifying language to the things you have experienced and the things you’ve imagined. Being Nigerian is a strong part of my identity. Being American is a strong part of my identity. And there are important parts of who I am that really have nothing to do with my national connection.

ART BEAT: A lot of your recent microfiction has been published through Twitter. If Twitter didn’t exist would you have found another venue for your short pieces like Small Fates,” “A Piece of the Wall,” or “Hafiz” or can those projects only exist through that platform?

TEJU COLE: I wonder if I would have ended up doing them on blogs or done small magazines with friends. The creative part of oneself finds its way out. In this case, I got interested particularly in the medium of Twitter and looked for ways to use it creatively. What’s interesting about Twitter is the unmediatedness of it, the directness of it. I’m on a train somewhere in New York and I send out a tweet. Somebody sitting at dinner in Bombay checks their phone and they see it. Or somebody who’s watching a football match in Lagos checks their phone sees it. I’m constantly amazed by this thing; you’re able to put sentences in an unmediated way in other people’s heads.

ART BEAT: Some of your online work is obviously written beforehand or coordinated with other people in advance. What’s your process of writing an online piece?

TEJU COLE: Well every project is different. That’s what makes it interesting for me. When I was doing “Small Fates,” those short summaries of news reports from Nigeria, I would read the newspaper, spend half an hour crafting a tweet based on a particular story and post it. When I did the short stories about drones, I sat down one Saturday or Sunday morning, I decided what books I was going to take the first lines of and use as a kind of protest against assassination by drone. I wrote that very quickly and posted them out. In the case of “Hafiz,” I worked on that story for quite a while over the period of many days. I put it aside for many months never publishing it. And then I went back to the story and I thought, how can I share this? I came up with distributing them through other people’s tweets.

The most recent piece I did, “A Place By The Wall,” was a 4,000 word, 250 tweet nonfiction reportage. That involved two journeys from New York to Tucson, Arizona, and back. Interviews with more than a dozen people. Trips to Mexico, the courts. It was actually a thoroughly researched nonfiction piece of reportage which I then spent a couple of weeks writing and editing and polishing and fact checking and dividing into 250 tweets. Then I sat down and over the course of seven hours in one day, tweeted it out on a dedicated Twitter account. I’m quite aware of how crazy this sounds because nobody pays you to do this. But I’m clearly interested in the medium and I’m interested in how you can use the medium in an excellent way. Like somebody who sits down and says “I want to learn the cello,” I think that there’s definitely a part of me that wants to use Twitter and use it well.

ART BEAT: What do you have planned going forward?

TEJU COLE: I have a book to write. I’m working on a nonfiction book about Lagos. It will contain memoir, lyrical essay and interviews and all the things that I want to put into a book that is a story of a city. So that’s the most important thing. And I want to get better at taking photos.