1

Owen Richardson

Born in America, brought up in Nigeria, and now living back in the land of his birth, Teju Cole is the author of two highly regarded books dealing with, among other topics, exile and return: Open City, about a flaneur in New York and Brussels, and Every Day is for the Thief, about a Nigerian-American's visit to Lagos and the corruption and chaos he finds there.

In this collection of essays he works as a peripatetic critic, or writer at large, dealing with literature, art (Cole is a trained art historian and an accomplished photographer), travel and politics. The boundaries between these subjects are not strict. An account of a visit to Rome segues naturally from classical statuary to thoughts on how Roman imperial imagery influenced America's to the rude stares he receives because of his skin colour and the difficulties faced by African migrants in Italy. His concern with visual culture moves from art photographers such as Gueorgui Pinkhassov and Howard French to consider the atrocity images that swamp us and how photojournalism is never impartial.

The voice tends to the meditative, even melancholy, but is more than capable of rising to the occasions of indignation: he reprints his Kony 2012-inspired tweets on the White Saviour Industrial Complex, and comments on the ensuing to-and-fro.

Best of all in this vein are his updating of Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas ("COMM ...

Born in America, brought up in Nigeria, and now living back in the land of his birth, Teju Cole is the author of two highly regarded books dealing with, among other topics, exile and return: Open City, about a flaneur in New York and Brussels, and Every Day is for the Thief, about a Nigerian-American’s visit to Lagos and the corruption and chaos he finds there.

In this collection of essays he works as a peripatetic critic, or writer at large, dealing with literature, art (Cole is a trained art historian and an accomplished photographer), travel and politics. The boundaries between these subjects are not strict. An account of a visit to Rome segues naturally from classical statuary to thoughts on how Roman imperial imagery influenced America’s to the rude stares he receives because of his skin colour and the difficulties faced by African migrants in Italy. His concern with visual culture moves from art photographers such as Gueorgui Pinkhassov and Howard French to consider the atrocity images that swamp us and how photojournalism is never impartial.

The voice tends to the meditative, even melancholy, but is more than capable of rising to the occasions of indignation: he reprints his Kony 2012-inspired tweets on the White Saviour Industrial Complex, and comments on the ensuing to-and-fro.

Best of all in this vein are his updating of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas (“COMMUNITY. Preceded by ‘black’. White people, lacking community, must make do with property.”) and the sardonic riff on Ebola panic: “Is Ebola the ISIS of biological agents? Is Ebola the Boko Haram of AIDS? … now it has become abundantly clear that it is the George W. Bush of being forced to listen to someone’s podcast. It’s that serious.”

If W.G. Sebald was one of the more obvious influences, V.S. Naipaul is also an abiding presence in Cole’s work, and another stand-out is the account of a group dinner with Naipaul and other younger African writers. It’s a study in mixed feelings, admiration and the wish to please contending with distaste for the master’s less-likeable qualities, private and public; the piece is followed by a warm appreciation of A House for Mr Biswas.

That non-cloying generosity and willingness to pay tribute are also shown in an interview with Alexander Hemon and a trip to the Swiss village where James Baldwin lived and a piece about Kofi Awoonor, the Ghanaian poet shot in the 2013 terrorist attack in Nairobi. Erudite, committed and finely observed, his writing is a model for cultural criticism.

Share this!