Prominent Writer and Artist Teju Cole to Speak at BU Tuesday Night
Annual Conversations in the Arts & Ideas will be virtual
It is impossible to describe Teju Cole in a single word. He is an award-winning fiction writer and an essayist whose work regularly appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Granta, and the New York Times. He is an art historian and photographer and his work has been exhibited internationally. He is a curator. He is a teacher—the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard. In short, he is a contemporary Renaissance man.
For all of these reasons, Cole was chosen to speak at this year’s annual BU Conversations in the Arts & Ideas, a series launched four years ago to elevate the presence of the arts and humanities at BU and beyond. (Past speakers were author Zadie Smith and filmmaker Werner Hertzog. Cole was to have spoken at last year’s event, but it was canceled by the pandemic.) The virtual event, Known and Strange Things: An Evening in Conversation with Teju Cole, is tonight, Tuesday, March 23, at 6 pm. Crystal Williams, vice president and associate provost for community and inclusion and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English, will interview Cole, and on Wednesday, he will participate in a virtual Q&A with Kilachand Honors College students who have been reading his nonfiction.
Born in Michigan to Nigerian parents, Cole grew up in Lagos, but moved back to the United States to attend college. His writing is known for its probing examination of cultural identity, immigration, the environment, and race. He created the term “White Savior Industrial Complex,” which first appeared in a series of tweets he wrote in reaction to the Kony 2012 video that called for the arrest of Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony and later expanded into a widely read essay in The Atlantic. More recently, Cole has written about the COVID-19 pandemic, notably in “We Can’t Comprehend This Much Sorrow,” a raw, elegiac essay in the New York Times last May, where he drew on a week’s worth of observations to try to make sense of the rapidly escalating crisis. He ends the piece: “We can see the tidal current and the wreckage in its wake; but why has it happened? All we know is that different choices would have led to a different outcome.”
Cole’s novels are “expertly sustained performances. The places he can go, you feel, are just about limitless,” the Times’ Dwight Garner says.
“The sheer range of Mr. Cole’s talents is extraordinary and rare,” says James Johnson, a CAS professor of history and member of the faculty advisory committee that selects the series speakers. “He is prolific as a critic, essayist, and photographer, his fiction is award-winning, and he writes with urgent insight on matters of equity and racial justice. The understanding he brings to questions of the present is unique, drawing on overlapping identities and traditions, from Homer to Coltrane to Bach to Nigeria and the Global South. I think people will come away with a deepened sense of human creativity and connectedness.”
Carrie Preston, Arvind and Chandan Nandlal Kilachand Professor and director of Kilachand Honors College and a CAS professor of English and of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, says Cole’s work speaks to this moment we find ourselves in, reeling from both a pandemic and a national reckoning on race and inequality.
“In this past dark and challenging year, I feel that Mr. Cole’s work has become all the more urgent,” Preston says. “He wrote profoundly about the dull, privileged experience of sheltering in place and the relevance of art during the pandemic. As we witnessed the murder of George Floyd and other racist atrocities in the summer of 2020, it was often his work that felt like it offered the many perspectives we needed to find a way forward together.”
BU Today spoke with Cole about how his writing and photography inform each other, his interest in finding new forms when writing, and why he left Twitter.
With Teju Cole
BU Today: Can you talk about how your work as a photographer and your love of the visual arts informs your writing and vice versa?
Teju Cole: I feel very fortunate to be working in two distinct artistic fields: writing and visual arts. In the visual arts, my focus is on photography. But in writing, I range more widely. I’m not a poet or a dramatist, but I am an art critic, I write novels and short stories, and I do essays around a range of subjects. And I also work in forms that are less conventional—short forms, including, for example, the kinds of experiments I have done in my book Blind Spot.
However, about 15 years into my working life as an artist, I have found something interesting. Initially, I really thought what I was doing in writing and what I was doing in photography were just from two completely different universes. With each passing year, I feel they’re getting closer and closer together. What I mean by that is not that I surrender any of what makes writing writing, or what makes photography photography. After all, in any given field, we have to be responsible to the demands of craft and technique necessitated by that field. But for me, my practices of writing and photography are moving closer together because the intention, and the forms of focus and concentration, that I bring into each one now seem to me to spring from common roots.
A love of description characterizes my writing. I have a tendency to use a rather calm and formally settled approach. And I think this shows up in my photography as well. I don’t do a lot of action pictures: I’m often describing what is plainly there in the world, but trying to look at it with a strange eye. And I would say that photography has taught me also to be patient with my writing, because paradoxically, even though it’s just 1/125th of a second to take a photograph, finished photographs are very slow in gestation. It’s a lot of editing, a lot of selection, to find a photograph that’s worth keeping. I could travel to a place and make photographs there for three weeks and only come away with three or four photographs worth keeping. And that has taught me patience in my writing as well.
What attracted you to the visual arts and to writing in the first place?
Those two things have been with me for a very long time. I was an art major in college, but before that I was very committed to drawing and painting, and to art history, when I was in high school in Nigeria. And in fact, my three strongest subjects were English, art, and geography when I was in high school. I did well in science as well, but I topped the class in English, and I was near the top in art. So I think early on, I got the sense that these were things I had a talent for. And I continued that through college and grad school.
Around 2005, I started to take photos with real intentionality for the first time. It was around this time that I also found my language in writing. And when I say “I found my language,” I mean that I discovered the following: that what I wanted to do was write complex sentences about complex things, but to write them as simply and as carefully as possible. I wanted to write those sentences as lucidly as the complexity could bear. And once I discovered that commitment, it gave me the language to write my first published book, which was published in Nigeria: Every Day Is for the Thief, which I wrote at the beginning of 2006 and was published in 2007.
What subjects are you drawn to as a writer and a photographer?
Very many subjects! I think I fundamentally find the world an interesting place, and so I rarely rule out anything: politics, health policy, art history, memoir, of course the made-up things of fiction, but also scholarship, reportage of various kinds, literature, music. That’s what interests me in writing, but I filter all of those things through my sensibility. Which is, I aim to get behind some unexpressed truth about whatever it is I’m looking at. So that all my work, regardless of the original material, ends up sounding like me. I think a lot of things in our culture and our society have a pose of innocence to them; as a writer, I’m driven to try to see what part of the story is not being told, what truths need to be extracted from that pose of innocence, but to do so in an artful and (usually) quite a subtle way.
As a photographer, meanwhile, I am constrained by the tool of photography: the camera. A camera is a seeing tool, and I can only photograph what’s in the world, what I see. My hope is to photograph in a way that illuminates “what’s in the world” in a new way. Usually, this means taking an unexpected angle on something. It means photographing things that have been disregarded.
So in writing, the unexpected. In photography, the disregarded. And the hope is that by making use of those unusual perspectives, I might genuinely have something new to say, even if I’m talking about something that many people have already talked about.
You are known for playing with new forms and structures. Can you talk about that?
Yes, I like to think about the difference between being experimental as a stance for its own sake and being free. Making use of the freedom is the artist’s prerogative. I really believe in trying to be both free and respectful of received forms. A given form is something that somebody else, another artist, arrives at in order to solve particular problems. When you’re working as an artist, you often find that somebody else’s form is not good enough for you, it’s not satisfying what you need for the project you’re working on. When I’m writing something, even if it starts out rather conventional, eventually I find that I’m changing things, breaking things, altering things, so that the work can better satisfy my inner vision of what I’m looking for. Which is why each one of my books has been in a different genre.
It’s finally a question of freedom: freedom, which is both a privilege and a responsibility. We’re responsible to make use of freedom in our work, both in terms of its form and its content.
You have frequently used social media as a platform for your writing. How has it influenced your work and why did you decide to suspend your Twitter account?
Well, social media has been interesting, because there’s not only an in-built audience, it’s an audience that’s visible to you as a writer and as a creative person. It’s another way of being in public. I respect the social media space, because for me, it’s not about social media. It’s about believing that these are really people. The artist goes where people are. You go do your work where it can be seen.
So it has given me—just to go on from what I said in the last question—it has given me an arena in which to exercise my freedom. A lot of my practice is making books, doing exhibitions, writing articles, but I also like being in the relatively less credentialed and invigilated space of social media. I would say that space has served as a genesis for a number of my book projects, including Blind Spot and Human Archipelago, both of which I started to work on on Instagram.
As for my Twitter account: well, I think I got on it in 2009, and I stopped in 2014, and I think that was enough. It was a good, creative, experimental space for me, but I don’t like to do anything that has a requirement of permanence. It’s often nice to walk away from something so you can put your energies elsewhere. But I also think that the tone of interaction on Twitter around 2014 was starting to change. It was becoming a sort of fractious and stressful space, and I just needed to clear my head and go do my work. And I think perhaps that was a good idea, because I’ve done several books since I left Twitter, and I’ve got another two on the way. Maybe if I had stayed, I wouldn’t have been so focused or so productive.
Known and Strange Things: An Evening in Conversation with Teju Cole is tonight, Tuesday, March 23, from 6 to 7:15 pm via Zoom. The event is free, but advance registration is required. Find more information and register here. The conversation will be followed by a Q&A.
Conversations in the Arts & Ideas is sponsored by the BU Center for the Humanities, Kilachand Honors College, the Office of the Provost, the Arts & Sciences Dean’s Office, the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, the BU Arts Initiative, and the CAS Core Curriculum.