A review of Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

Reviewed by Sue Bond

Known and Strange Things
by Teju Cole
ISBN 9780571331390, September 2016, paperback

Teju Cole was born in America to Nigerian parents, and has written two novels and this book of essays, as well as being an art historian and photographer and photography critic. According to his website, he is currently working on two more books. Open City (2011) I reviewed a few years ago and noted his powers of observation, amongst other strengths; I was drawn to his storytelling, and on learning of this collection of essays, enthusiastic to read them.

Known and Strange Things, the title coming from Seamus Heaney, is structured by division into four sections: Reading Things; Seeing Things; Being There; and Epilogue. Cole notes that the book contains ‘some of my most vital enthusiasms’ as well as pieces on the new, and that he was testing his knowledge and its limits. He left as much out as he included, and could have produced a second book with the excluded. As a reviewer, it’s impossible to cover every essay, so I will discuss more closely particular pieces. Included in this volume are photographs, not surprisingly, by Cole and by others he has discussed in some essays.

His first essay is ‘Black Body’, describing a visit to Switzerland. He writes that he is brought there, and to the town of Leukerbad specifically, by James Baldwin’s essay ‘Stranger in the Village’ which was included in his Notes of a Native Son (1955). Baldwin explores what it’s like to be the only black person in an all-white village in the 1950s; Cole writes that it is not the same seventy years on because not only he is not the only black man in the village, but there were many foreigners there and the place was a popular tourist resort. People still look at him but the glances do not last like they did for Baldwin. He also does not feel the self-abnegation that the other writer felt—‘Bach, so profoundly human, is my heritage’—but he does understand Baldwin’s ‘strong wish to not be accounted nothing (a mere nigger, a mer neger) when he knows himself to be so much’, a profound point that can change the way a reader reads this book and others, and indeed, even how we all look upon other people, and think of ourselves.

‘Natives on the Boat’ recounts his meeting VS Naipaul, the Nobel Prize-winning writer with a reputation for controversial pronouncements. Cole describes with a light touch the atmosphere of the dinner at the plush home of a well known, wealthy person with her own family wines. The young writer and the old get on well, somewhat to Cole’s surprise, particularly as he challenges him, albeit gently. They each recognise in the other a particular intelligence. Cole follows this essay with one on A House for Mr Biswas (1961), Naipaul’s great novel.

Reading Aleksander Hemon’s conversation with Cole is a delight, beginning with the puzzlement of both of them for the strict delineation of fiction and non-fiction, particularly with reference to truth and to the market. They discuss the author WG Sebald and his photographs that punctuate the texts of his books and emphasise the importance of storytelling.

In the section ‘Seeing Things’, Cole includes essays on photographers and photography, including ‘A True Picture of Black Skin’. This deals with skin tones in photography, and how the photographer of black life Roy DeCarava tended to darken black skin tone rather than lighten it, as was the tendency of earlier times.

The essays that had the strongest effect on me were the political ones, such as ‘The Reprint’ which details the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008. Once again he draws upon James Baldwin, here referring to an essay ‘The American Dream and the American Negro’ (1965), where Baldwin records Robert Kennedy saying that in forty years America might have a ‘Negro’ president. Cole is interesting in his appraisal of Obama, noting that he is a black man with American citizenship, not an African American descended from slaves, and that he grew up in a white household. He considers him ‘a certain kind of outsider American’, an immigrant in the time of air travel, so that in fact his victory should resonate most strongly with fellow immigrants more than with African Americans. He continues on the topic of Obama in ‘A Reader’s War’ with a severe critique of his drone assassinations and foreign policy generally, quoting from a news report that it is a recruiting tool for militants.

Cole attracted a lot of attention in 2012 for his Twitter essay on what he called ‘The White Savior Industrial Complex’, which he wrote in response to the Kony 2012 video. He reprints the seven tweets, and they are direct and bracing. I am not surprised some respondents were offended but I agree with Cole’s response that direct speech on political matters is necessary, unlike writing for fiction, where he prefers to ‘leave the reader not knowing what to think’. He quotes John Berger—‘A singer may be innocent; never the song’—and writes that the song too often heard is when ‘Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism’. He suggests that this ignores the complexity of African countries and problems, and that perhaps the United States needs to look to its own foreign policy.

The most beautifully written and moving essay for me is ‘In Alabama’, in which the author describes his tracing of the steps of the civil rights protestors, led by John Lewis, who marched on the 7th of March 1965 across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and were savagely beaten and tear gassed by police. He remembers the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 which killed four young girls, and writes that ‘my soul took fright’ when he was at the church itself. The drive down to Montgomery ushers these words to the page: ‘This bitter earth, these crumbling signs, the things that may have happened in these woods: in this place, I touched on a fissure in America’s unfinishable history’.

There are beautiful words but they have import as well. Teju Cole is a fine writer with challenging things to say, and his book of essays is full of ‘known and strange things’.

About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane.