Open Book Fest

Through the eyes of Teju Cole

Cityscapes Live: Lagos, 7 September 2013, Fugard Studio. Kgomotso Matsunyane quizzes Teju Cole about the African super city.


Saturday morning clocked in with an easy session of Q&A with Teju Cole. It was a full house in the Fugard Studio, the diversity of the crowd almost representative of the country’s population. The sun sat quietly at the back of the stage as host Kgomotso Matsunyane shared some banter with Teju Cole. The topic was both clear and unclear, and the audience chattered their expectation until the opening words.

It turned out to be a morning filled with sound bites. Cole has a pleasant demeanour: his answers to the questions were calm and calculated, with an anecdote here and a serious thought there. He listens carefully and answers generously.

Q: Lagos – Hate it or love it?

A: Hate it.

Winding through the questions, it is possible to start piecing together some of Cole’s attitudes towards to Lagos. He typifies the city as a place that brings out the worst in people – 21 million people who don’t give a damn about who you are. Still, when asked if he writes as a Lagosian or a New Yorker (Cole's current pace of residence), the link with the past proves stratified. Cole lived in Lagos for the first 17 years of his life and acknowledges the formative influences of the city on his personhood. At the same time, Cole expresses his fear of what he calls “unitarian identities”: too much identification with anything scares him; he has become wary of it. His fluctuating background gives him a certain distance from the city. Lagos “grinds people down, and I feel comfortable enough not to romanticise it.’’

But Lagos is not all bad, and Cole has a mind to show the other side of the city too. He says that too much written about Lagos is written badly: “Even if it is factually correct, it still doesn’t work, it fails to piece together the complex dimensions.” In his forthcoming book, Cole strives to piece together the small fates of ordinary people in Nigeria.

The conversation inevitably turn to his latest book, Open City. Set predominantly in Manhattan, we walk the city and see it through the eyes of the protagonist Julian – a Nigerian immigrant. And what is it that we see?

Cole: “Part of the distortion that comes from writing in the first person is the mystery of who you are listening to. It is a dare: I dare you to think this is me.”

Throughout the hour, the conversation constantly wandered, and it was pleasant. At times, you yourself wondered: maybe the questions could have been structured, maybe there could have been a deeper engagement with Lagos, its history, its structure, its layout, its population – those leaving the venue can’t have learned much about the city they didn’t already know. Then again, other things you might have wondered about the writer, the person Teju Cole got answered, got some attention, unexpectedly. Is Cole a friendly person with a sense of humour? Yes, he is. He thinks Fela Kuti’s music is the best novel ever written about Lagos. He was never much of an activist, but he says he turned rebellious since his Internet audience has grown large. In fact, “if I were to be assassinated, well I wouldn’t know which government to blame anymore – I seem to be insulting everyone”. He sees his following, waxed large over the years and still growing, as a source of responsibility, a mouthpiece. The hour was about Cole, not about Lagos, and it turns out that Cole is thoughtful and deliberate, in his writing as in his interviews. Cole has made another fan.

* For more about Lagos on SLiPnet, read Chris Dunton's review of Kaye Whiteman's Lagos: A Cultural and Historical Companion.

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