Teju Cole | The voice of the mind

Teju Cole’s Open City has been widely praised as one of 2011’s best novels, and deservedly so. It is a reflection on the experimental modernism of the early 20th century as well as a sharply political and contemporary novel. Cole’s erudition and intellectual curiosity are characteristic of all his writing, whether in the long-form Open City or the short, absurd “Small Fates” snippets from Nigerian life he posts regularly to his Twitter account (@tejucole).

Cole was born in Lagos and is a resident of Brooklyn, New York, where he teaches at Bard College and works as an art historian and photographer. He was at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival last week to talk about several of his wide-ranging and closely followed interests in art, urbanism, music and literature. Edited excerpts from his conversation with Lounge:

When did you start to think about writing and literature?

I haven’t always been a writer of fiction. Sometime in my mid-20s, 10 years ago, I realized that my desire to put experience into words was best matched by a very specific approach; trying to find the most layered and complicated thoughts and put them in the clearest language I could manage.

Earlier on, under the influence of people likeJames Joyce, people like Wole Soyinka and generally this idea of the shock of the new, my concept had been to be pyrotechnic, like Garcia Marquez andSalman Rushdie—make it new by making it noisy and furious. Clearly, there are people who can do that well. But In my mid-20s I realized that I needed to go back to (George) Orwell, (Ernest) Hemingway, (V.S.) Naipaul; Virginia Woolf, who’s a wonderful writer of the English sentence. A little bit of Henry James, not in the length of the sentences, but in the effort to be complex by being complicated without being needlessly loud.

Once that discovery was made I started to write. I did quite a bit of writing online: blogs, essays, writing to friends, writing for friends. If I travelled somewhere I would write about it, and a kind of voice started to emerge, and I started to write better and better sentences.

Tell us about your first book.

About six years ago, I went to Nigeria. I wrote a fictionalized memoir of my experiences of going back after a long time, which was published as Every Day Is for the Thief.

And so it started. It was never, “I have to be a writer.” Never that. I had a stark and pragmatic attitude to literary success.

We’re talking about success after publishing.

That’s right, not about success on the page. I suspected that would be within my reach or that it was worth fighting for. But the way the industry is set up, I’m not going to write what they want, and they’re not going to like me. I know: I’m an African, I’m in America, I’m supposed to write a multigenerational family epic. I wanted to write about resolutely contemporary experience.

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