Disappearing Shanghai – An Essay by Teju Cole

 

All photography is a record of a lost past. Photography does not share music’s ability to be fully remade each time it is presented, nor does it have film’s durational quality, in which the illusion of a present continuous tense is conjured. A photograph shows what was, and is no more. It registers in pixels or in print the quality and variety of light entering an aperture during a specific length of time. There are no instantaneous photographs: each must be exposed for a length of time, no matter how brief: in this sense, every photograph is a time-lapse image, and photography is necessarily an archival art.

There are certain oeuvres within the history of photography in which this archival pressure is felt more intensely than in others. Eugène Atget’s facades, architectural ornaments, and street corners depicted a Paris that was, even while his work was ongoing, already passing away from view. Atget’s images have a sense of speaking out from a buried visual subconscious, a sense aided by, but not wholly dependent on, the depopulated views he preferred and the melancholia of the sepia tone bestowed by time. The other part of the charge of the images comes from what we know about the places they depict: chiefly that those places are gone.

The same kind of embedded charge, that of evanescence caught on the wing, can be felt in all the photographs presented in Disappearing Shanghai, the new book by Howard French. French is a journalist of unusually broad expertise: he was Bureau Chief for the New York Times in several countries, and has had many years of experience reporting from Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, and Asia. His work as a photographer is less well-known: the selection in Disappearing Shanghai marks the first appearance of his photographs in book-form.

It might be assumed that French is one of those dilettantes who, unwilling to leave well enough alone, insist on dabbling in areas beyond their specialization: a writer of well-received books and articles turning his attention to something less taxing, something easy, like the occasional snapshot. But one hardly need look at more than three or four of his photographs to be disabused of this notion: there is much more going on in the images than hobbyism. The images, in fact, look like work. They indicate intent, thought, order. They provoke questioning, demanding from us what all good photographs do, which is that they be placed in some relation to the wider practice of photography and to the ethics and possibilities of the form.

Disappearing Shanghai is a visual account of five years worth of shooting in the rapidly changing backstreets, homes, and alleys of China’s largest city. The work originated during French’s time living there as a Times reporter, and developed side-by-side with that work. The instinct that brought these images to the surface (it seems natural to think of them as having been submerged) was that of a flâneur. Around the time that French began to learn Chinese, he also started to go on long walks in the less glitzy areas of the city: the older areas, the more traditional areas, precisely those parts of the city that were beginning to be effaced by the economic boom. He began to take photos of the people he met. Soon, he was invited into their homes.

The photos that resulted are notably different from what we might ordinarily think of as photojournalism: they are dynamic, but they are not the action-packed singles of the kind that win photojournalism prizes. There is something far more patient at work in them. We feel that the photographer has not so much captured a “decisive moment” as gained us admission into private moments of long duration. Many of the images project the longueurs that are, after all, a substantial part of regular life: unhurried, unharried, the part of life that isn’t caught up in working for pay, the part of life that is a simple, unfussy catalog of the passing minutes.

Please click here to read the entire essay, which includes a selection of images.

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.

Please follow the link to read the complete article: Teju Cole | The voice of the mind

Book 5 – Reads of the Year – Open City

I’m realizing I’d better hurry up with this list. The year’s going to be over in a minute, and I’m running out of time.

I’d originally intended to save this choice for last on this list, which I’ve often said is given in no particular order. I’d thought of doing Open City last, though, because my experience of the book has been so special.

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Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve come to realize, though, that if I don’t get this out more quickly, I’ll be the last person in the world to recommend this novel. In recent weeks, I’ve seen it touted in year’s-best lists just about everywhere, NPR, The New Yorker, The new York Times, Atlantic, and on, and on.

But anticlimactic as this might be in one sense, I feel good for having discovered this novel early in its publishing run, before many reviews had appeared at all. Indeed, I remember my puzzlement as I plugged it to friends and relatives while some of those early critics seemed not to know what to make of this highly original, deeply wonderful voice.

In retrospect, there’s little wonder. Teju Cole doesn’t fit easily into in the crude and reductionist landscape of American notions of race. Here is a man who is black, and yet European, African and yet American, luxuriantly at ease in the street, but as a purest sort of flaneur, and as someone unwilling to comply with anyone else’s projected notions of what, or who he should be.

We’re not used to this kind of stuff, and for some readers the effect is apparently confusing. What to make of a black man whose curiosity and learning are near universal, who loves classical music, and poetry, and visiting museums and is comfortably at home in the realm of ideas? For some of the early critics, Cole was pretentious. As I understood it, that meant that he was a kind of trespasser; someone who had no business straying from the themes we are accustomed to assigning to or expecting from black authors.

Open City is not a big novel, but it is a grand one, and that is down to the freedom of its author, and of its main character, Julius, to explore identity and beyond the question-asking, to assert identity as a genuine individual. In this, he is an equal opportunity defender of a hard-won independence. Witness, for example, the scene when an African taxi driver in New York City reproaches him for not engaging in a breezy “brotherly” banter when he enters his cab in a rain storm. “He said I’m African just like you, why you do this? He kept me in his sights in the mirror. I was confused. I said, I’m so sorry about it, my mind was elsewhere, don’t be offended, ehn, my brother, how are you doing? He said nothing, and faced the road. I wasn’t sorry at all. I was in no mood for people who tried to lay claims on me.” In some ways, this scene is characteristic of the entire book, which is built around encounters that bring Julius up short, or cause him to reevaluate things; to question himself and most certainly to question others.

Cole’s Julius  calls himself “one  of those people, the overinterpreters,” and this is an apt description for his way of being, for his M.O.

Alone, Julius goes to the movies and settles into his seat in the darkened cave. “The jaunty credit sequence featured music from the right time, but not from the right part of Africa: what had Mali to do with Kenya? But I had come prepared to like some things about the film, and I expected some other things would annoy me. Another film I had watched the previous year, about the crimes of large pharmaceutical companies in East Africa, had left me feeling frustrated, not because of its plot, which was plausible, but because of the film’s fidelity to the convention of the good white man in Africa. Africa was always waiting, a substrate for the white man’s will, a backdrop for his activities.”

It wouldn’t do to lay out a synopsis here, or even to give a clearer sense of the story. There is an important back story about a failed relationship, and there are many other meditations on loss. Give the book a chance, and you’ll be grateful to Cole for sharing his deeply layered world with you. One wishes to say a word about the writing itself, though, which is one of the book’s great pleasures.

Listen here, as Cole renders Manhattan:

“This strangest of islands, I though, as I looked out to the sea, this island that turned in on itself, and from which water had been banished. The shore was a carapace, permeable only at certain selected points. Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank? Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had scant sense about what flowed around them. The water was a kind of embarrassing secret, the unloved daughter, neglected, while the parks were doted on, fussed over, overused. I stood on the promenade and looked out across the water into the unresponsive night. All was quiet and lights called from the Jersey shore across.”

Or this.

“I have always had a problem with the shoeshine business, and even on those rare occasions when I wished to have my scuffed shoes cleaned, some egalitarian spirit kept me from doing so… But on this occasion, I stopped and looked into the brightly lit interior which, with all its mirrors and tufted seats upholstered in vinyl, reminded me of an empty barbershop. An elderly black man I hadn’t noticed stood up, waved, and said, Come in, come in, I’ll shine them very well for you. I shook my head quickly, and raised a hand to decline but, not wanting to disappoint him, gave in. I stepped inside and got up on the little stepping stool, and sat in one of the buffoonish red thrones, toward the back of the shop. The air was laced with lemon oil and turpentine. His hair was curly and white, as were his sideburns, and he wore a dirty aprom, striped blue and white. It wasn’t easy to guess his age; he was no longer young, but he was sprightly. A bootblack, not a shoeshiner: the older term seemed right for him. He said, You just relax, I’ll make this black as black as night for you. And, with that peculiar sense of metamorphosis one experiences on waking up from an afternoon nap to find that the sun has set, I heard for the first time the faint trace of a Caribbean French accent in his clear, quiet baritone. My name is Pierre, he said…”

There are many, many such vivid and textured flourishes throughout the novel, which from start to finish this reader found acutely observed, refreshingly thoughtful and richly rewarding.

My other picks so far:

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