Known and Strange Things: Teju Cole’s Essays

Claudia Rankine (The New York Times) reviews a collection of the writer and photographer’s essays
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Teju Cole

Teju Cole’s captivating and lauded novels, “Open City” and “Every Day Is for the Thief,” reflect his identity as a writer with a global perspective — born in the United States and raised in Nigeria. His international access as an author, art historian and photographer — one who also teaches and is a photography critic for The New York Times Magazine — shapes not only his obsessions but, in a chicken-and-egg sense, determines his gaze. He takes in news from African countries and American cities; but also, by necessity and interest, Asian, European and Latin American culture and history. In short, the world belongs to Cole and is thornily and gloriously allied with his curiosity and his personhood. “Known and Strange Things,” his first collection of nonfiction, journeys through all the landscapes he has access to: international, personal, cultural, technological and emotional. When he feels homesick, he informs us in this book, he “visits” his parents in Nigeria through Google maps — a sweet if distant form of connection.

“Cole attempts to untangle the knot of who or what belongs to us and to whom or what do we belong as artists, thinkers and, finally, human beings.”

In “The Anxiety of Influence,” the renowned critic Harold Bloom argued that poets, especially those in the Western tradition since the Renaissance, necessarily negotiate the work of their predecessors as they write. “The precursors flood us,” Bloom wrote, “and our imaginations can die by drowning in them, but no imaginative life is possible if such inundation is wholly evaded.” Cole shares Bloom’s interest in the fraught and burdened relationship writers and artists have to our ancestors, and he seeks to answer yet another question: How does the imagination cross and recross racial and filial boundaries, and what does this crossing mean? With our ever-enlarging global access to the visions and voices and influences of others, Cole attempts to untangle the knot of who or what belongs to us and to whom or what do we belong as artists, thinkers and, finally, human beings. [Read More]

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