Teju Cole Examines The African Supercity

Posted: 23 October 2013
Category: Features
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Lagos, the African supercity, is a hostile environment. It is big, overcrowded, and cruel but it is also a place of creative struggle, a place that produces writers such as Teju Cole, the award-winning author of Open City, who presented a talk entitled Cityscapes Live: Lagos at this year's Open Book Festival in Cape Town.

"Even in the three days I have been here I can tell you that in Cape Town there are those who serve and those who are served."

That is vintage Teju Cole. The Nigerian-American art historian, photographer, writer, and author throws around rapper-like witticisms about his observations of life in Cape Town during his brief stay. He is dressed in a slim-fit grey sweater, black trousers, and high-top sneakers. He looks slick but not pampered, academic but not alienating. A collared shirt is the only formality he observes as he gives his insights on race relations in Cape Town during the Open Book Festival. Every so often, between his piercing insights, he drops a swear word or two that reminds me I am listening to a young writer, not a reclusive college professor with a tenure to protect.

Teju Cole is, unashamedly, dripping with swagger.

Like any polite visitor Cole says he is thrilled to be in Cape Town but he is not shy to point out that the glitz of the CBD is a veneer any observant explorers can see through if they choose to look properly. He is talking to an audience of people in their twenties, thirties, and forties who, like me, might have read Everyday Is For The Thief or Open City and are familiar with his portrayals of the harshness of life in the city. If not his books, then I am sure most have read some of the pieces he has contributed to The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Chimurenga, or Granta; at the very least I am certain some of us follow him on Twitter where he is well known for delivering biting and witty 140-character discussions about politics, race, music, and literature. It is safe to say we are all comfortable with Cole and his viewpoints. He is not unnecessarily controversial; he is just blunt about his perceptions of Cape Town.

As he talks about the racial tension in Cape Town and how tangible it is the majority of the audience nods in agreement with his observations. There is some muttering from the crowd. In the back, a person applauds.

Teju Cole Examines The African Supercity: Teju Cole and Kgomotso Matsunyane

Cole's fame brings a full-house crowd to The Fugard Studio in Cape Town for his talk entitled Cityscapes Live: Lagos. Hosted by Kgomotso Matsunyane, the Talk Radio 702 presenter, Cole's hour-long slot focuses on his relationship with Lagos and his take on the African supercity.

Of all the writers the organisers of the Open Book Festival could have invited to talk about life in an African supercity, Teju Cole is one of the best placed to discuss it. His novel Open City, about a Nigerian-American immigrant exploring the multicultural and multiracial New York, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and won both the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Internationaler Literaturpreis. Those awards are not trifles. They are the kind of literary acknowledgements that make publishing houses take note. TIME calls him a brave and honest voice for African literature. On a continent thriving with stories but starved of storytellers Teju Cole, along with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author of Half Of A Yellow Sun and Americanah, is touted as a new Chinua Achebe.

Teju Cole, therefore, is kind of a big deal in writing at the moment.

In his novel Open City Cole writes with the wisdom of an old man but with the fresh outlook of a poetic, young black writer. It is part novel, diary, and autobiography, and part philosophical reflection. It is a mental workout, and following the narrative is hard at times. The narrator of the story, Julius, a psychiatrist training in Manhattan, is a strolling observer in New York. Fresh from a breakup with his girlfriend, Julius walks through New York sometimes with purpose, and sometimes without. It is hard to tell which. Through his walks Julius tells of his observations of New York life and his interactions and relations with the city. He is at odds with the city despite his familiarity with it. He seems to be a New Yorker by association but an alien by birth. The novel is a constant exploration of belonging and the role a city plays in power and culture relations.

It is the intersection of belonging and alienation in the big city that drives Cole's novel. Open City is not easy to read and it is challenging to explain it without resorting to polysyllabic terms that can only be found in obscure postmodernist journals. Nonetheless, it is particularly enjoyable to read for someone, such as myself, who has had to adapt a fluid identity, being from here but not there, claiming citizenship in one place but administratively living somewhere else. Teju Cole writes about New York like an academic but he tells it with the language of a man who knows the streets.

Teju Cole Examines The African Supercity: Open City

In part, it is his academic aura mixed with his ruffian personality that seems to have catapulted Cole to the forefront of black literary consciousness. Cole writes about, and is seen to represent, a generation in constant transition – his use of the city as the setting of his novels and writings has made him a byword for a new type of African writer: he who is of us... but not really. Born in the US to Nigerian parents, raised in Nigeria until he was 17, and a graduate of art history from Columbia University, Cole can write in the long, descriptive voices used in African orality and the quick, staccato flowing poetry of a corner block MC.

It is this mixture of traits that makes Cole a watchword in black literature. He is enigmatic.

It is not just his writing that adds to his fame. He is no slouch when it comes to street photography and on Twitter he delivers satire and hip-hop wit. He criticises governments and he shares his thoughts about a particular song he has enjoyed. Literature, art, music, politics, and current affairs - Cole discusses it all. His diversity makes him problematic to label. Even on stage, looking at him, it is difficult for me to put him into a box. He has a Nigerian accent that is easy to place but his diction can be a challenge to wade through – he says he writes from many angles but that he tries to "avoid coming across as one unitary voice".

Matsunyane and Cole know how to work the crowd. After the perfunctory introductions and a few minutes of polite banter about how Cole's stay in the Mother City has been so far ("Waking up in my hotel room and seeing the mountain is pretty damn awesome.") they direct the conversation towards the talk's theme. Matsunyane asks Cole a general question about his feelings towards Lagos.

Cole does not hold back the punches.

"I hate Lagos," he says. Then he keeps quiet and looks disinterested in the conversation. The crowd laughs. Matsunyane, however, presses him for more information.

"I hate Lagos because of how hard it is. I hate how that city breaks people down," he says. Cole then speaks of the harshness of life in Lagos. From his words, Lagos is vast, overpopulated, under resourced, corrupt, and dirty; it is a cacophonic commercial hub in West Africa where sex is transactional and the only thing dirtier than the crowded streets are the politicians and the bribes passed around to get the smallest things done. "Lagos is a hard city, with hard people," he says.

"It's just like Johannesburg," I hear someone behind me say. Two anonymous voices agree with the speaker. Having never been to Johannesburg I am unable to draw similarities between the two.

It is interesting to hear Cole talk about it. He is honest about how tough it is to survive in Lagos but at the same time he points out certain aspects he loves. For example, he says that "Lagos is probably one of the few cities black people will visit that will be a shock to their system. You cannot imagine what it feels like to land in a city of 21 million black people who don't give a damn about who you are or that you are black."

Teju Cole Examines The African Supercity: Kgomotso Matsunyane

The talk moves on to a theme Cole regularly visits in his writings: race and geographic spaces. According to Cole, life in the sprawling, noisy city can be hard but, in some ways, it is tempered by the familiarity of black faces and black culture. The African supercity, he says, is a place where differences can become pronounced and diluted depending on the politics of the day; the multicultural texture of the Lagos citizenry can, at times, be divided into distinct cultural and social hierarchies, while at other times it is a confusing kaleidoscope of racial and power relations. Despite all of Lagos' deficiencies, the city remains one of the few places on Earth where black is the norm.

Cole's sentiments about a "black city" strike a chord with the crowd again. Matsunyane, who has visited Lagos before, agrees with Cole's encapsulation. I see some more nodding heads as he talks about Lagos' racial identity. I, too, find myself agreeing with his assessment, not because I have been to Lagos but because I have lived in what I would call a "white city": Cape Town.

It is hard to explain the feeling of disconnection a black person feels in Cape Town. Regardless of the racial and cultural diversity with which one surrounds oneself things in Cape Town always seem to slide - sometimes imperceptibly - towards the white side of the social spectrum. An outing to Mzoli's, Cape Town's famous township cookout, is replaced by afternoons at the cleaner, posher Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts; the clubs one frequents are determined by whether the bouncers will apply some arbitrary dress code requirement that applies to you but no one else and, before you know it, you are the only black person in an upmarket Claremont restaurant who is not serving the white clientele. It is hard for me to pinpoint what it is about Cape Town that is so obviously white - it is a sprinkling of the cultural heritage; the racial makeup of the various suburbs; the local politics; and the demographics of the population. When all of these aspects are added together they seem to yield one result: white. As Cole's talk progresses, he highlights the same factors as being those that determine a city's identity or aura. In Lagos it seems as though their sum total is quite different: black - black people doing black things, in black spaces, in black ways.

Cole's African supercity, therefore, is quite different from Cape Town - Lagos has big social, economic, and political problems but smaller solutions. In contrast, Cape Town is smaller and probably better equipped to deal with social friction. Hearing him talk about it fills the curious traveller with an itch to see it first hand but his carefully controlled disillusion with it clips any misguided enthusiasm to book a flight to Africa's most populous city.

Despite the harshness of city life Cole is adamant that cities are integral to human survival. "By their design, cities force people to live together - they force people to confront diversity. They force us to think about how we allocate resources and how we utilise our limited space - they are one of humanity's best inventions," he says.

Teju Cole Examines The African Supercity: Teju Cole

The statement is followed by a rustling from the crowd as people reach for their smartphones to tweet his words. It has been happening a lot during his talk. Cole is whipsmart; he is a one-man social-media roadshow and his witty responses to Matsunyane's questions generates positive press for the Open Book Festival feeds. Whether it is by accident or by design, everything he says is quotable and winds up in a tweet, hashtagged, and retweeted a hundred times over. I, too, fall prey to the need to tweet everything he says live. My Twitter feed mentions @TejuCole so much I probably look like a groupie to the outside world.

That is Teju Cole for you. On stage he is equally polished and abrasive; he is enigmatic when talking about the grand narratives of the city but accessible when he relates his observations to everyday life. He flirts with Matsunyane and taunts the crowd every once in a while with some quip about Cape Town and its strange nuances. As the talk meanders through his musical influences it is hard to decide whether I am at a slam poetry evening or an academic discussion. Cole's talk hovers between the two and, as far as talks go, it is one of the best; it validates attending the Open Book Festival this year.

When Matsunyane asks the audience for questions my hand whips into the air.

Yes, I know, total groupie.

As I am a Rwandan, living outside Rwanda, I am curious to know whether Cole's life in New York, where he spends the greater part of the year, alienates him from the harshness of Lagos life he often writes about.

Cole's reply is simple: "In Lagos people only manage to run an errand a day - nobody ever 'runs errands'. It is impossible. It is one of those things that makes it hard to live in Lagos - you cannot get the simplest things done and that is a frustration I do not have to put up with when I am in New York but I am not completely sheltered from Lagos hardship. I lived there for a long time and I am there two months of the year. My time there is always a reminder about how hard things can get in Lagos," he replies.

I then ask him about the impact having an administratively hard life as a Nigerian has had on his creativity.

"I think living in hard places and being from tough environments is bad," he says, "but hardship is essential for creativity. Struggle of some kind is necessary for the creative process. It is impossible, for example, to imagine an artist like Fela Kuti coming from… Lichtenstein." The crowd is amused by his answer. Earlier on Matsunyane had asked about Cole's musical influences and he had highlighted Nigeria's Fela Kuti and South Africa's Hugh Masekela as his favourites. His respect for struggle is not flippant or just a witty response to my question. When he talks of Kuti and Masekela he seems intrigued by the themes they portray in their music. Even in his talk Cole seems to struggle with a lot of issues. For example, he seems as likely to give a calm and polite response to a question about Cape Town's economic and racial divides as he is to condemn it - it is hard to anticipate whether he will be the diplomat or the militant; Cole flirts with the two stances. In his Twitter threads it is impossible to scroll through his musings and not find a small reflection on some aspect of struggle. Whether it is some incident in Lagos, or the Westgate hostage saga in Nairobi, creative struggle seems to repulse and fascinate him at the same time. He hates the struggle of the African supercity but he does not deny that it has helped to shape him.

Cole fields some more questions before his talk comes to an end. He is gracious and signs some books and takes some pictures with audience members. I, too, take the opportunity to capture a picture with the man. There are too many people to engage him in any meaningful conversation and I am disappointed that, due to previous commitments, his Cityscapes talk will be the only one I am able to attend at the Open Book Festival this year. Nevertheless, I am quite happy to have met one of my favourite writers.

Tags: #books, #cape_town, #open_book

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