In advance of the opening of the exhibition Otobong Nkanga: To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again join writer, art historian, and photographer Teju Cole in the Edlis Neeson Theater for a discussion on visibility and social dynamics.
Teju Cole Transcript
Omar Kholeif: Good evening, everybody. Welcome to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. My name is Omar Kholeif and I'm the Manilow Senior Curator and Director of Global Initiatives here at the museum. On behalf of – oh, that music is great. [Laughter] On behalf of our director Madeleine Grynsztejn and our Public Programs Curator, January Parkos Arnall. We are delighted to have you here for a special presentation by the writer Teju Cole.
To give you a bit of context, the event this evening is in the larger context of an exhibition that is about to open at the MCA next week called Otobong Nkanga: To Dig a Hole That Collapses Again. It's an exhibition by an artist who's born in Nigeria, lives in Antwerp and this is her first major survey show that I've been honored to have the pleasure of curating and working on over the last three years. It's an exhibition that really thinks about mapping, tracing and drawing and how those can be tools to suture wounds across geographies, to think about the histories of conflict and their relationship to the built environment, but it also goes into the sensorial.
We think about our skins, our sensuality and our relationship to the earth through this very particular exhibition. The exhibition opens on the 31st of March and there will be an in-gallery performance at 2:00 PM which I hope you will join me for which is free. And then Otobong Nkanga will be followed in conversation with myself at 3:00 PM in the commons upstairs. Teju Cole made a lot of sense for us this evening not only because he is a dear friend of Otobong's but also one of the great voices of today.
He also happens to be a contributor to the incredible catalog of drawings that we produce to coincide with the exhibition, drawings by the artist Otobong Nkanga. And in terms of the order of tonight's event, Teju is gonna read – present two different texts, including this text that he produced for the exhibition which we're presenting for the first time this evening and another new text which hasn't been presented publicly before and he will create some context for those, really helping create a sense of what Teju is thinking about right now.
To give you a little bit of a biography of Teju, Teju as you – although needs no introduction I feel I should - Teju Cole is a writer, art historian and a photographer or perhaps better said is a historian of visual culture in its broadest sense. He is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College and photography critic at the New York Times Magazine.
He was born in the U.S. in 1975 to Nigerian parents, and raised in Nigeria. His novella, Every Day is for the Thief, was named a book of the year by various media organs. His novel Open City also featured on numerous book of the year lists, won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York City Book Award for Fiction, the Rosenthal Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the New York Public Library Young Lions Award.
His essay collection, which recently came out, Known and Strange Things, was named a book of the year by the Guardian, the FT, Time Magazine and many others. And his most recent book Blind Spot which is an interdisciplinary book which also uses Teju's photography as a jumping off point, was shortlisted for the Aperture/Paris Photobook Award and named one of the best books of the year by Time Magazine. So Teju's contributed to numerous magazines and his column on photography in the New York Times magazine was a finalist for the 2016 National Magazine Award. His photography has been exhibited in India, Iceland, Italy and the U.S. and he has lectured internationally.
Of course events like these always happen with the support of great friends and great donors and this program is a Richard and Mary L. Gray lecture made possible for a generous gift to the Chicago Contemporary Campaign. We thank them for their kind support. So before I go and introduce you to Teju Cole, I just wanted to say that we would love for you to tweet as much as you'd like but perhaps maybe consider putting your phone on silent just so we can hear our great and wonderful speaker. Thank you to all of our colleagues and please welcome Teju Cole. [Applause]
Teju Cole: Thank you all very much for being here. Omar, thank you for the introduction and for inviting me [Clears Throat] to Chicago. And thanks to January as well who helped put this together and everybody at the MCA. It's really good to be back in Chicago. It's always windy here. It's always slightly colder than it needs to be. But it's also always very welcoming. And thanks to Otobong Nkanga. Dear Otobong, I'm here because of you. I love your work so much and I'm honored for the possibility of responding to and thinking with it.
As Omar said, I'm gonna read two texts and then I would like to have part of this event be a conversation with the audience as well. Two rather different texts but I think the places where they meet are generative and I hope you'll see that as well. Just gonna ask for the house lights to go up just a little bit more, I mean not bright but somebody back there can just increase the house lights a little bit, just so I see who I'm talking to. Otherwise it's just like the internet. Ah, there we go. All right, yeah, that works. Great, thank you.
Everything is intact. I wake up in the morning in New York City, where I live. There is running water and electricity. I make coffee and put on music. I switch on my computer and read my email. I take a shower, I select a scarf, I select a hat. Everything is intact. The first line of Maurice Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster reads, "The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact."
Everything is intact, but the disaster has ruined everything, the disaster I've always feared, everything is soaked through with the color of the disaster. Far from any notion that the real disaster is yet to come, we should recognize that the disaster is totally here, simply not evenly distributed (to adapt what William Gibson said about the future). Is it that things could become very bad, or is it that things are already very bad? Is the current situation terrible, or is it already unspeakable? The question that contains the answer is: For whom?
For families torn apart by American inhospitality, the disaster's already here. For the young man slaughtered on a train in Portland for standing up in defense of women being harassed, the disaster is apocalyptic. For the people who live in zones where the relaxed rules of military engagement are in force, life is the disaster, and nothing at all is intact.
When I was a child in Lagos, I was normal in most respects, except for my deep and private fear of disaster. I was a member of a middle class family, my parents loved each other. I was a good student, curious about my immediate world and, peripherally, the larger one as well, the one beyond Nigeria. My most notable personal peculiarity was a certain attitude to history. I saw history's disasters, and wondered when they would touch me directly. Part of this was a longing for extremes, for we sometimes wish to see everything upturned. But fear was the dominant note. The attitude was formed early, by the time I was ten. It was intense, and it has never left me. I perpetually felt that disaster was coming, that peace was anomalous.
Nigeria was a decade or two past a horrifying civil war in which millions had died. That war had devastated parts of Nigeria, though not the part in which I lived. It had happened elsewhere, and at the wrong time, a war that shaped the society in which I grew up but that touched me not at all. In the Nigeria of my youth, we had dictatorships, bad government and frequent coups, but most of us were essentially unscathed.
There was no forced conscription, for most of us, and no genocide. The element of kleptocracy was powerful within the dictatorship and the brunt of resistance was borne mostly by artists, journalists, and freethinkers. I knew of contemporary struggles far away from home: in Latin America, in South Africa, in Israel-Palestine, not to mention the astonishing horrors that unfolded later in Rwanda and the Balkans, horrors that were looped on cable TV.
I was always curious: what does it mean to live in a time of disaster? Who would I be in it? What would it do to my stubborn individuality, to my hatred of interpersonal violence in all its forms, whether sponsored by the state or by sub-state groups?
I learned from books that each country compounded its disasters with disastrous responses. Each slipped into nonsensical self-injuring wars, helplessly, madly. Humanity was insane. Peace was illusory and fragile. Why should the places in which I lived be exempt? And so I reasoned that something dramatic would eventually happen in Nigeria again, that our modest and highly attenuated serenity was going to shatter. I had a sense of doom about my home country, a sense that we'd been lucky so far, and that the luck couldn't hold forever.
I left Nigeria for the U.S. in my late teens, in 1992. As an American citizen, I expected things to steadily improve in the U.S. The country, already good, would get better. My sense of doom was still there, but less tense than it had been in more volatile Nigeria. America had a civilian governmental structure, but I soon understood that its root assumptions were not less militarist than Nigeria's. This was in the period in which I was shaping my sense of participation in American life, which I expressed to myself as not being a patriot, but being a citizen. As I grew older, I began to understand the more profound and pervasive violence of the Pax Americana, the ongoing violence of the policies that sustain the illusion of the American dream.
Then the disaster came. But it came not as my childhood self expected, with war on the street, with bodies hacked and buildings blown up. Of course, war was going on elsewhere. Massive bombs were dropped overseas with intent to kill, but non-American lives have never truly mattered, compared to national interests, and that was nothing new. The moment of disaster came, and it did not come with forced conscription or imprisonment or deportation or secret police. At least not for me.
The disaster that settled on the U.S. was not visibility totalitarian. It was the nastiness of war elsewhere. It was indiscriminate incarceration, of other people; the separation of families, not mine. The disaster was a dismantling of norms, the mainstreaming of vicious prejudice, the unmasking of aggression, the reiteration of racism, the re-litigation of homophobia, the escalation of misogyny – the old problems, but now megaphoned, with the Klan hoods taken off.
The peculiarity of this disaster was that it was a failure of democracy, but it was also a democratic achievement. Democracy, as it had been defined in the U.S., was awash in corporate money, vulnerable to falsehoods and prejudices, and saddled with an antique electoral college structure that together conspired to bring a horrifying candidate into office.
As a child I was curious about and deeply fearful of mayhem, my little heart was heavy with potential loss. That fear, when I grew up, gave me a way of understanding what I am now looking at. I had a sense of ground, and so I had something to think with when the ground split open. In the summer of 2016, while I was in Germany, I was asked what I thought would happen should the Republican candidate be elected American president. I tried to speak with caution, making two tentative assertions.
The first was that, if the polls were to be believed, he was going to be elected president. Of course, as it turned out, the polls were not to be believed. The second was that, in the unlikely event that he was elected president, it would spell the end of the established American liberal constitutional order. This is a plain fact now. The evidence is there as plainly as possible. And yet, it is insufficient proof for those who continue to wonder when the real disaster will arrive.
An earthquake is not a precision weapon. In response to the alarm of seismic change, we're pressured not only to rethink fundamentals, but to exile from ourselves whatever is not deemed fundamental and immediate. In our hysteria, everything is jeopardized. What is lost is whatever we were hoping to save from the disaster, what we were hoping would outlast the fire. One of the key spaces requiring our vigilance and defense is art, and specifically the consolations particular to art.
I find that I have been thinking about figures who retained their faith in art even during unspeakable times. I have thought a lot about Olivier Messiaen, who wrote his Quartet for the End of Time in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1941. Even more, my mind has been on the plight of the great Dutch curator-typographer Willem Sandberg. When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Sandberg, who was a curator at the Stedelijk Museum, joined the Dutch resistance.
He put his typographic skills to courageous use, helping to forge hundreds of identity papers for Dutch Jews, thereby saving their lives. To conceal this noble deception, he and other members of the resistance came up with a plot to burn down the Public Records Office in Amsterdam, so that the Gestapo would be unable to crosscheck the forged documents. They were betrayed, and one by one Sandberg's co-conspirators were captured and shot. Sandberg fled, and lived in the countryside under an assumed identity.
Between 1943 and 1945, to fend off despair at the very real possibility of arrest and death (his wife and son had been arrested), Sandberg began making a series of chapbooks he called experimenta typographica. The series was characterized by strong contrasts and bold primary colors, much of it published on brown paper. In the straitened circumstances of war, Sandberg used cardboard, as well as bits of wallpaper, and pages torn from magazines. The exquisitely designed pamphlets featured his own writing as well as excerpts from literary figures of the past.
The focused, self-directed labor of the experimenta typographica helped Sandberg survive the terror and threat of eater. Out of the apocalypse, in a time when all things careful and humane were being throttled, he brought forth an insistent beauty. Sandberg served as the postwar director of the Stedelijk from 1945 to 1963, and he continued to be a major influence on the museum's visual identity, designing pretty much all of its exhibition posters and catalogs. He died in 1984.
Figures like Sandberg and Messiaen, making remarkable work during societal eclipses, serve us as exemplars and encouragement. They faced an apocalypse, while we face a disaster that could become apocalyptic. We might dare hope that if they could make art that was responsive to the abject conditions at hand but not imaginatively limited to those conditions, so can we.
I imagine two kinds of preparation for the arrival of the disaster. One is the kind of preparation one makes beforehand, through study, through thoughtfulness, through a certain relationship to history, and through anticipation, including anticipatory language. For example, contemporary Germans have a culture of memory, necessitated by that country's history in the past century. This has helped Germany handle the current European vogue for ethno-nationalism a little bit better than many of its neighbors. Better, but not perfectly, since there are willful amnesiacs there as well.
The point of anticipatory preparation is to conserve energy and limit the number of required moves when the disaster arrives. Anticipatory preparation sounds tautological, but there's a second kind of preparation: the kind one undertakes while the event is ongoing. This is a dynamic preparation that is responsive to the evolution of the event. What does this second kind of preparation look like in practice? I'll define it negatively: it is important to not mistake the daily news, the daily noise, around the event for the event itself.
News media desires news generation. Noise becomes its own destination, clouding the real words. But to define it positively: I return to the earlier distinction I asserted between the patriot and the citizen. The patriot is besotted, inflexible, nostalgic, tied to origin myths, and closed off to radical doubt. The citizen is willing to fundamentally critique the bases of his or her inherited social arrangements. For citizens, as I defined them, everything can be doubted and reconsidered. In the middle of the disaster, patriotism does one kind of work; oppositional citizenship, propelled by productive doubt, does another.
The disaster is the core out of which reality unfolds. Everything else is epiphenomenal. The despot's personal style, the vulgarity, the dyslexia, the hair, the crude sentences, these are surface effects. To lose sight of the core and to treat the epiphenomenal as the reality is to risk becoming, oneself, disastrous. It will be a mistake to consider any single action undertaken by the current American present or government as the straw that breaks the camel's back, just as it would be a mistake to think we are merely en route to the disaster. It is here, and if we did not prepare for it before, we must prepare for it now, now that it is here.
"There are no strangers." Thus wrote Toni Morrison in The Origin of Others, and she goes on, "There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from. For the stranger is not foreign, she is random; not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known – though unacknowledged – selves that summons a ripple of alarm."
This is a reminder in a time of constant alarm. But the thought that comes to me, finally, is one pertaining to the longue duree. There are already those in the art world who are plumbing the depths of the ongoing moment. But I remember that Tolstoy's first publication of War and Peace in its entirety was in 1869, and yet the main material of the novel, the Napoleonic Wars, occurred more than 50 years prior, before Tolstoy was born.
What our own shadowed era will finally be, as far as art is concerned, is possibly a matter for the distant future. But in the meantime, here we are with this disaster on our hands, this disaster that at times doesn't even look like one, but with which everything is colored through. That is our material. And on what we do with it, everything depends.
So that's the first. [Applause] And the second is my response to the exhibition I very much hope you'll all come back and see. I was fortunate enough to see a preview of it today and it just leaves you trembling. It's so powerful, such staggering beauty. It's really, really, really beautiful so –
Eight turns. One. The summit of Mount Everest is marine limestone. That's earth's secret. The truth, the thought contains is irrevocable. Extreme height is the offspring of the abyss, the most elevated situation is intimately connected to the most profound. On earth, we are bound to a tectonic regime and there is simply is no such thing as solid ground. Solidity is always provisional. The earth holds together briefly and then an inevitable fissure happens.
The earth is destined, under pressure from its inner logics to perpetually split. The fissure leads to fracture. Splitting in one dimension leads to cracking in several. Geothermal forces are involved in the fracture of the terrain. Human intervention breaks the earth apart, through warfare, erosion, construction and of course, mining. Out of the provisional whole, perpetual fragments emerge. The earth fissures and fractures. But I think of one other word now: facture from the Latin factura, construction, workmanship.
Two. My family moved from the green and leafy Lagos neighborhood of Ikeja in the late 1980s. Our new home was in Ojodu, on the then northern edge of the city. That move meant we entered a different relationship with the city for Ojodu was not very well developed. In the first instance, everything was farther away now. There was a great deal more driving to do to get to school or church or to visit friends. But in the second instance, we also had to contend with a radically different terrain, a dearth of tarred roads meant bumpy journeys home and tremendous clouds of red dust filled the air and dirtied our clothes and bodies. We inhaled a lot of that dust.
We began to take in the city into ourselves as never before. But this was only dust. There was a deeper irony awaiting us. Our house was, at that time, in a nascent housing estate, distantly neighbored by only a few other houses. The estate is fully built up now some 30 years later and there's a busy bus terminal in front of it. But at that time, we had the feeling of being at the ends of the earth. Behind our house was an enormous forested gorge that marked the state border. In front of the estate, some ten minutes' walk from the house was a road works plant with three ominous radical stacks. We faced a road works but did not have good roads.
Not long after we moved to Ojodu, we noticed that the plant stacks spewed out smoke incessantly. The smoke was black and in fact, was more than smoke. It was some kind of gritty particle which settled and left extensive residue. The atmosphere around the plant was barely breathable. The dust could be ignored, but not this black smoke.
For the next few years, that smoke was part of our life. There's no question of moving. This was the family home, the one we had built. But there was no real avenue of complaint either. The road works plant was run by a famous multinational company, where would we begin? And thus did that black dust come to rule our lives. It sprayed a fine gray on the washing on the line, it got into the tea. It smelled like burning tar or turning tires. It stung the eyes. It made its way past the mosquito netting into the rooms and sprinkled on the tables and chairs and beds in the house.
It was at this time an inconvenience or irritation, an extra thing to clean away. Only now in retrospect do I understand how injurious it was and how intolerable it should have been. And these are images from Otobong Nkanga's exhibition here. Three. The ancient elemental sense of material experience was four-fold: air, water, fire, earth. In our personal pre-history as children, we divided the world a bit differently, into animal, mineral and vegetable. Whatever was independently mobile in its aliveness was animal. Whatever otherwise grew but did so without an obvious mind was vegetable. And whatever was thought of as inert, as part of the earth was mineral.
The most stable of the classical elements was earth. The most stable unit in the children's category game was mineral, but with age came the understanding that stability's an illusion and that categories are porous. John McPhee wrote, "The summit of Mount Everest is marine limestone." Only prejudice could make us think the earth beneath our feet was not alive. Four. The city was hot and crowded, fed by the sea and by lagoons, a flat terrain. Then I grew up and left and began to see the world.
Slowly, without planning to, I came to understand mountains. The mountains became a second home to me, a diametrical opposite. I love the sharpness of the air, the seductive fog or crystalline clarity of the vistas. I'd been in the Adirondacks and the Cairngorms, modest peaks, but this affair properly began in Switzerland and extended to New Zealand. I got to know the Alps. I crossed once in a jittery plane the Himalayas from India into Nepal. Tell a story about the world but you may only use mountains, hills, boulders, rocks, stones, gravel, pebbles, sand and dust.
On Mount Hessa, the mountains loom up, spread, they are not resting. They breathe deeply and hold themselves pressed tightly to one another deeply breathing, laden with mute forces. In my studio in Brooklyn are five stones. None of the stones is bigger than a cowry shell. If I line them up, they constitute a brief recent memoir, though I did not collect them for that purpose. In each case, it was more like an inadvertence at work, as though my inner mineral spirit was calling to an outer mineral presence. The first stone, white and flat, I picked up on a rain-whipped solitary hike on the Gemmi Pass, high above Leukerbad in the canton of Valais in Switzerland.
The second, a black rock I found in the lee of Langjokull in Iceland. The third was river-washed, smooth as water itself borrowed from the Vorderrhein near Piz Titschal in the canton of Graubunden in Eastern Switzerland. The fourth was from a cove in Treasure Beach in St. Elizabeth Parish in Jamaica. The fifth was from the Southern Alps above Lake Wanaka on the south island of New Zealand. The sixth, as the tide came in and the sky dimmed, near Brooklyn, Maine in the United States. They're there now, like a string of pearls or gems or rocks or stones across the map of the world. Every now and again I'll take one and turn it around and around and imagine in the opaque form the hidden memory of a crystal.
Five. The language of the diamond trade, the language of bling is four-fold: color, cut, clarity, carat. Otobong, whom we also called Oto, is to my ear eight dimensional by musical adjacency to Latin octo and Greek octo. Otobong, the octagon, the one who tirelessly examines the multifaceted earth. Oto, who sees through the solid earth, for whom I write these eight facets. The fissuring and fracturing of the earth are deconstructive processes, but beyond them lies facture construction. We mine and build, digging into the earth, diving into solid rock in search of treasure into earth that is veined as we are is ancient practice. Metal ore is mined, gems are cut and polished, oil is siphoned out of the depths and all around this collection, this removal, waste accumulates.
What is desired implies too the existence of the undesirable. To paraphrase Heraclitus, "Miners mine earth mostly." In the Industrial Age, in the time of mechanized labor, mechanized and yet never without the compulsion of human labor or the devastation of human bodies. In this time of mechanized labor, extraction of treasure from the earth happens at a faster and faster rate. The velocity is out of skew with the earth itself. Things go out of balance. Fissures, fractures, facture. But what of the future? The future is ore embedded within the present.
Six. My strongest memory of those days in Ojodu is of sitting at my desk in my room facing the window with a book open on the table in front of me, say a chemistry textbook. On my lap would be a second book, an art book which absorbed my attention and which I could quickly put away if my parents walked in to check on the progress of my science studies. Like most Nigerian parents they held the sciences in far greater esteem than the arts. I think they're over it now.
But what I remember most of those afternoons of double study was that in the half-hour or so it took to complete a reading of the four open pages, the two on my desk and the two on my lap, all four would have become noticeably darkened by the grainy black efflux of the smokestacks. Only later did I understand that the same fine layer was probably coating my trachea and my lungs. Only a decade later did my father's cough get perilously worse and endanger of his life so that my family thought that I, far away in America by that time, might not see him alive again. He lived. His lungs responded to treatment. The plant closed. But we carry inside us these black roads.
Seven. A visit to some salt mines spurred Stendhal onto a theory of love. "In the salt mines, nearing the end of the winter season, the miners will throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later through the effects of the waters saturated with salt which soak the bough and then let it dry as they recede, the miners find it covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The tiniest twigs, no bigger than a tom-tit's claw, are encrusted an infinity of little crystals scintillating and dazzling.
The original little bough is no longer recognizable; it has become a child's plaything, very pretty to see. When the sun is shining and the air is perfectly dry the miners of Hallein seize the opportunity of offering these diamond-stud boughs to travelers preparing to go down to the mine. What I call crystallization is the operation of the mind that draws from all that presents itself the discovery that the loved object has some new perfections."
Gritty, glittering, glistering, glistening, glimmering, gleaming, glowing, whatever is splintery, crumbly, lapidary, dusty, sandy, shiny, powdery, crystalline. There are at least eight ways to consider the mineral earth. Eight. The human body locates itself somewhere between the hardness of a gem and the illusiveness of powder. To be human is to be both rigid and fluent. In my Yoruba language when someone dies we sometimes say [foreign language spoken], that such and such a person has wrapped herself or himself in earth. To die is to become earth, to become dust, to go from animal back to mineral. Earth, it is the planet.
And with a shift in meaning, it is also the ground on which we stand. But the substance of that ground, the soil, is itself also called earth. And one further inflection, to be buried in a grave is to be buried in earth. All the earth we carry with us, the dust in our lungs, the crystals on our bodies, the stones in our pockets, the minerals in our blood, our fissures and fractures, our gold, our gems all come to rest finally in earth. The summit is marine. We are all on our way to becoming ore. Planet, ground, soil and grave, all these meanings of earth are accommodated by the ancient anonymous English lyric, "Earth took of earth earth with woe. Earth of the earth to the earth drew. Earth laid earth in earthen trough. Then had earth of earth enough." [Applause]
Thank you. Thank you very much. Maybe we can get the lights to go on just a little bit more. And I think some microphones will go around. For that one gentleman in the audience who has a comment rather than a question really. Comments are actually welcome. I just want to hear you.
Audience: Hi. So I was interested when you were talking about disaster in the first reading and I found myself thinking about Lauren Berlant at the University of Chicago and her work on cruel optimism. I'm not sure if you're familiar but she makes this argument that we're at a historical moment where crisis has sort of become normal and that thinking about things like trauma isn't as effective anymore. So I was curious to hear about whether you thought disaster still has purchase in our current situation.
Teju Cole: Yeah. I don't know that theorist's work. I'm not sure I heard the name, but okay. I mean I think one of the complications we're facing is that everybody knows that things are very bad and yet everybody knows it in different ways. It's not evenly distributed, you know? And some of us are weeping all time and meanwhile some other people are doing TV specials and some people think it's terrible but also terribly funny and some of us have lost our sense of humor. But this not being evenly distributed is not really something new, right? I mean it has brought in a whole new class of mourners to this particular set of events, but that's always sort of been the case in this country that for some people there are things that are just sort of theoretically bad.
I remember having an event with – being on stage in conversation with an unnamed white author. And he said about, you know, "But we're gonna be fine, everybody in this audience." And I said, "How do you know that? How do you know? We who?" So I think these words still do have power, they still have purchase because my interlocutor on that occasion could not – his imagination did not extend into thinking that there were immigrants in the audience or undocumented people or Muslims. He's just thinking, "Well, that's not my audience. It's bad for them."
You know, like why? No. And then all kinds of invisible minority who are being hugely completely derailed by this so I think the words have power depending on who's able to receive them. But there's not gonna be any words that reach everyone. Thank you.
Audience: We all stunned in silence after that reading?
Teju Cole: It's a little bit difficult for people in the middle rows, no?
Audience: Hi. You said something right at the beginning about how your work in response is sort of like a text alongside, you're making alongside making. And I wondered if you wouldn’t mind just speaking a little bit to your process of that sort of generative creativity where it's not a review but more making, more generative work.
Teju Cole: Hmm. Yeah, I mean I think it's that when we're doing responsive work to try to approach it with the same kind of openness of spirit, maybe the same kind of sense of risk. A lot of my work is criticism, but I try to approach criticism like an artist. I’m very interested in how an artist arrives because of most of photography criticism for example I think of it from the point of view of the practitioner and that leads to a different tenor of criticism. And meanwhile, when I'm making my own work, whether written or visual, I bring a lot of the energies of theory and critical engagement to that.
So I like to have those things in a fine balance where everything is being approached with both head and heart, you know? But the risk taking I think is just sort of major, you know? I was in grad school for a while, but all that defensive footnoting, that's in the past. Now you just have to let your shit flow, you know? And when you take those risks you find that in a way that you can reach people, you can connect. Nobody's gonna be like, "Oh, you did not – you didn't cite such and such important study so you don't know anything."
No, I mean you – if you're approaching anything intelligently I think people can sense that. And the farther I go into the game, the complex I want the thoughts to be and the simpler the language kind of gets, you know? It's almost – I mean especially when you're dealing with heavy things it's almost like your relearning language and then there's a lot of repetition and rhythm as part of what is trying to be said through you.
Audience: I just wanted to ask one question about ____ is very much inflected, you invoke memory and I wanted to ask specifically about the role that memory plays in your work but also memorization. Obviously you talk about this particular upbringing which as someone who also grew up with someone who wanted me reading say the chemistry book, you know, we were taught to memorize our times tables, to memorize this, to memorize that. And so I'm curious about memory and memorization in relation to your work more broadly.
Teju Cole: Yeah. I mean I know I look like 28 but I'm older than that. I'm getting old and just in the past couple of years I feel my analytical abilities improving. You know, I'm getting deeper into my work and all of that. My memory's getting worse. I can't remember people's names. I'm forgetting things and so that's all I have to say about memory. [Laughter] I can't – my memory is really bad.
But there's also like new ways of learning and it's really exciting to sort of go into all the different ways that the body knows things. And so that becomes another layer of memory. And to understand that in fact the way we truly want to live is not in the encyclopedic but it's in the poetic, it's in the lyric so that then we have very specific memories. Like just a while ago when you were with me and I smelled that tobacco and I said, "Wow, this is Lagos airport in 1984 while my father's off on a business trip." And so things like smell become like a whole system of knowledge, right? But then also texture and all kinds of visceral forms of knowing and of course everything with the five senses but then also all the other senses.
So while you're losing the kind of Descartian rigid modes of knowledge, your body starts to expand to other ways of knowing. And dancing becomes a form of memory and how somebody walks. And I mean do you find that as you get older you become more interested in touching people? And that's also different kind of – I mean with permission of course. [Laughter] Every time I'm on the Subway, I don't know, I see some lady with fluff in her hair and my instinct is just to like reach and remove the fluff and I'm like, "You're a black dude, you can't do that. You can't just be removing fluff from strangers' hair." But certainly I wish to. We could all do with a lot more of that. Okay, so any other -
Audience: Thank you for presenting those two pieces. I had a question about linking two things from both pieces. So in your first piece you talked about the practice of fear and your early childhood kind of experience of the systemic total fear. And in your second piece you mentioned twice the peak of Mount Everest is made of marine limestone.
Teju Cole: Yeah.
Audience: And through that piece there was a very interesting theme of kind of engaging with solidity and fracture and change as two parts of the same process.
Teju Cole: Absolutely.
Audience: So my question was: could you speak a little bit more about fear as – the fear that we're kind of all feeling and the fear that's distributed unevenly, but fear as a mode of dealing with solidity or solid liquidity or, yeah, fear as a way of thinking through that Mount Everest being made of marine limestone?
Teju Cole: Thank you for that question. I would not say that fear is the mode of dealing with it and I think that piece was just more about recognizing it. It's something that's always been there for me. It's a coping mechanism, but having had it for so long turned out to be a kind of preparation but now that has to be something more vigilant and more tied to sort of the reality of things.
But as you were asking your question, what I was thinking of was one of my favorite poems by Seamus Heaney, a poet I love very much. He has a poem about perch, the fish. And basically the point of that poem is about in the flow of the river the perch has this sort of muscular presence that is a kind of dynamic stillness. But fish have to do this, right? They're not being washed away. And for me there's a kind of ethic in that, that we have to have a kind of responsive steadiness in the flow of the world. We know it will change and we know we will change with it, but we also know that there's a lot that will not change if you brace yourself as – and being fit for it, you know?
And of course the strongest lesson and the biggest encouragement possible for that is to witness people who have had to deal with devastating change. When you see their courage and when you see their survival, then you take into yourself a kind of possibility, right, I mean that, you know – but it just ends up sort of being like an obsession that always loops back into my work. I mean it's the oldest obsession. Everything changes. Everything changes. And to speak sternly to yourself, the moment you start thinking that things are stable, you need to have a really good conversation with yourself that, no, flux is the only place where you're gonna find your health, it's the only where you're gonna be alive.
Audience: So I think you said something about the future – I'm sorry. [Laughter] The future is ore embedded in the present.
Teju Cole: Yes.
Audience: And [Crosstalk]
Teju Cole: Let's not misquote me though, let me find it. [Laughter] 'Cause as everyone knows, my memory is ugh. Yup, that's it. [Laughter]
Audience: So I thought that was – actually that really struck me because - and especially thinking of catastrophes and disasters and that we're living in a disaster right now. And sometimes I feel like we don't have the warning signals, you know. When does it turn from disaster to catastrophe and transformation?
Teju Cole: Right.
Audience: And also, thinking about the future and thinking about, again, [Inaudible Comment] with the kids in D.C. and all over the country and how they almost have the pulse of what's going on more than the bubble that I have in my life, you know, nothing has changed. Everything is intact in my life, nothing's changed, right? But these kids and kids in Chicago and kids all over, their lives have changed and I just think of them [Inaudible Comment] a red flag or something.
Teju Cole: Yeah. They are the heralds of what we could possibly be, you know? While we're so focused on what it is, they show us what it could be. So a dear, dear writer I just look for – look up to and I think about every day, John Berger. He died last year. I had the tremendous privilege of having a conversation with him once on stage and we were talking about the difference between optimism and hope. And he's just sort of like define it, you know, optimism isn't this feeling that, oh, everything's gonna be all right. I don't think anyone can tell you everything's gonna be all right, you know? I mean they can, but they'll probably be wrong.
But hope is an ethos, you know? And that is the arm extended into the dark on behalf of others. Hope is to say that something can be affected and something can be changed and there is much that can be survived and also that we're responsible for having hope. Because the people who have it the worst have the most hope so how dare we not have hope. It is a form of solidarity with them. Virginia Woolf said that the future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be. Because the future is dark does not mean the future is terrible. The feature is dark means we don't know and it's gonna have surprises and some of them are gonna be good, you know?
And some things are going so well for me that sometimes I want to not have hope. But having hope as a form of solidarity with others, you know, these kids have hope. Kids who are suffering from PTSD and meanwhile they're the ones who are giving us sustenance to get through the day and so how dare we not have hope on their behalf? And I say this to myself because I know that sometimes I just want to quit. I think maybe we'll take one more, does that sound reasonable?
Audience: Following this Teju has offered to sign his books and also the catalog for Otobong's beautiful exhibition. So if you'll join us in the lobby afterward. Does anyone have one more question?
Audience: I was wondering if you could speak just a bit more about beauty which was a term that you mentioned. I wonder what the stakes are of beauty relative to art or to writing in this moment of disaster that you were talking about.
Teju Cole: Yeah. I mean I think there's definitely moments where it's clearly inappropriate to pretty things up, right, and to give a false story about them. And nonetheless, I think we all recognize how consoling good work can be, how much beauty can help in the moments when things are hardest. I'm not really sure why, but I suppose it has something to do with when the terrible things that happen to us on a political level or on a personal level really strike us as unworthy of the precious and amazing things that we are as human beings.
In a sense, not only are those things painful but they're ridiculous. They don't have parity with who we are. We deserve better than the immense vulgarity and cruelty of this government. And I think knowing that then propels us to seek out things that counter that, whatever is fine, intricate, gentle, attentive, beautiful, soulful, lyrical, loving is an opposite to everything that is actually causing us pain. And I think that's the role it plays. And if it is a beauty that is somehow integrated with the truth of things, I think it can really be a great help in the middle of the night. Thank you all very much. Thank you.
- Otobong Nkanga: To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again–
- Short A black tapestry speckled with silver arrowheads depicts two pairs of orange legs, one wearing a skirt, with flat, geometric shapes in place of torsos and heads. The pair is connected at the hip and each stands on a crystalline mound.