Teju Cole is best known as the author of the novels Every Day Is For The Thief (Cassava Republic, 2007) and Open City (Random House, 2011); the latter won numerous accolades including the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award (2012) and the New York City Book Award for Fiction (2011).
Known And Strange Things (2016), his first nonfiction volume, is a collection of more than 40 essays that range across a plethora of subjects, from travel literature and Polish films to personal pilgrimages, white supremacy, and African culture. It has been named a 2016 book of the year by The Guardian newspaper, the Financial Times, and Time magazine, among others.
An author, art historian, renowned photographer and critic, Cole, an American of Nigerian extraction, infuses his multicultural, multilingual, multidisciplinary background into his work with a voice that is both original and culturally diverse.
In Known And Strange Things, he chronicles encounters with authors – both in the flesh and in prose – with taxi drivers and sheltered villagers, with provocative films and inspirational poetry. His musings are lyrical, moving and mesmerising, filled with deeply personal and enriching insights. He writes with honesty, persuasive conviction and an astonishing erudition, such that the reader is drawn into his far-ranging passions and innermost thoughts.
His international travels and literary explorations are at the heart of this eclectic volume that is divided into three sections.
“Reading Things” takes us on an exploration of diverse literary figures, including Joseph Conrad, James Baldwin, Derek Walcott, Aleksandar Hemon, W.G. “Max” Sebald, and V.S. Naipaul.
“Seeing Things” focuses a lens on all things multimedia – video, photography and visual art – chronicling Cole’s responses to cinematic, theatrical and audio experiences through a study of various filmmaking greats and the art of photography. Some of Cole’s own photography can be seen in full colour in the book.
The third section, “Being There”, is a collection of his observations about life in Africa, Latin America and Europe, as well as in his US home.
In the epilogue, Cole tells us of his eye disorder, papillophlebitis, a condition also known as big blind spot disorder. Though the problem is correctable with laser surgery, it can recur. This “insurgent area of darkness” Cole implies, is something that he seeks to overcome both physiologically and psychologically, and Known And Strange Things is his attempt at “an examination of the limits of sensitivity and knowledge”.
It is impossible to read Known And Strange Things without gaining a deep appreciation of Cole’s unique voice as he skilfully juxtaposes culture, literature, art, race and history. Questions of social justice, racial identity, the impact of historical events, and the cultural interpretation of artistic expression – these and many more topics will provoke much thought and consideration in the reader seeking a fresh point of view and a way past many of the blind spots in our own experiences and perspectives.
Known And Strange Things
Author: Teju Cole
Publisher: Random House, nonfiction essays