Known and Strange Things

In early 2017, when PEN America named the finalists for their array of awards, Teju Cole’s recent essay collection, Known and Strange Things, became the first work in the organization’s history to be named a finalist in two categories: the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Cole’s collection has probably garnered such distinction because it is, at once, a travel book, a treatise on photography and the visual arts, a collection of literary intellectual commentary, and a memoir. Given this formal variety, Cole claims that no argument frames Known and Strange Things. However, reading the collection’s four sections as separate attempts to find the most useful angle for interpreting human experience, Cole’s oblique point of view emerges.

Strewn throughout the work are a set of pieces that sit simultaneously within and apart from the rest of the book. Drawn together these essays amount to what Kevin Young calls in The Grey Album, a “removed shadow book.” It’s through that Known and Strange Things finds focus: written during a political era framed by “forever wars,” terrorism, our collective traumatization, and now renewed authoritarianism, Cole’s essays offer ways of our through the arts’ beautiful provocations.

In “Reading Things,” the opening section, Cole offers skillfully compressed interpretations of great metaphorizers, like Sonali Seraniyagala, James Baldwin, Tomas Tranströmer, V. S. Naipaul, W. G. Sebald, and Derek Walcott, writers whose facility with description in poetry or prose can rescue the dead from “uncaring, careless fate” and communicate truths to the living.

Those truths are not easy to come by, and Cole articulates an appropriately determined attitude toward seeking them out: “All I want is to be dragged down into a space of narrative that I haven’t been in before, into a place where . . . a truth is created.” With tweaking, this could also describe the impetus for his writing. As Cole suggests in his preface to Known and Strange Things, the essays he’s gathered “favor epiphany” over “argumentative opinion.” These encounters might be transporting, but they are likely to be destabilizing: writing of the Swedish poet Tranströmer, Cole notes that the late Nobel laureate’s lines contain “a luminous simplicity that expands until it pushes your ego out of the nest, and there you are, alone with Truth.”

Maybe because he’s constantly seeking new narrative spaces, Cole is on the road regularly. Essays like “Always Returning,” “Unnamed Lake,” “Far Away from Here,” “Brazilian Earth,” and “Two Weeks” display his predilection for traveling to places where truths might arise with this sort of involuntary action. Though travel writing appears throughout, most of it is contained in “Being There,” the travel-focused third section. In tone and structure, some of these pieces are impressionist, even experimental. And when Cole is writing daringly about his wanderings through Gaza or Zürich, Lagos or Nogales, Selma or São Paulo, he’s illustrating the interwoven relations among these places and their histories.

Cole’s essays and his two works of fiction coalesce on this point: our histories are contingent, overlapping, and shape the contemporary world continually, without fail. His novella-length work Every Day Is for the Thief and the PEN/Hemingway award-winning novel Open City are both narrated by a young Nigerian psychiatrist living in Harlem. (Though unnamed in the novella, he is called Julius in Open City.) Working in the space between the past and the present tenses, Cole gives his fiction the feel of ongoingness, often right from the opening sentence: “I wake up late the morning I’m meant to go to the consulate,” the narrator announces at the start of Every Day Is for the Thief. Julius begins Open City as though he were demonstrating continuity between the two narratives: “And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city.” Readers feel as though they’re joining Julius in medias res.

The same sense of being plunged into the writer’s world characterizes “Black Body,” the lead essay in Known and Strange Things. “Then the bus began driving into clouds,” he writes, “between one cloud and the next we caught glimpses of the town below.” Given Cole’s search for epiphanic realization, meeting him in the clouds seems apropos. Note, however, that his openings mix invitation and indifference. With the narrative already in motion, the bus already rolling toward its destination, Cole’s opening lines say: “come with me, join me. But catch up if you can. I’m not pausing to offer you directions.”

Catching up with him in “Black Body” means visiting Leukerbad, Switzerland, the backdrop for James Baldwin’s profound meditation, the 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village.” Cole’s on the bus to reconsider and seemingly reject Baldwin’s claims of alienation from Western culture. His impulse to part from Baldwin on this point stems from his desire to live through and find ballast in African, European, Caribbean, American, and African-American art simultaneously. Throughout the collection, but especially in these essays about visual art, Cole displays an intensity of address and a critical acuity that allows him to write with equal passion about Wangechi Mutu’s collages, Alex Webb’s photography, and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films. It’s from Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs, specifically Red, that Cole learns “how unforeseen encounters can subtly pile up and determine the course of a person’s life.”

And yet, alongside his capacious intelligence, Cole still feels in his own body “the undimmed fury,” that Baldwin felt about racism. “Stranger in the Village,” injects “a contrast dye” into Cole’s consideration of the “unending sequence of crises: in the Middle East, in Africa, in Russia,” and in America, where the police continue shooting and killing unarmed black men. His sense of contingency draws these disparate arenas into alignment. Because “American racism has many moving parts, and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage,” one must use contrast dyes — as in Baldwin’s essay — to redirect the eyes toward obscured truths and to reveal initially invisible connections among the images, the writing, and the terrain.

“Seeing Things,” the potent central section of Known and Strange Things, is where Cole deploys those contrast dyes to greatest effect. Writing primarily about photography, still and moving, Cole assays about formal masters like the director Michael Haneke, and the photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Saul Leiter. When he takes up Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Cole wants to examine the ramifications of the photographer’s use of “digital photography and its children, Instagram among them.” Though Cole doesn’t dismiss anyone’s choice to use cell phone cameras, the associated technologies, and social media (Google, Flickr, Photoshop, Snapchat, Instagram and its filters) to curate their lives, “nevertheless,” he writes in a riff on Roland Barthes, “in looking at a great photographic image from the past or the present, we know when blood is drawn. We know that some images, regardless of medium, still have the power to suddenly enliven us. And we know that these images are few.”

In “Object Lesson,” Cole improvises on Susan Sontag when he writes that conflict photography “comes with built in risks for the photographers, who put themselves in harm’s way to bring us news, but also in a less visceral way, for us, the viewers. If it is not done well, if the images are not formally compelling, it might lose its claim on even our momentary attention.” For instance, Glenna Gordon’s images of the things that the Chibok girls left behind when Boko Haram kidnapped them demand our attention and pierce our souls because “we recognize their things as being ours.”

In that moment of recognition, once the contrast dye has been released, we find something emerging from essays on Barack Obama’s 2008 election (“The Reprint”) and his drone wars, 2009−16 (“A Reader’s War,” “The Unquiet Sky”); on war zones (“Against Neutrality”) and terrorism (“Perplexed . . . Perplexed,” “Captivity”); on white privilege (“The White Savior Industrial Complex”) and the borderlands (“A Piece of the Wall”); on black death (“Death in the Browser Tab”) and on black beauty (“Portrait of a Lady,” “A True Picture of Black Skin). Spread intermittently among the collection’s sections, surrounding pieces slightly obfuscating their subjects, these essays are Cole’s shadow book. This improvised book’s meaning is never fully realized; however, to borrow Kevin Young’s words, it “represents a willingness to recognize the unfinished, process-based quality of life and art, even taking pleasure in the incompleteness of being.” We might read Known and Strange Things as Cole reads Roy DeCarava’s use of chiaroscuro while developing his photographs of African Americans: “Instead of trying to brighten blackness, he went against expectation and darkened it further. What is dark is neither blank nor empty. It is in fact full of wise light, which, with patient seeing, can open out into glories.”