In Conversation With Teju Cole

Creating Through Words and Images

Writer and photographer Teju Cole combines image and text to transgress simplistic divisions between media. For his book “Blind Spot” he collected photos of odd and unique places taken while traveling the world, coupled with his literary musings. Our author Magnus Rosengarten met Cole in Brooklyn to discuss the overlooked and the forgotten.

MR: Although the written pieces do have a pretty strong personal tone, I found their gesture often to be “masculine” in the sense that you present a lot of art historical references and quotes. You are in conversation with certain dominant discourses. This made me wonder in how far gender, and specifically your gender identity, shape your work?

TC: Yes, I think the body of my work is very vulnerable to patriarchal influence. That’s the formation of my education and experience. But I think all of my work also really embeds serious feminist critique. I feel that the central issue of my first novel, Open City [2011], is not just memory but specifically memories of gendered violence. This is actually what is at the heart of the book. What does it mean for a man to write about sexual violence against women? This is a different question from what it means for a woman to write about sexual violence against women. Part of what it means, for men, is the sheer impossibility of doing it justice. It was impossible to write this story in such a way that everything turned out okay.

When it comes to Blind Spot, I deal more directly with the texture of feminist thought. Among the most important guiding intelligences for this book are Emily Dickinson and Anne Carson. But it is also characterized by a braiding of male and female voices: my friends, my colleagues, and even my mother. The main interpretative lens of this book is not simply masculine. Yes, it’s martial because the two most cited sources are the Bible and Homer, it is in this sense both atavistic and violent. It keeps returning to the Iliad and the Odyssey. It has to, because these narratives have shaped our society tremendously. On the other hand, this is also a book about fragility and physical fragility. And this somehow helps me foreground the fact that any given author has a body. I can’t really write from the point of view of a woman or a gay man, since I’m neither. But to still insist on the body of the author and say, this is a weakness in my body, this is my difficulty walking, this is my difficulty seeing, this is me lying down, this is me five minutes after I woke up from a dream: to turn the lens on the body in these ways is actually a queering gesture, and I hope that people who inhabit queerness a lot more in their daily life can see themselves reflected in it.