Teju Cole is an art historian and a photographer as well as a writer. Find out what artists and writers influence him.
What are your favorite books/who are your favorite authors?
Poets inform my ear and my way of seeing the world. I read poetry much more than I read prose. Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott are particularly important to me. For the ear, the rhythm—that sense of what’s happening inside a line, how a line breathes. Walcott’s “White Egrets,” his latest collection, is incredible, maybe my favorite thing he’s done.
Do you have any writing rituals or habits? Where and when do you write?
I make notes all the time. There are little fragments of experience that somehow call out to me, and I make note of them: either something I’ve read in a book, or something I see on the subway, or a thought that occurs to me in the shower. And this archive of fragments after a while begins to show family resemblance, and could lead to a work, fictional or otherwise. Other than that, I have no particular rituals. I write longhand or on a computer, usually the latter, in the morning or late at night, usually the latter, in silence or with music, usually the latter.
What are your favorite and least favorite words—and why?
My favorite words are the simple adjectives: big, small, wide, far, red, black, dark. I’m reassured when I see those words on a page. There’s something sane about them. They don’t try to do too much. Least favorite words? I think that might be barking up the wrong tree. The words are perfectly fine, but then they are pressed into service for bad causes. Take a good word like “freedom,” which took on quite ominous tones after 9/11 and even more so after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Hero” was another sadly misused one. “Enhanced interrogation” might have been the worst of the lot.
Where do you find inspiration for your books? Was there any specific inspiration for this book?
This book in particular came out of a feeling of mourning for New York in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. How mourning can be an intricate and inconclusive thing. My biggest inspiration is the thought that something I write can comfort someone somewhere, in that rather strange way that grave works, works about the shadowed aspects of life, if done well, can make us feel less alone.
How does your photography inform you writing?
I try to see things from a different angle, in photography and in writing. Not novelty for its own sake but something that comes from an inner necessity. Photography has taught me that dropping down to the ground and shooting from there, or climbing up on something to get a different vantage point, can alter the feeling—I almost want to say the circulation of blood—within a story. I think of the example of the Soviet photographer Rodchenko who, through the smart use of vantage point, defamiliarized familiar scenes. So Open City is full of heights and depths: lots of birds, lots of airplanes, people at windows looking onto the street, as well as subways and wells.
Who are some of your favorite photographers and artists (and specific works)?
Favorite photographers are Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank, who are a sort of holy trinity for me. Cartier-Bresson’s early surrealist work, Lee Friedlander’s excellence is less about a single photo than about the immense and bold body of work, and Robert Frank of course for the Americans, but even more so for the soulful and subtle work he did in Europe before then. More recently, I’ve been taken with the color work of Saul Leiter, Miguel Rio Branco, and Alex Webb; they all use color in an emotional way. Favorite artists—hard to tell, but Bruegel, Caravaggio, Titian, among the old masters. Bruegel’s "Hunters in the Snow," which is in Vienna, is one of the world’s greatest painting, though it is hard to say why since it’s rather simple, or seems rather. The current artists I most admire are probably Julie Mehretu, Wangechi Mutu, and El Anatsui, all of whom are tremendous. They, and others, have got me very excited about contemporary African art.