Teju Cole and Blind Spot
Photographer, novelist, essayist, art historian and critic, Teju Cole is a master of many genres. His novel (Open City), novella (Every Day is for the Thief), and essay collection (Known and Strange Things) have won enough awards and accolades to take up the entire word count of this article (though I will mention the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Internationaler Literaturpreis, the Rosenthal Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the New York City Book Award for Fiction). Born to Nigerian parents in the U.S. and raised in Nigeria, he is currently the photography critic of the New York Times Magazine and the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard University.
His newest book, Blind Spot, is a globe-striding, multi-media work combining his photographic images from around the world with written reflections on nature, history, spirituality, philosophy, and art, to name only a few areas of inquiry.
Although Blind Spot draws from Cole’s worldwide travels, it’s not a traditional travelogue. At times the connections between the text to the left and the picture to the right of each spread are fairly direct—an image of clouds taken from the air is paired with a text about dreams of flight. In other cases, the relationships are unexpected—an image of folding chairs and trash bags in Treasure Beach, Jamaica is paired with a discussion of 1920s Russian movies that were staged and shot without using film. In both cases, something has happened that will never be permanently recorded.
In another section, next to a photograph of a man sleeping in Lagos, Cole refers to sleep as “an entry into a state of being carried” (4). A person who carries their body around the earth while awake allows their body to be carried by the earth while asleep. Cole then alludes to other ways of carrying, such as spiritual carrying, with Christ’s body on the cross carrying the world. These associations leave the reader to reflect on ways in which they’ve carried and been carried in their own lives.
The various text-and-photo spreads throughout the book may seem disparate at first, but together they coalesce into an evocative, contemplative whole. The book is, in Cole’s words, a series of “interconnected images,” and the process of matching them with words was “not so different from one of composing a novel: I made use of voices, repetitions (within the text, and from other things I have written), allusions and quotations” (324-5). The reader is compelled to participate fully in the conversation, actively building connections from one page to the next.
The title Blind Spot is not a random selection–one morning in 2011, Cole woke up blind in one eye. After a diagnosis of papillophlebitis, he had surgery to repair the retina of his left eye. Of the experience he writes, “The photography changed after that. The looking changed” (208). He does not, however, tell the reader exactly what form the change took, instead reflecting on the nature of sound, light, and color, and leaving the reader space to reflect on how his experience with blindness might have influenced his art.
Cole is attentive to the nature of art and its creation throughout the book. In a somewhat “meta” section, he recounts in Blind Spot an interviewer’s reflection on his work that particularly struck him: “She asked, though these are not her exact words: Isn’t all the work part of a single piece? … I have always felt that Open City was one way you approached the problem. You’re still circling the problem now, she said, obsessed, she said, and approaching it in other ways. … though she didn’t directly say what the problem was, or with what degree of success or failure I had approached it so far” (126). This question—Is my practice successful?—is a tricky and vulnerable question to pose within one’s own book. Cole is perhaps reflecting on a certain praise-focused type of literary interviewing by writing about an instant that deviated from this norm. But he is also inviting his readers to interrogate the success or failure of his work for themselves, as active participants rather than passive consumers.
All this questioning seems fitting. Cole does not seem to be content to rest on his numerous awards and accolades. With his hybrid book Open City, he is challenging his own artmaking, and inviting his reader to stretch and interpret the world with him.
Photo courtesy of TejuCole.com
Tara Campbell is a contributing writer at Café MFA and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.