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Between the Covers Teju Cole Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain from artist, musician, and author of On Hell and Sick Woman Theory, Johanna Hedva. Minerva collects a decade of Hedva’s work in texts whose bodies drift in delight in form—poems, plays, performances, and essays. Eric Morse, from The Times Literary Supplement, writes, “Hedva describes, in almost incantatory verse, nocturnal scenes peopled with Greek goddesses and fairy-tale witches, whose bodies shed, bleed and weep before the mute incomprehension of men. Hedva’s world is balanced precariously between divinity and void.” PF Anderson calls Minerva, “A performance, fixed in book form, but to be experienced as a live, loud, chaotic, cacophonous, shrieking, whispering temporal experience.” CA Conrad says, “Reverberations of this book outlast everything else in our ears.” Johanna Hedva’s Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain is available as an ebook, an audiobook, as an illustrated paperback co-published by Sming Sming and Wolfman Books, and can be found in all its forms at Today’s episode is also brought to you by María José Ferrada’s How to Order the Universe, a novel translated by Elizabeth Bryer that Tara Conklin calls, “A dreamscape of a book.” The story follows a seven-year-old, M, as she sets out with her father, D, in his life as a traveling salesman. Enchanted by her father’s trade, M convinces him to take her along on his routes, selling hardware supplies against the backdrop of the Pinochet era, Chile. At once, nostalgic, dangerous, sharply funny, and full of delight and wonder, How to Order the Universe is a richly imaginative debut and a rare work of magic and originality. Says Kirkus in a starred review, “This quick and quirky book is as charming as it is unsettling, as appealing as it is wise.” How to Order the Universe is out on February 16th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Before we begin today’s conversation, I want to announce a long-anticipated new development for the show, and also some brief thoughts about today’s guest. Since last March, we have been transcribing the Between the Covers conversations. We’ve been quietly amassing them while we waited for the big website redesign to be finished. I can happily say that that day has arrived. If you go to the podcast homepage at, you can sort the episodes by the ones that have accompanying transcripts. All of the conversations with me since March 2020 are there, and we aim to continue transcribing the new ones as they happen, though there will often be a lag time between the launch of the audio version of an episode and the written version. Head over to the home page, sort the episodes by genre—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, science fiction, and fantasy, or hybrid, and indeterminate writing—or now sort the shows by the presence of a transcription as well. Secondly, as many of you know, I’ve been doing an ongoing collective brainstorm with listener supporters of who our utmost dream guests would be for the show going forward. This brainstorm has had a huge effect on who is coming on the show in 2022. I’ve also just received some very improbable yeses for this fall as well from this cooperatively generated list that seemed like a dream but a dream out of reach. I’m very excited how this process is playing out both to see how much our tastes overlap, what names keep echoing again and again, and to learn about so many writers that are new to me, particularly, international writers that I didn’t yet know about, and I’m happy to learn about, and reach out to. Prior to starting this brainstorm back in the early days of the pandemic, when I first scrambled to transition from the radio station to my home for the show, I created my own dream guest list, a short one. Today’s guest, Teju Cole, was the first person who came to mind. Probably, the only person happier than me today is his publicist who I would reach out to nearly every year of the last 10 years to see if he might be coming through Portland, or if there were any way we could somehow lure him to Portland. Given that Teju is not only a writer, and a photographer, but also a critic, and a curator, it is no surprise that what he adds to the bonus audio archive is particularly well-thought-out: a three-part reading where all three parts speak to and augment the meaning of the others. The first is a reading from John Berger’s The Shape of a Pocket. The second is a reading of poet Etel Adnan’s thoughts on cave paintings and cave painters in relation to all painting since. The third is from Teju Cole’s forthcoming essay collection—as of yet unpublished, Black Paper—“A Letter to John Berger.” To find out how to subscribe to the bonus audio and the wealth of other content, rewards, and potential gifts available to listener supporters, you can find out more at And now, for today’s conversation with none other than Teju Cole.


These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”

David Naimon: Today’s guest is the writer, photographer, critic, and curator, Teju Cole. Cole earned an MA in Art History at the School of African and Oriental Studies at the University of London and later an M. Phil. at Columbia University. From 2015 to 2019, Teju Cole was the photography critic for the New York Times Magazine. His column, “On Photography,” was a finalist for a 2016 National Magazine Award and winner of the 2016 Focus Award for excellence in photographic writing. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and the New York Times. Teju Cole is currently the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard University. Cole’s work includes the novel, Open City, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Rosenthal Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award. “What moves the prose forward is the prose—” says New Yorker critic James Wood of Open City, “—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing.” Cole’s essay collection, Known and Strange Things—shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and the inaugural PEN/Jean Stein Award—is a collection about which Claudia Rankine declares, “On every level of engagement and critique, Known and Strange Things is an essential and scintillating journey.” With the notable exception of Open City, Teju Cole’s books from his first book Every Day Is for the Thief to his latest include photographs, but his last three particularly so. Blind Spot, a genre-crossing work of photography and texts, was shortlisted for the Aperture/Paris Photo Book Award and picked as one of the Smithsonian’s 10 Best Photography Books of the Year. The Village Voice says, “Blind Spot is many things at once: both memoir and map of the world, both essay on photography and elegy for the lost arts of looking and seeing . . . [with texts] as succinct and enigmatic as shards from an archaeological site.” Teju Cole also is the co-creator of the collaborative book of image text, Human Archipelago, with the MacArthur Genius Grant recipient photographer Fazal Sheikh, who uses photographs to document people living in displaced and marginalized communities around the world. Of Teju Cole’s latest book from the UK’s MACK books entitled Fernweh, photographer Stephen Shore says, “Many artists have felt the lure of juxtaposing photographs and text, but few have succeeded as well as Teju Cole. He approaches this problem with an understanding of the limitations and glories of each medium.” Perhaps in concert with Cole’s move from writing that has images to images that have writing, Teju Cole has also moved from being one of the most salutary reasons to be on Twitter where he composed a short story in tweets and under the influence of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines produced short literary news bursts within the 140-character form. He has since migrated to Instagram as the main place for his online, image-centered, artistic endeavors. Teju Cole’s photography out in the world at large has been exhibited from Italy to Iceland to India. His writing has garnered him a Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He’s been an artist in residence at Bard College and a Poynter Journalism fellow at Yale University. But how best to capture what Teju Cole does in words? Rebecca Solnit says, “The forms of resistance depend on the culture they resist, and in our era of generalizations and approximations and sloppiness, Teju Cole’s precise and vivid observation and description are an antidote and a joy.” Norman Rush adds, “I am sentimental about Teju Cole and think of him as an emissary for our best selves. He is sampling himself for our benefit, hoping for enlightenment, and seeking to provide pleasure to us through his art. May his realm expand.” Perhaps, using Teju’s own words from Twitter, no less, captures it best, “Writing as writing. Writing as rioting. Writing as righting. On the best days, all three.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Teju Cole.

Teju Cole: Thank you very much for that introduction, David. It’s always a little bit disconcerting to have the list of one’s labors and alleged achievements presented like that. It’s both an act of generosity and one that is discomfiting. [laughs] But we can talk about that a little bit more later. Thank you very much for having me on Between the Covers.

DN: Yeah. It’s such an honor and a joy to have you. Maybe a place to start is with a quieter, more comforting way you’ve been a companion for me over the last 10 months of the pandemic. I feel like a lot of your work has been speaking directly to the present moment, whether it be the pandemic journal for the New York Times, where you’re listening to MF Doom or Beethoven, or reading Annie Ernaux, or calling your mom in Lagos amidst the daily death counts of the pandemic’s early months, or your short story “City of Pain,” which is a fable about a city where the hand of death rests heavily upon it and everyone is an island unto themselves, or you’re photographing trees now that you can’t go into art museums, or your video montage, Turbulence, and all along the way these surprising and helpful gifts of these Spotify playlists that would appear lovingly curated in these journeys of different moods as we would follow you, or as I would follow you, during a difficult 10 or 11 months. All of your work, even your pre-pandemic works, feels like it’s speaking into the moment and I was trying to think about why that is for me. I think it’s because so much of your work is about questions of who we are beholden to. I’m thinking of the opening words in Human Archipelago that go: “Who is the stranger? Who is kin? What do we owe each other? What, in the inferno, is not infernal?” I was hoping we could start with your latest book which is a pre-pandemic book, Fernweh, which came out just before the pandemic, and if you could talk to us about what that word means in general, but then also what it means for you, in particular.

TC: Thank you, David. It’s nice to have the confirmation that, as one wishes to have been an accompanist, that there are people such as yourself who have felt accompanied. In moments of crisis, we are looking for confirmation that we are not alone in our experience of the complexity of the world. It was an interesting year to have Fernweh come out, because this is a book that’s very much about considering the world from a position of solitude, and even isolation. There’s something about that book that almost imagines a world without us. “Fernweh” is a German word that is hard to define, but part of what it means is a longing for distant places, a longing to be away from here. It’s almost like a metaphysical form of wanderlust. That was an interesting book to think about this year because it confirmed for me the importance of creating a moment of thought and thoughtfulness, and maybe even silence in the middle of the storm. I would say that a lot of what I try to do in my work is to actually hold space that is a little bit against the grain of where that space is being held, specifically with regards to the relationship of noise and silence. Where things are rushed, I want to slow down. Where things are noisy, I wish to be conspicuously less noisy. I think Fernweh represents that.

DN: If we think of the ways that Fernweh, the desire to be elsewhere, is the opposite of Heimweh or homesickness—which at one point was a medical condition diagnosed in Swiss mercenaries—your book is a visual meditation on your relationship to Switzerland. It’s a place that you visit in several other books of yours, a place you go to feel elsewhere or to feel other. I wanted to start there. You have many reasons why Switzerland compels you but one of them was following the footsteps of James Baldwin who went there in the 1950s to an Alpine town with his lover at the time that might not have ever seen a black person before him. While he experienced being completely othered there and experienced deep racism there, it was there that he was able to figure out how to finish his book by having a vantage point from there on the racism of America, and how the racism of America functioned. Thus, the title of his book Go Tell It on the Mountain. I was wondering if there’s something similar for you in this regard, your attraction to Switzerland as a place to look down upon one’s life for perspective.

TC: Recently, I have been thinking about the operational readiness that is displayed by people who are, for example, in the secret service. If there’s a figure of some eminence that they have to protect or if they have to provide security at a particular setting. Let’s say that the setting is a speech, a game, or a concert. This is a place where crowds have gathered and there’s the main event. There are two categories of people who are in that space who are not interested in the main event. It’s the people who are providing security because they’re looking for the other category of people who are not interested in the main event. The people who are there to, in some way, disrupt it—an assassination, or some other form of lesser disruption. While everybody else is looking at the touchdown, or is looking at the person giving the speech, or listening to the speech, there are other attitudes present in the room who actually care nothing for that stuff. There are other silent presences in the room who are looking for other silent presences in the room. This is a deeply imperfect metaphor, because I am not fond of the securitized state and its actors. I don’t know that I necessarily associate to any great degree with either the secret service or the assassins. But there’s something about their operational attitude that attracts me, and it is about being on the same scene as everybody else but not looking at the same thing. The desire to short-circuit the conventional-looking that is happening, the desire to not talk about what everybody else is talking about, or at least to not talk about it in the same way. I’m not talking about just mere obliquity for its own sake, but a commitment to the idea that what needs to be said often does not arrive as a chorus. It arrives out of stubbornness about digging deeper—deeper is wrong, it sounds like self-praise—looking different, not the appearance of the person doing the looking, but the form of looking that they’re doing. If I’m in the room where some big event is happening, I’m often not looking at the big event and I often also become aware of other people who are not looking at the big event. Why is this person’s attention elsewhere? If it’s elsewhere, where is it? There’s the same way the secret service can pick up on somebody who is somehow not enjoying the parade but they’re looking very, very serious and their focus is sharpened towards some other purpose. Let’s take Fernweh, my photobook. I think a lot of the work I do that relates to the public is photography, and yet I am still primarily received as a writer. So that, when a book like Fernweh arrives, that gives you very little reading to do—it’s just a one-page postscript to it—it’s just a book of photo after photo, very silent photos. There’s something illegible about that, for people who have a certain expectation of what they get when they pay money for a book. You can “read” Fernweh in 25 minutes. I mean, of course, you cannot. But you’d have to commit to reading it more slowly. That interests me. But it also interests me that it’s a book about Switzerland, which is not generally high on the list of places that people find interesting. People might think it’s peculiar in certain ways. But it is often relegated to that place that people’s grandparents went for their honeymoon, or something. It’s rich, and it’s well-organized, and boring. So, there’s a pre-formatted consensus that makes it different from somebody saying they did a photobook about Brazil, or about India, or about places that are, in one way or another, self-evidently exciting. I approached this project by saying, “Why is it decided ahead of time that Switzerland is not an interesting subject? What forms of interest are available?”

DN: I’m going to fill in what my presumptions are around what some of that might be and see what you think also, because you mentioned other writers like Joyce and Lenin, who went to Switzerland and made their most radical works there, or the ways Switzerland has affected Flemish and Dutch renaissance painting. Even though I’m not thinking from Switzerland, in thinking about Switzerland like in the conversations I’ve been having with my wife, Lucy, around preparing for this conversation, it feels like it’s clarified some things for me about seemingly neutral things I do every day that nevertheless uphold white power in the United States, and the ways in which the state tries very hard to hide the ways that are happening from me. I’ve been thinking about Switzerland as a neutral country and the way it benefits from this—in its own self-regard, but also in the ways it’s exported this idea—the virtues of being a country that is neutral, a safe haven. A place that transcends and looms above all the conflicts on the continent. At the same time that they have this image of themselves, there’s all this stuff unseen under the surface. You point to, in some of your writing, just the deep way they’re involved in the global arms trade and just the number of people that are murdered or maimed in a way that enriches Switzerland. But we could go back to World War II when they were really putting themselves forth as neutral and yet going to great lengths to make sure Jews, even Jews who were some of their depositors, couldn’t get into the country as a safe haven, asking the Germans to put a J on their passports, for instance, but also making it impossible for families of Jews who’d been exterminated to get the money that had been deposited in Switzerland, and most notably laundering all of the stolen property and gold from the Nazi regime on behalf of the Nazis, and when no one wanted to buy Nazi or German gold after the war, getting rich off of selling the gold, even the gold from the teeth of Jewish and other Holocaust victims’ corpses. That’s not boring, but it’s made invisible. This boring country that’s very clean and pristine—it just made me wonder about this in relation to whiteness and the mechanics of the way whiteness is upheld, if something about the extremity of what Switzerland is, in this regard, is a helpful thing to meditate on to look at our lives otherwise.

TC: That’s all very well said. You’re right about the extremity of Switzerland as part of its attraction. In fact, part of what attracts one to doing a project in India or a project in Brazil is that these also represent forms of extreme in the world. If you go to Lebanon, that’s a different kind of extreme. If you go to New Zealand, that’s a different kind of extreme. The nations pop out of the ordinary for reasons of history, or geographical location, or terrain. Switzerland is indeed a deeply troubling place because that neutrality is false. I touched on some of the political intensity of being in Switzerland in my essay that you alluded to, an essay called “Black Body,” that was in response to James Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village”—I went back to the same village in Switzerland that he had been in—and it was very illuminating to think about Switzerland in these ways, with Baldwin’s help, with the help of history. This was a long essay that I wrote, basically about following in Baldwin’s footsteps in the summer of Ferguson, in 2014, thinking about European racism, thinking about American racism, and how both have evolved in the decades since James Baldwin was there. That was a start for apprehending what it was I was experiencing in Switzerland, a place I have spent many months in over several years. But when I came to doing the photo book, that vision had actually deepened. I don’t think it was enough for me to say that this place that is so keen on itself is obviously troubled. That’s the first step. I don’t think that’s enough. In the photo book, I was also trying to deal with certain other material facts such as the fact that it’s very beautiful. I’ve had the good fortune of traveling a lot, I’ve seen a lot of places, and Switzerland is one of the few places that is consistently more beautiful than its postcard images. It is something about the Alps, it is something about the infrastructure they have around the Alps, about the quality of the light, and about their own attitude of care towards their environment. It is very, very beautiful and that beauty does not exhaust me, far from boring me or anything like that. I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy and in Germany, both of which border Switzerland, and Switzerland is really just something else, just in terms of sheer physical beauty. I wanted to testify to that, as well—my own experience of that beauty. I also wanted to think about my larger relationship with Europe. For reasons of work, and the friends I have, and my own interests, it is a place I go to, a fair bit. I’m from Nigeria, and I go to Nigeria almost every year, and I go to Europe every year, different countries in it. I know what it’s like to be a black person in Europe, at least a traveling black person, if not one who’s living there and employed there. Switzerland has its falsehoods, but the rest of Europe has monumental and very distressing falsehoods. If we talk about how Switzerland has this genteel racism that is there, it’s nothing compared to what I experienced in France. For a lot of white Americans, Paris is a splendid and enjoyable place. For me, Paris is an emotionally very difficult place to be in because all the signs of a very stubborn white supremacy—defined in fundamental terms—all those signs are visible. There’s a large and very visible second-class citizenry that is of a different color from white: black people, brown people, North Africans. When I’m in London, at least every time I visit, for my first few days there, all I can see really is this colonial power that is mired in nostalgia for that, and the ways in which it continues to treat people as if they are colonized even in England itself. When I go for a hike in the Alps in Switzerland, I’m just a guy going for a hike in the Alps. It’s a monumental relief. The places where a black person can go in this world—that are majority white places and yet not exhaustingly oppressive—are few, and that was part of what this book was quietly doing. It’s saying, I speak only for myself, but this is one place where I can breathe. If I made this book and it was about Romania, if it was about Greece, if it was about France, if it was about the Netherlands, it would be a very, very different book. If I was making a book about the French landscape, it would be a very different book from me making a book about the Swiss landscape. Because if I was doing the French thing, I would be aware at every moment of myself as a postcolonial figure, and as a figure with an unstable status in that countryside.

DN: I want to introduce another thread through much of your work also, and that’s the question of Blind Spot, both the physical reality and the metaphorical reality of Blind Spot. As I listen to you talk about what’s invisible in France and what’s invisible in other places, it feels to me like it connects in some ways to neutrality and to innocence also. Because anatomically, we have blind spots where the retina meets the optic nerve, and there are no rods or cones. We would normally see, if our brains weren’t doing anything, we should see a large black spot in our vision, about the size of an orange held at arm’s length—I talked about this with Elisa Gabbert in our conversation—but our brains hide the blind spot from us. I don’t want to go too far with an analogy that that’s what Switzerland’s doing, but the brain is filling in the blind spot with extrapolated data from our actual nearby vision. I was thinking of it in terms of something Mitchell S. Jackson said in his memoir Survival Math, where he talks about the impulse to preserve one’s innocence in the face of living. I wondered if you could talk about blindness in terms of what we cannot see versus the complicity we have around what we refuse to see.

TC: That is such a lovely and thought-provoking question. I enjoyed listening to your conversation with Elisa Gabbert. I remember that moment in it. The first thing I’d like to say is that—we talked a little bit about Switzerland—and I would like to say that none of this is about Switzerland really, and it’s actually not really about novel writing or doing genre experiments, and it’s not about photography. What we are is humans in the world. There’s something that’s human in us that’s calling us to live it well and live it fully. Some of that we do with the aid of societal cues. Some of it we do by descending into more profound regions of the self, digging down and finding the courage of one’s convictions. For me, this is an interesting question, why should one have convictions? Why is it not enough simply to survive? Why isn’t it just a grab-all-the-candy-you-can game? Where does this need come from, to think about the world and live ethically with it? Yet for me, this is the groove underneath all the activity that one might wish to do. For sure, it’s a philosophical thing. It’s a search for wisdom. But it’s funny that it’s very hard to talk about what it is that we’re really up to, what we’re really trying to do, without sounding grand. It’s something that we’ve somehow relegated talking about it into those zones of, like, “Oh, this person has been these spinning nostrums.” It’s hard to talk about a search for wisdom without sounding as if you’re self-regarding in some way, and yet at that moment, when we’re most at home with ourselves in the world, we know that it’s a search for wisdom. We know that it is a search for ways of acknowledging the interconnectedness of beings. Capitalism: we know what it means. For a long time, I was saying, “hyper-capitalism,” really unrestrained capitalism, and yet, even that word always seemed to offer an immediate counter of socialism or communism or political anarchism. All of which are interesting, but I was not looking for an immediate political counter. I am always looking for a way to describe what we’re going through and why it is the way it is. The term I’ve been using recently is “market totalitarianism.” For me, the question is, how do we live under conditions of market totalitarianism? There is no one rubric that explains the whole world, but the idea that we live in a situation where money-making comes before all else is a pretty helpful rubric for understanding some of the weird stuff that we see around us. How then can we live? Recently, in the newspaper, I saw this thing that when this mob invaded the Capitol, the markets rose.

DN: To all-time highs.

TC: Right. That’s interesting. There might be complicated explanations for why the markets reacted that way, either that they don’t care, or that they saw that the problem was contained, or that the people doing the buying and selling gamed out what the fallout would be, and decided that they needed to buy certain things, and so on. All of that, the people who analyze such things, can put their energy into it. What I found really interesting was that it was news, and it was a very predictable form of news to react to these schisms in the life of the body politic by telling us what the market did. Somebody said, “If the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was approaching Earth right now, the government would react by cutting interest rates.” When I say totalitarianism, I mean it literally. It’s a form of thinking about the world that obliterates every other possibility—what are the markets doing? People are suffering, people are impoverished, but the economy is great. It’s the economies, the market. Inside all of that, how do we grieve? How do we mourn? How do we care for each other? How do we imagine a possible future? This is where questions of the blind spot come in, and this is where questions of strategies of coping by filling in the gaps come in. I would very much say that these are obsessions that are at the center of the work that I am trying to do.

DN: What seems very remarkable to me is how you make the blind spot visible in Open City, in the way that I feel very enmeshed and in rapport with Julius, the Nigerian-German protagonist, as he walks around New York. It’s clear that what he sees and what he foregrounds through his attention is deeply informed by who he is and his personal history as an immigrant, as someone with a hybrid identity, as a person of color, his encounters with a mentor who has experienced internment during World War II as a Japanese-American, the Haitian shoe shiner and his story of coming to the United States, the African burial grounds where between 10,000 and 20,000 mainly enslaved Africans were buried. I’m imagining if a white protagonist were walking around the city, many of these things wouldn’t be noticed or brought forth. Let alone, I don’t know if Julius knew that at the time of the revolutionary war, 25% of New York City were slaves, the second largest population in the colonies. But I certainly wouldn’t think a white protagonist would likely know that or maybe even know that the African burial grounds exist. Thus, the story of the city that a different protagonist would stitch together would involve erasure, even if it’s not an active erasure. It could be the erasure of ignorance as they stitch together a story of what the city is. But towards the end of the book, you do something that I wonder is partially an answer to some of those open-ended questions you asked. How do we grieve? How do we be human? How do we develop community? It feels like a risky narrative move. It’s that Julius, who’s been so aware of these different storylines and narrative histories, he’s confronted with something he’s complicit in as a man. We can see it as readers, but he can’t see it. All of a sudden, I feel this great distance from him, like I’m looking at him from a distance—maybe I’m up on my own Switzerland—and yet from that distance, I recognize myself in him, and my own blindness. It’s as if something about that move you made is not allowing the brain to fill in the orange-size gap in my vision for that moment. I don’t want to say it didn’t feel pedagogical, but it felt like a moment, like a rupture that any character or any person is going to contain both of those things.

TC: We want to pay attention to where the blind spots are in our experience of the world. At the same time, we want to pay attention to the fact of the blind spot, even when we don’t know where it is. Those are two different moves. I did not want Open City to be some consoling intellectual tour guide to the atrocities of history. It’s a book very much about complicity because I think that very much merits thinking about. Intellectual knowledge does not save us, and somebody who’s grieving can also be the wounder for somebody else. I’m not sure that a white protagonist would not be able to attend to these things. I don’t think I can make any judgment call on who is able to be sensitive to what.

DN: I would just add as an addendum to that, not that I don’t think a white protagonist couldn’t do that, but that the average white protagonist walking through New York City would most likely not be pulling forth these details or having this encounter with different people and pulling forth these specific types of stories from these people.

TC: Yes. But under conditions of market totalitarianism, the average human being is going to find it very hard to do the grief work, to do the historical retrieval work, that he or she or they have not been allowed to do, have not been—“educated” is completely the wrong word—have been prevented from doing because it’s what they would naturally do. Possibilities on a large scale for almost all of us have been drowned out by other insistences, and yet, I also feel as if we live in a historical moment where new possibilities are opening up for our alertness. In the summer of 2020, I could see all around me many non-black people thinking about the enormous crime that the United States in itself represents vis-à-vis black people. It’s possible that there can be a tidal movement that inaugurates new possibilities for sensitivity. Last night—talking about being that person in the room who’s really not trying to look at, and get het up about what everybody else is—as the Trumpian mob invaded the Capitol, I never want to be seduced by what is photographable and what invites immediate commentary. I know part of why this was taking a lot of people’s immediate energy was because it was a photographable disgrace. On the same day, almost 4000 people died of COVID-19—an unspeakably painful number. For me, that, and the conditions that made it possible felt like bigger news. For me, it really did. This other thing was awful, but it was theatrical. It was available in a way that did not seem to me to be the heart of what our way of life was taking from us. I found that my thinking actually went to Standing Rock, and then to Wounded Knee, and then looped forward again to the Ghost Dances in the southwest. This moment of collective mourning and of trying to summon up the dead, the lost, to honor them, and to somehow repair the torn fabric of experience, to somehow repair what had been lost in migrations, in massacres, and very pertinently in huge waves of pandemics. That’s what I’ve been sitting with, the Ghost Dances.

DN: Can I invite you into a place that I’m trying to work out, that I feel like is a place of not knowing, where I felt like I knew? I wanted to hear your thoughts about something that I’m in an unstable, hopefully, productive place around this. If I return to the quote by Mitchell Jackson and read the whole phrase, the whole phrase is, “Ignorance requires ignorance of history, which is a way to preserve innocence in the face of living.” I’ve lived most of my life believing that knowing history, and that reckoning with our own histories as peoples, and nations was a necessary way to prevent future problems. But since my conversation with Jenny Erpenbeck, I’ve wondered if that’s actually true because I was comparing and contrasting America, where cities in the north and south have statues of people who defended slavery, compared to Germany where you won’t find statues of Nazis, but instead a very considered attention to the country’s own complicit and horror with the stepping stones or tripping stones in Berlin that alert you to where a Jewish family was pulled from their home for instance. In a way, I feel like Open City is a book full of these tripping stones, someone’s walking around New York and telling the history in both spatial terms and temporal terms around the different ways in which people have been complicit in atrocities and building New York City and America. Germans are educated about the past whereas I think in contrast, I wonder if most Americans even know what the phrase Middle Passage refers to. I asked Erpenbeck, an East Berliner, about this in relationship to the growing far right in Germany. She really felt like historical reckoning had only a very limited effect of perhaps a generation or two, that one needed the immediacy of proximity with others to see their humanness. It made me think about the borders within our borders, how easy it is to remain separated from these encounters even within a country, and how, in Jenny Erpenbeck’s book about African refugees, I’m imagining that her moving through her daily life in Berlin, she’s not going to encounter African refugees who’ve come off of the boat from the Mediterranean who likely are not allowed to work, so they’re not allowed to participate in just average daily life and exchanges but are hidden away from everybody else. The asylum is not even really a true asylum in that sense. She has to go out of these well-worn grooves of her own walking through her own city to be able to have an encounter of proximity in this way. That made me think of Sara Ahmed who says, “It’s important to remember that whiteness is not reducible to white skin. When we talk about a ’sea of whiteness’ or ’white space,’ we talk about the repetition of passing by of some bodies and not others.” I guess I just wondered about your thoughts about knowledge of history versus being proximal and encounter to not be engaging with the story of the immigrant from El Salvador, now in a cage on the border or in Fort Mohave but a life where you’re having to contend with them, their dreams, desires, pains, and failings.

TC: Yeah, even getting to a point where to save them feels uncomfortable because we recognize that we are in community together but not to assert that before it’s true. I think about your conversation with Natalie Diaz, her hesitation around questions of translation and acquiring knowledge. I do think one of the moves of whiteness is that everything can be apprehended and everything must be grabbed. This is the colonial move. This is the imperial move. Botany, zoology, geology, and geography, studying the world and accumulating knowledge is intimately connected to suppressing, acquiring, and destroying the worlds of others. Science and colonialism have all often had a great deal to do with each other. Knowledge acquisition is very often about control, the CIA World Factbook. [laughs]

DN: I was thinking that even literally, naturalists were often on slave ships as a way to get and collect or were utilizing slave ships to bring back specimens or to travel to a specific place.

TC: Right, there’s innocence for you. The truth of history is that we don’t love each other enough. When you keep people in chattel slavery, when you keep millions of people in conditions of living death, that is very profound enmity. I think that’s history’s lesson, that enmity of unmeasurable depth is always possible. I also resist the ease of saying we have to know more about history. I think knowing things is good as part of one’s ethical equipment. I don’t think reading makes us better people, I don’t think having university degrees makes us better people, I don’t think our accolades make us better people. I was very uncomfortable with the list of accolades with which you introduced me—it’s not to say I did not take pleasure in winning some of those things—but they very much seem beside the point, they seem like indictments. Where is the point? There’s an American word I’ve always disliked which is the word fix, in the sense of just making a problem disappear. “The only way we’re going to fix this is blah blah blah”: this way of thinking is just general. The world actually can’t be fixed. All Year Zero experiments fail dramatically, whether we’re talking about Cambodia, or we’re talking about the French revolution, or the Soviet Socialist Republics, or China. You can’t go back to Year Zero, you can’t kill your way out of the problem of living. I don’t like the word fix even in its lesser forms, it makes me uncomfortable. The once and for all fix: there is no once and for all fix for anything. The word I like is the word “repair”: more tentative, more humble. Actually, repair sounds to me like a word that has been feminized because we think of somebody stitching, somebody weaving, somebody making something carefully with their hands and making do. The marines go in there to fix things, they don’t go in there to repair things. Repair can always be undone. I’m thinking of Penelope, unweaving what she has woven, weaving and unweaving. The provisional character of repair, I would say, is where I try to center my thinking. This is not a quietist view of the world, I’m not saying we shouldn’t do anything. We should do something: we should be repairing. But what does repair look like? There are ever expanding circles of responsibility and care from wherever we’re located. We have responsibilities to the people closest to us. Those of us who work in image-making, broadcasting, and writing have discursive responsibilities that go beyond the people in our immediate household or circle of friends. Because of social media now, very, very many people are in the role of broadcasting, and the responsibility of repair is actually larger now because we can reach larger groups of people. We’re always going to have these horrifying problems with us. That’s not an attitude of defeat. We can ameliorate some of them, that’s the work, it’s like individual work that then gradually becomes collective work. There are obviously very many ways to go about this including being a political activist. My way of going about it just happens to be that of being a writer and a photographer.

DN: I was hoping we could hear two pages from Human Archipelago, if you’d be willing to read a little bit for us.

TC: Yeah, I would be happy to do that. Here are these two passages from Human Archipelago which I made in collaboration with Fazal Sheikh, his photographs and my texts.

[Teju Cole reads an excerpt from Human Archipelago]

DN: We’ve been listening to Teju Cole read from Human Archipelago. I wanted you to read those passages because I wanted to move more into a discussion of your aesthetics as a writer and a photographer. When I listen to these two excerpts, I feel the ways you’re bringing us proximate—and also, most powerfully in the second one—how you bring us into the specifics and the particulars of actions that can easily otherwise float along as banal and morally neutral acts but in mass become acts of violence. It made me think of a recent guest, Vanessa Veselka, who said that really, the greatest privilege someone can have is the privilege of being abstract. Also, about something Jorie Graham was saying recently in a talk about how, as poets, we need to train our instrument to the visible and to the sensory, to the bodily versus the conceptual, and to be attentive in this way. I feel like you’re doing these things, I feel like these things are part of your aesthetic but I also feel like there’s perhaps something, a countervailing aspect to your aesthetic approach that you alluded to at the beginning of the program. I wanted to tease it out with you. After the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old black man who was shot in cold blood for jogging in a white neighborhood where no one was arrested for 74 days, you posted on Facebook that you don’t watch videos of murder, particularly not of white people killing black people, that you stopped about five years ago, and that increasingly, you push back against editors who even want to run a still of a video or a photo of a murdered black person. You say, “Looking away can mean different things. Sometimes opposite things. Absolutely depends on who’s looking and what they’re looking at.” I feel like you confront some of these questions in your essay “Death in the Browser Tab,” but I was thinking more of your article “When the Camera Was a Weapon of Imperialism (And When It Still Is)” where, among other things, you look at a 1899 photograph of a pre-colonial Nigerian king, who typically would be wearing a beaded crown that serves as a veil because his face, as a holy being, would not be uncovered in public. But in this photograph, he sits with white Christian explorer colonizers, his veil is parted and his face photographed likely under duress, and many of his tribesmen, despite the superficial way the photograph is composed and choreographed, look alarmed. I’m also thinking about the role of the human in your photography itself, there are very few faces, often, where there are humans, they’re turned away from the camera or we see them from a very far distance. And even more often, there are no humans but a focus on the human presence within a landscape but with the absence of the actual human bodies. I guess I wanted to hear a little bit about what I feel like is an attentiveness to the visual and attentiveness to the specifics and particularity of the narrative that holds us and tethers us to accountability as moral beings but also, this other aspect of turning away from capturing something that you’ve otherwise seen.

TC: Yeah, thank you, David. Thank you as always for your meticulous and careful preparation, it really is a pleasure to be in conversation with you because earlier, when I was talking about repair and care, I think the work you do on this podcast is actually work of repair. It is about speaking because you ask detailed questions, though what’s interesting about the questions is not their detail but again, your attitude to them, and it’s also about listening. I just wanted to pause at this moment to thank you for creating this space in which we can address these things. I think there’s a vein of political intimacy that I try to pursue in my work that was very much confirmed for me in reading many writers I’ve learned from—Toni Morrison, Judith Butler, I would say, Sara Ahmed whom you cited—but in this particular mode, I would say above all, John Berger. We were talking about knowledge earlier which is of course, related to expertise and authority. Learning good English, writing things down, publishing books, and being ushered into the library is a kind of reward for being a good imperial subject. How then are we to tilt against that? How do we break that down and make it do what it’s not supposed to do? I want to think about two young men from Mali. I want to think about Zeresenay who was deported from the United States. I want to reconfigure the question of whom the texts are addressing. I really want to embody this “we who.” I think that when we’re learning about the philosophical sacredness of the other—when we’re thinking with Martin Buber and Levinas, thinking about the I and Thou—recognizing the core of that form of engagement is to understand that you’re not the other person, and that to actually absorb them into yourself would be a kind of violence. I think there’s an appropriate caution when, for example, we’re photographing other people, to not replicate the practices of stealing, we don’t want to engage in practices of stealing other people’s worlds, we want to assert that photography can be doing something else. On the other hand, Toni Morrison talks about how the stranger summons a ripple of alarm, because we know that the stranger is already encountered. It’s not the newness that bothers us, it’s the, “Oh, I’m connected to this person.” And people who cannot deal with that sense of alarm then engage in exaggerated violence. This is the balance between respectfully saying, “There are certain things I’m not going to look at and there are certain things I’m not going to write,” and the mutual hospitality of saying, “This person is included in my conception of the world, and I am included in theirs. Even if everything in my society is telling me to discount this person’s humanity, I refuse to do so. In fact, I’m going to center this person, I’m going to center their experience. I don’t consent to the general hierarchies about whose life is worthy of life.” I think that is the quest: to find that balance between both of those truths, it’s going to end up like John Berger’s work, it has to be this combination of intimacy—writing a letter to the dead for example—and reticence, moments of saying to my photo editor, “No, no, I can’t show you that, we can’t look at that, we can’t print that, because who is it for?”—Those who already know know and those who don’t know are only going to be entertained by it. And this is not a space for entertainment, this is a space for repair.

DN: In that essay, you say that among human rights is the right to remain obscure, unseen, and dark, which makes me think and I wonder if you’re referring to Glissant’s notion of opacity, the right not to be understood on other people’s terms.

TC: I’m definitely referring in a way to Glissant there, but as somebody who is academy adjacent, I often think about citational practices, which has to do with knowledge production, expertise, libraries, and white seriousness, “the first person to discover XYZ.” And I’m very drawn to modes of knowing that are a little bit more careful about saying who the first person is to discover XYZ because human knowledge is very old. I freely acknowledge influences, and my reading, and all of that, and Glissant is very important to me, particularly his writing about opacity. But I’m also curious about the ethos of arriving at a text and finding a recognition in it, a confirmation, a conceptual help for something that you’ve been working on. The text is no good really if the ground of your heart is not prepared for it. But, do you know one of the books I’ve read the most in the past one year has been Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas? I think your conversation with her on this podcast is one of my favorite conversations anyone has had with anyone, anywhere. It is truly powerful, restorative, and re-centering. I happen to have taught Whereas many times in my classes. What I find in it is confirmation of the respect I would wish to have for the disregarded, for the forms of refusal that are available to the apparently defeated. A kind of inextinguishable victory exists that cannot actually be heard when things are very, very noisy. But when things are quieted down, and you go to a certain text, it is sometimes like finding that other person in the room whose attention is not on the main event—even as I deeply regret using this particular metaphor, because you could not find a less of a fan of the secret service than me. But let’s just say: all circumstances in which somebody is engaging in contrary vision interests me.

DN: I want to take this idea of finding this other person who’s looking at it, the way you are in the crowd, to this notion of I think a repeated notion of doubleness in your work. We could go back to Switzerland and the notion that when you’re taking a photograph of a mountain, sometimes, it feels like you’re taking a photograph of a photograph of the mountain because Switzerland’s art is so photographed, and also so iconic, that it feels like you’re engaging with images of the place. But you also say in Human Archipelago, “We are and we are not what we see. Doubleness is the first condition of the human. We are not ourselves without also being the Other.” I wanted to take this doubling of you and Baldwin in Switzerland and talk more broadly about the way you engage not only with the works of artists you admire but also, with their actual lives in the world at large. Because we go up the mountain with you and Baldwin, we travel various ports in Mediterranean Europe with you and Caravaggio, we go with you to Sebald’s gravesite, we know that when you can’t sleep, there’s nothing better than watching videos of Derrida talk during your insomnias. When I think of Open City as the book of continual encounter and of your most recent fiction, “City of Pain,” where we’re all islands unto ourselves, I love your impulse to want to recreate the movements in the world of the artists you love, and to take us with you. We are, in a way, your double as you’re doubling them. We don’t have to come—speaking of this sort of certifiable academy knowledge—we don’t have to come with previous knowledge of Beethoven or of Kieślowski or of John Berger because you’re sharing your love for these artists with us. I think you’re teaching us about them through your love of them. And you recently shared a video of a former student of yours, a black student who made a video of how he had never felt like museums were meant for him and even more so probably never expected to be in art history class taught by a black professor that would open that world up for him in an enduring and lifelong way, that you would cross that border with him. It made me think of one of the ways you meditated on a difference between you and Baldwin. I’m just going to read the quote that you quote of his and maybe, you could just talk about the ways in which you feel like you depart from it. He’s speaking of white cultural heritage here. “These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory—but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.” Can you speak into your essay, or if not into your essay, into your current thoughts about this. It feels like part of your project, I do feel, is breaking down this sense of the ivory tower around these things. I would like to hear about your sensibility around that in contrast to James Baldwin in this case.

TC: I should say that one of the things that makes James Baldwin so valuable to so many of us is that he writes with a kind of immediacy. His sensations are not mediated by bullshit. He writes it as he feels it, and he writes it well. That particular passage is an interesting one, it’s a note he sounds in a few other places, in Notes of a Native Son. It’s interesting because it is one of the places where I feel a—I wouldn’t call it a disagreement—I would say I have a different experience than he does; and why not? Fifty years later, I grew up in a different place and the world has also changed. All of those things, those great European cultural products he mentioned, I try to approach and understand, not first and foremost as cultural products made by oppressive systems—though that is important information about them—but I start from somewhere else. This frenzied capitalism that we live in—what I’ve been calling market totalitarianism—produces loneliness, existential isolation that deprives people of the tools with which to navigate their place in the universe. This might be genuinely new in the history of the world, cultures have always provided people with those tools, and now we’re all just screaming into the void. Because we’ve been robbed of many, many of the tools that help anchor human experience in the world. I remember what Sun Ra said, he said “Everything comes from outer space.” Everything, it’s all meteors, it’s all from the sun. “The only thing Earth produces is the dead bodies of humans,” he said. I feel in a very vital way that the only thing market totalitarianism really produces is human alienation, depriving us of the tools with which enfold ourselves in the fabric of time. So when I encounter a quintet by Brahms, or traditional Papuan flute music, these are things that give me a chance to re-enfold myself in those sustaining human networks; to the mystery of being alive. I don’t care whether it’s made by white people or not, what I care about is that it’s not only what is made by white people that is sustaining me. But I wanted to address what you said also about doubleness, I’m glad you picked up on that because that’s so important to me. I think at its heart, that is about intimacy. Again, to go down to the root of the word immediacy, to try to communicate with the viewer or the reader in a way that is not mediated but it really does feel like they got up in the middle of the night to read this and they could feel the words pulsing in their own head. It makes me think of the cave paintings in a place like Chauvet. I have a holy awe towards cave paintings because I think, “Wow, painting hasn’t actually improved since then, it’s gotten worse.” [laughs] No, I mean it seriously because painting is a spiritual practice and it’s exorcising. You can feel the spiritual accuracy of the touch of these ancestors of ours tens of thousands of years ago. There are certain places where the bulge in the bison’s body is implied by the section of rock that has been selected on which an outline is drawn, so that it’s both a drawing but it’s also a three-dimensional rendering in collaboration with the given. That suggests to me that the world is often offering us narrative possibilities. There’s always an offer of collaboration with what’s out there in the world. I think that’s what I’m looking for, particularly when I’m writing about artists, writers, encounters, and pilgrimages, I’m proposing a collaboration with somebody else in the room. I’m inviting the reader and the viewer into that collaboration as well. I think of García Marquez’s “a public life, a private life and a secret life.” I think American confessional poetry of the past 60 years has made a lot of the private life. Some of that has been sordid and actually, maybe not that interesting: tell-alls and exposés. But the secret life is a very, very interesting place to encounter each other. This is not to say that people’s family trauma or sex lives are not interesting. Of course, they are, but there’s actually a layer below that where the real essences are. That’s a place in which I am willing to meet the people who read my work.

DN: I’m glad you brought up this three-dimensional aspect, the collaboration with the given, because my favorite journey with you is as you travel to the places Caravaggio travels in his final days running from the law and making paintings along the way. And as you visit each of these paintings, you end up in various port cities from Naples to Syracuse to Malta. And because of this, you end up also engaging with the contemporary now, the contemporary refugee situation in Europe, and spending as much time trying to find where a given boat of refugees will dock as you are looking for a specific painting. For instance, when you’re in Syracuse in Sicily, you are put in touch with a refugee from Gambia. He asks why you are there, and you tell him you’re going to see a painting. You invite him into the church. And even though he lives there now, he’s never been inside. You contemplate The Burial of St. Lucy together—which also seems fitting given your interest in eyes, that her eyes have been gouged out and are on a platter. This three-dimensionality, this you following the art but also, following the life of the artist out in the world, and the story of all of these places, becomes the story of the now in these places. And the experience of seeing these paintings can’t help but be informed by the now of seeing them, even if you weren’t literally standing next to a refugee. But you also mentioned—and this is where my perhaps impossible question comes up—you also mentioned that Caravaggio wasn’t such a great guy. Not only getting into fights and fleeing from city to city, but he was a murderer and a slaveholder. I wanted to ask you about how you approach the artist behind the art in these scenarios. This isn’t on the same level as Caravaggio by any means, but recently for me, I’m thinking of Louise Glück—whose poetry, I’ve been a longtime admirer of, I think you have as well—and her Nobel speech where she chose to talk about William Blake’s poem, “The Little Black Boy” and “Swanee River” by Stephen Foster. It seems perhaps that the most charitable reading of that speech might be the innocence in the face of living that comes from a tone deaf obliviousness to the moment, a speech that does not attend to the now of the occasion within which it’s been delivered. Mary Karr tweets, “At this point in history, Louise Glück—my grad thesis advisor  & a poet I deeply admire—wrote a minstrel show Nobel speech. In 1789, Blake’s ‘Black Boy’ might have passed as ‘abolitionist’, but it came out of a shoe-polished white face. Wake TF up.” But others go further, and like an ink stain on a white shirt that both ruins and defines the entire piece of clothing, they look at the speech as a lens into her poetics more generally. That the intimate private voice she extols in the speech above the public utterance is itself formed from a Switzerland-like desire for white transcendence from context. I don’t need you to speak to her or to Caravaggio necessarily—though you can if you want—but I’m curious about these questions for you: like, when you are engaged and love the art of an artist who’s also upholding something you abhor.

TC: That’s a typically rich David Naimon question, [laughter] so let’s see how we shall approach that. I think the question is about two things. One is about the making of this Caravaggio essay which—I can’t even remember now how long it is, it’s something like 10,000 words—it’s by far the longest thing I’ve ever published in a magazine. It came out in the New York Times Magazine last fall. There’s that essay itself, then there’s this larger or narrower question of relating to, let’s say, “troublesome” artists. One of the questions I tried to draw out in writing that essay was: what does it mean to write a travel piece for the New York Times Magazine? You cited earlier my essay “When the Camera Was a Weapon of Imperialism.” I think the New York Times is a weapon of imperialism, and I think travel pieces for the New York Times often serve in that role because, for the presumed reader, the world is available to be consumed. “How do we enjoy, benefit from, and remain awake to the world at large without cannibalizing the world of others?” is the question I’m trying to approach in my work. It’s not necessarily the thing that interests the New York Times or the New York Times Magazine the most—at least from the business side. I’m fortunate that there, I actually have a great editor who wants to sit with me, think through these things, and figure out with me how much we can get away with on the pages of the magazine. I think we’ve done some strong pieces together. I went out there—the travel for this piece actually happened in 2016 with the idea that I would follow Caravaggio around, I love his paintings, and I would somehow connect it to the refugee crisis, that was the proposal—that’s what I went out there, that’s what I researched, that’s what I tried to do. When I came back and I wrote my first draft. It actually took me a long time to write the first draft, maybe, not until 2017, it was very hard to organize this material. When I wrote the first draft, I was disgusted by it because it read like a pleasant travel piece. It took me about another three years to get it right because I realized that writing something that simply flatters the art historical interests of a presumed middle and upper middle class white audience is not what I want to do with my time. It’s not how I want to expend my emotional treasure. What I tried to do in the piece was grapple with: What does it even mean to be out here looking at this thing, looking at this man’s work? What does it mean to be engaging these other people? How do I think about my privilege of looking at art which is a privilege that is also absolutely therapeutic and life-saving for me? You could be taking insulin for your diabetes and recognize it as a privilege, but also recognize it as a necessity. And yet here are the dead, the dying, the profoundly endangered: and so I had to work my way towards making it a more difficult and more tortured piece, and that’s what it ended up being. I think it started out with a more innocent love of Caravaggio. I think it ended up saying, “I know what Caravaggio does for me, how he helps me with the problems of being human, and meanwhile, fuck Caravaggio.” [laughter] I think that helped me find some language around difficult artists. I think it’s also important not to jump on all this stuff in the most obvious way. We’re all in the world, there’s a very vanishingly small number of miscreants who are deserving of metaphorical or actual deletion. I think that’s a small number. I think the much greater number is in a gray zone and it becomes a question of saying, “Whose work at which moment helps me with my own deeper project of human-ing, of repair?” You have to have such a deep respect for that project that you will use whatever helps you do it better. That’s my attitude to a lot of artists, including those who have done harm. It’s not a blanket thing, it’s not an easily-arrived-at thing. I’m even wary of getting to name specific people, because the person whose work I think has some aspect that allows me to strengthen my own ethical commitments in the world, even if the person has done some other harm that is not present inside that specific aspect of their work, that person—whomever it might be, if I were to name that person—could be somebody who’s actively doing harm to somebody else; or, to somebody else, that person is: “No way no how, not this guy, not this woman, not this person.” Because they don’t need it that way. And vice versa, there are other people whose stuff it’s like, “You know what, I like your work well enough but then on top of all of this, actually, there’s plenty in the world, I don’t really need to mess with all that, I don’t need to be inside that space.” So, I think these matters invite a great deal of public grandstanding but ultimately, each person decides for themselves what difficulties they’re willing to—absolutely not overlook—but what difficulties fail to obliterate the value of certain aspects of a person’s work. The world is actually not divided between the innocent and the evil. The world is, for the most part, people who have gotten lots of things right and people who have gotten the same people have gotten lots of things wrong, for reasons of their own personality, egregious errors they’ve made, the societies in which they live, their own lack of courage. The last thing I’ll say about that is that is absolutely true of those of us in our generation as well, particularly from the point of view of coming generations. They’re going to ask us how we could sit there complacently while China incarcerated more than a million people and forced them into labor, and killed untold numbers simply because they were suspected of having a faith that the Chinese leadership does not like. The future will look at us and say, “You guys just filled your houses with Chinese-made goods? That was fine by you apparently?” In comparison to that, Louise Glück’s admittedly bad speech will come to look like a complete trifle compared to some of our own staggering blind spots.

DN: Including the masks that we wear which are being made by Uighurs in forced labor camps.

TC: Right. And when you said, “including the masks we wear,” I actually thought you meant metaphorically. But our literal masks, and our metaphorical masks as well, because part of the coin of the realm, of course, is to present oneself as, in some way, morally flawless. I don’t think we’re all deeply flawed, morally. I have no basis for saying we all are. I think most of us are. I would even venture that the quicker the willingness to participate in certain takedowns, the more likely that some self-examination is in order. And all of this is said with an acknowledgement that we also live in a tremendous moment for collective search for the repair of harm of various kinds that have been ignored.

DN: Yeah. I want to stay for another moment with Caravaggio, in a celebratory way in terms of his art. You definitely opened my eyes to an artist that I didn’t know well, but I wanted to read this quote from Jorie Graham about him, about his painting Supper at Emmaus, “I often teach a painting of Caravaggio’s, Supper at Emmaus. Christ is sitting before us in an alcove against the ‘back wall’ of the painting. We face into a dinner table covered with things for the meal. We are quite sure that the edge of this table is identical with the absolute front of the canvas. But then one undergoes a troubling sensation. The basket of fruit, the edge of the wicker basket, sticks out into our ‘actual’ space, our here and now. The host suddenly recognizes the stranger at his table as Christ and throws open his arms.  His left hand comes out, beyond the border – further than the sacramental grapes in their wicker – out here into the same air that you (and I) are breathing in the National Gallery. At the same time, his right hand penetrates the crucial illusionistic space, the alcove in which Christ sits. What he does, by going like this, is enact what it is to be ‘taken’ by surprise, to be, suddenly in that spiritual place where the otherness of the world, of possibility, ‘turns’ one’s soul – taking one off the path of mere ‘ongoingness’ onto the other path of ‘journey.’ You suddenly realize Caravaggio has activated what I call the ‘sensation of real time’: the time of the painting’s represented action has crossed over into the time in which my only days are taking place. So you cannot read the painting without being inside the terms of the painting, which are these graduating degrees of temporality: mortal time, immortal time, represented time, actual time, the ‘time’ of process. The host is crucified in this position – a position the artist is also in – saying, ‘You reader and you subject (God, Christ), I have put you two together. It’s my job. That’s what the meal is. That’s what we eat.’” I just love this intimacy, this doubleness, this three-dimensionality which seems to connect back to a lot of what we’ve talked about and also, to Derrida on hospitality and the way he reverses, he makes the host the guest of the guest, and the guest the host of the host. And it’s a breaking down of barriers, the sudden disillusion between the host-guest relationship.

TC: Of course, those are words that have the same Indo-European root: ghost and guest.

DN: Ghost and guest.

TC: Ghost, guest, and host actually all have the same etymological root. Yeah, that’s a wonderful passage by Jorie Graham. She’s a great colleague here at Harvard. She’s also somebody I admire very much. There’s a chain of generosity that’s happened there in Caravaggio’s work, her reading of it, your enjoyment of that, your sharing it with me. This is one of the things that art can offer us, can offer a space for collective wonder. It can propose a parenthesis in our experience of the world. Our life is: we wake up, there’s that little bit of pain in your back, there’s email, there are bills, there are the people you love, there might be small simmering conflicts that you have to sort out, there are duties, there are larger fears, there is societal breakdown: all of it is thrumming. But perhaps you have the opportunity to read a great poem, perhaps you have the opportunity to look at a painting and think with it. I think this also extends to cooking a good meal, taking a long hike. Or even just: you’re coming back from your night shift, you’ve got your headphones on and you’re deep inside a song that has been made by someone. To go back to the cave paintings for a second: if I’m having a moment where I’m trying to imagine someone, let’s say 35,000 years ago, putting pigment onto a rock in contact with the divine, that these millennia later, there is something that is still emanating from it. The person who made that is a conduit for something that we’re doing collectively as humans. She or he is putting it up there, I am receiving it, we’re collaborating. I’m trying to say something about the character of the cave painter, which I don’t know about, which I can’t really know about: this might have been somebody who was brutal in certain ways that might have been in keeping with the customary practices in that community, this might have been somebody who was brutal in a way that went above and beyond what was customary in that place. In other words, it is possible that the cave painter might have been a bad actor. I implicitly accept this somehow. I mean, often, we don’t even think about it but implicitly, we accept it. There’s something I’m trying to think with there. It has to do with respecting what’s complicatedly human in yourself while trying to care for who needs to be cared for. What I don’t want is to flatten myself. Ultimately, I don’t agree with Sun Ra that the planet Earth only produces dead human bodies [laughs]. The planet Earth also produces human life in collaboration with air, sunlight, and all those things that come from outer space, but it produces human life. Human life has so much in it. I believe that the balance just comes out on the side of “it’s worth it.”

DN: Thinking of the Caravaggio Supper at Emmaus and the sudden shift of vision, not just of the people at the table who suddenly realize that the stranger at the table is the resurrected Christ but also the way Jorie Graham describes the shift of vision for the viewer as well: I wanted to ask you about faith in your work. This question of hospitality and of seeing the divinity in the stranger feels very much part of your work. You engage with many stories from the Bible, and like James Baldwin, you very much grew up in the church with faith but you’ve also described a sudden loss of it, I wondered if you could maybe speak into that a little bit for us, or about how the disappearance of it has echoed forward in terms of how it informs your art making.

TC: I think what I’ve been learning in my life, along the timeline of what one calls a life—in which it so happens that the things you know at 15 might not be as rich or full as the things you know at 30, then at 45 you’ve complicated things even further because you’ve experienced more—I can say that one thing I’ve learned is that vision is not a final thing, a way of looking at the world is not established once and for all, it’s always vulnerable to new information and to new experiences. I would say the role that Christianity, in particular—let’s say faith in general but Christianity in particular—plays in my life is there’s still an echo of it in my life even though at a certain point in my mid- to late 20s, I realized that this was not my path. It echoes because I still have a recognition of a need for language with which to deal with what life proposes. But that raises a question of why leave it? Why not do the work inside that space? Probably the biggest thing for me, at the time I thought it was because, “Well, there’s no evidence that this is more true than anything else, why should I commit myself to what seems a random choice?” Then maybe, my later self would say, “And besides, a colonially imposed choice.” But ultimately, it’s actually really not about any of those things, it’s not about whether it’s colonial, it’s not about whether it’s random, and it’s not about whether it’s provable. What I find now to be the core of why I needed to leave it is that it was a narrow vision of what life could be. Specifically, I think that Christianity gives a poor account of other people’s lives, people who are not in Christianity. Christianity doesn’t seem to know what to really do with them. In its harsher and more stringent forms, of course, it just says, “They go to hell, because they don’t believe.” But even in its softer forms, it seems to think that people who don’t have Christ in their lives are somehow malformed, incomplete, unfulfilled. My experience of life is that that’s not the case. I would say definitely, it was a move towards having a more robust sense of how to look at the mystery of being in the world. I say all this understanding well that for some people, Christianity is the tool for being in the world. They can live perfectly fulfilled lives doing that, just as lots of people can do that with Islam in their life, lots of people can do it with Buddhism, and lots of people can do it without any religious belief. But for me, that delimitation, that being inside a belief system that on some level thought that Hindus were wrong, or that gay people were not quite complete, or that women were somehow less, or that whiteness was in a way central, all of that just seemed to me a somewhat impoverished way of living the one life that I had.

DN: Yeah. I think it’s interesting that you bring up vision being provisional and incomplete, if we take that in relationship to faith as you just presented it. In one of your books, we see you when you’re younger in Nigeria, when you’re still a believer laying hands on someone’s eyes to heal their poor vision. But later on in life, you yourself lost your sight temporarily, and for a while didn’t know if it would come back or would come back the same way. It makes sense thinking about that experience or imagining myself into that experience of yours, that you would have a book called Blind Spot, that the epilogue of Known and Strange Things would also be called “Blind Spot,” that blind spots would be explicitly mentioned in Open City, and that in Human Archipelago there would be meditations on the eyes of blind people who had been photographed. But the most uncanny thing is—if I have the timeline correct—is that you also engaged with blind spots prior to your own brush with blindness. There’s a character in your first book, Every Day Is for the Thief, who is wounded in one eye, always rubbing it while observing the narrator who is observing Nigeria. I guess this is a two-pronged question [laughter]: I’d love to hear more about how the physical loss of sight changed the way you thought of looking afterwards. But also, as someone who would no longer look to a cosmological or spiritual answer for what seems like an insanely, uncanny coincidence that this focus on eyes and loss of vision predates your actual lived experience of a loss of vision, I was curious what story you tell yourself around that fascination with the eye and the failing eye, prior to your eye having that experience.

TC: You know David, I have the experience now that probably, many of your guests have had which is of being moved and impressed by, again, the depth of your research and your preparation. Because the way you’ve just strung together those pearls of the places in my work where I’m directly engaging with questions of blind spots. It’s not the most unusual question for me to get—obviously, I have a book with that title and as you allude to, I actually had a diagnosis that was called the big blind spot syndrome. So far so uncanny. But you might be one of three or four people in my own engagement with the readership of Every Day Is for the Thief, that first book, who has mentioned that character. I think that’s because a lot of people are reading this almost as if it’s a memoir, they’re just reading past certain strategies inside the book, but that character who recurs several times—usually wearing a blue cap, usually rubbing an eye or troubled in his eyes somehow, a very obviously fictional character even in a book that has a extensive non-fictional framing to it—he’s one of my favorite characters. He’s a kind of angel. He’s a witnessing angel who is there in many scenes as someone else who’s watching. The things he’s watching are hard to watch in general. He’s also not really of our world, he’s here and he’s not here; I think that is often accompanied by some physical frailty. So much for that character. Then as you mentioned, that is a concern that then thickens through my various works, [laughs] I’m actually writing something right now that once again, has eye trouble for a leading character. The coincidence is that I wrote very explicitly, not just about eye trouble but actually, about blind spots in Open City. It was a few months after that book was published that I first had my own eye trouble. Nevertheless, coincidences can be indicative somehow, they can be barometric in a way or sensitive to environmental conditions. Coincidence doesn’t seem quite the right term for it, it’s a kind of sensitivity to how one might engage with reality. Ultimately, with blindness on the one hand and ethical narrative commitments on the other, I think what I found was a metaphoric tool that was helpful for me. I really think that’s what it is, it’s a way of thinking. I don’t necessarily think people who are blind are wiser. I did not enjoy at all temporarily losing my vision. Every now and again it still happens, and I am alarmed by it. I don’t think it’s cool, I don’t think it’s great, and yet, like certain other forms of pain, it concentrates the mind and it ushers in an experiential parenthesis, into which something else might be made manifest. There’s a way infirmity can force us into a kind of humility. Thinking around blindness in that way has been somewhat helpful for me.

DN: When I think about you talking about it as a metaphoric tool, then also thinking about this witnessing angel of this character—one of your favorite characters but an overlooked character by others—it brings me back to the metaphor you used at the beginning of our conversation, that you then admitted feeling uncomfortable with its implications several times in the conversation: of being like a secret serviceman, like being at the event and being on the margins, and seeing somebody else who’s also witnessing with you; you’re part of but also not part of. But I wonder if, maybe, the witnessing angel is a less problematic metaphor for you.

TC: I think so. Did you want to finish the question?

DN: The reason why I thought the secret service was also a kind of great problematic metaphor to bring in, or the surveillance state, is because of when we think about now and the debate going on now around the coup at the Capitol: were the police infiltrated by white supremacists or did the police arise originally as the arm of white supremacy? There’s that historical, political, philosophical debate around the framing but also, the way in which I think of something you’ve written about the camera, when we talk again about neutrality. And we’re talking about, maybe, we would think of the secret services only having the best interests of protecting people at heart, and that the camera is a neutral technology like Switzerland was a neutral country. You’ve talked about how the camera physically was designed, from the film emulsions to the light meter, to pick up white skin so that it is not something that was produced to pick up black skin properly or well. In a way, it feels like another failing eye, that maybe you’re working against the way it fails, both in your writing and in your photography. I just wanted to hear about that because I love that, the awareness of looking at looking, I guess.

TC: Yeah, to begin with the secret service agent and that particular metaphor, I’m glad we came back to it because now. I’m questioning, maybe, the little bit of shame I felt around it and now, I’m saying to myself, maybe the response is not shame but the awareness that when I needed a metaphor for counter vigilance, this is the one I reached for: the person who’s in the room, who’s looking elsewhere, who’s not looking onstage, who’s looking at the crowd and trying to understand their intent and all that. Why? Because those stories are available to us. I’ll get to the question of the camera’s vision in a second, please remind me if I don’t. But let’s sit with this secret agent thing. Our discursive practices arise out of the mythologies in which we are immersed. In contemporary Western societies, we read detective novels, we watch movies about cops, good cops, superheroes carrying guns, secret service agents, entire films devoted to protecting the president, entire TV series about cops solving crimes, these things educate our sympathies while pretending to merely entertain us. Rarely, are these films exploring the question of why should, let’s say, a president be surrounded by an entire phalanx of gun carrying individuals who are there to protect his or her life. Usually his. It proposes, but only implicitly, the question of “is it the case that violence can only properly be preserved with further violence?” Why do some national leaders have, maybe, one person in their security detail, some guy who also doubles as the driver? Why do others need an entire paramilitary unit? I would think this is all directly related to how much violence that particular leader is involved with, structurally. But the movies just teach us that the president is worth protecting, the movies don’t teach us about who must be protected from the president. In these films, the president is, of course, always presented as an innocent individual who’s hated for some random reason. But I think what I’m talking about does extend to the innocent way many of us consume detective novels, crime series, and all of that. It’s just teaching us a way of being in the world. For example, in the world, there’s such a thing as “crime,” which has to be solved by cops. All of these things that get in the way of an abolitionist imagination, which is really where we need to be. I think there are better metaphors for, let’s say, optical vigilance. It just takes patience, working on oneself, and being alert to it. I will say one more thing about that man in the blue cap and with the eye trouble in Every Day Is for the Thief. That is a character that is, in a way, inspired and influenced by a recurring character in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog. Throughout that series, there are fleeting appearances by a young man on a bicycle, he has no narrative or structural role, he’s just a witness. For me, I immediately read him as a kind of angel. And he’s something I often think about. The question of the emissary and the hope of being in contact with these emissaries is something that I sit with a lot because they see from outside the system, and are not in a hurry to make a judgment that will compromise the process that’s in place, which is a process of human beings figuring themselves out. Okay, now, we turn to the cameras. I like the way you describe it, that the camera itself is a kind of optical operation that has flaws. It’s an optical operation that has a limitation by design. I think that’s very much the case, I think it’s something that is really not being dealt with by photographers, photo editors, the photo industry. I think people are very interested in being innocent, they do want to say, “Well, I went to this place and I took these marvelous photos.” They don’t want to deal with questions of, “How did you come to have the opportunity to go to that place?” “Who is there?” “What is the relationship of your power to their power or their lack thereof?” “Who are the images being made for?” and “In what way does that perpetuate power imbalances?” I’ll just end that train of thought by citing something strange that I saw in the past day or so. I think one of the people arrested in the assault on the Capitol—which I don’t know what it is technically, I don’t know if it’s a coup, I don’t think it is actually, I grew up on the coups, but I think technically, this is an insurrection of some kind, but in any case, that’s all terminology—one of the people who was arrested had been claiming to be a journalist, and clearly was there in some kind of journalistic role: taking and making pictures, recording to a certain extent, but I think this person can also be heard supporting the action. I did not read very deeply into the article but I think the claim that’s been made is, “You clearly support them, you’re not a journalist.” The unfinished thought I had about that was, what does that make every American journalist who was in Iraq, every British journalist? Almost all of whom were there on a tacit or explicit form of, “Oh, we obviously support our troops, but we’re here to document.” How is that different from these people leading an assault and having, within their ranks, people documenting that? Just asking. Just wondering about that. When you have an ABC News camera or a Washington Post photojournalist embedded with the troops in Afghanistan, that person’s a hostile party from the point of view of combatants on the other side. Our understanding of journalism is that, “No, that person is not.” We have a lot invested in maintaining the innocence of such persons. But the violent reality is that they are part of the enterprise, specifically if they’re embedded with the troops, they are part of the war effort to the extent that they are also participating in its propaganda.

DN: Jenny Erpenbeck, in her speech called “Blind Spots”—which is about the refugee situation in Europe—connects the ear to the eye in a way when she says, “LISTENING IS AN ART—it is a risk—because those blind spots hide our own guilt and impotence.” It’s perhaps an awkward pivot to use this connection of the ear and the eye, but my next question is lighthearted. Thinking of listening as an art, talk to us about your playlists and tell us a little bit about what that’s doing for you? Because it’s something that is enduring, it’s one of the most delightful things across time, this temporal project of, this amassment of, this incredible archive of music that you’ve curated for our benefit.

TC: Thank you. I’m very glad to have you as a listener. Even though Spotify is such an inconvenient place in which to present these playlists, I think the playlists are publicly offered forms of secrecy. Somebody out there in the world puts on headphones and they’re hearing music that I haven’t made, but then they hear the next song and the next song, and that order has been determined by me, so I’m inviting them not into what a particular song is doing, I’m inviting them into the experience of, say, an hour which is exactly the same hour that I experienced inside the time of the playlist. I think much like radio or like a podcast, it becomes a way of curating a common experience that is being encountered in isolation. It is collective and isolated, much like the way we live now. One of the things I really enjoy though, about doing the playlist, is that—as you suggested, this is something I spent a lot of time on, it is an absolutely non-paying part of my labor—there is an element of collective service to it but there’s also a very salutary element of non-compensated service that is happening there. It’s non-monetary. I really think under our current systems, people should be paid for their labor. And yet it can very much come as a relief to have carefully put something together from which absolutely no financial benefit in any shape or form could accrue. In that sense, it feels like a real genuine gift both from me to the listeners, but also from the listeners because it takes the generosity of others to spend time with what you have made. I’m glad you asked about the playlists, because I would have to say it’s one of my own deep consolations and one of my great joys. By the way, they’re not that easy to find just because of the way Spotify is set up. People who search my name on Spotify will find a bunch of fugazi, as in, made-up stuff by people who are not me. But if you go to my website, I actually have the playlist organized on there, and people can find their way from there.

DN: Maybe, as a final extended question as someone who’s a border crosser and a breaker down of barriers between spaces, I wanted to read a couple things that you said, then ask you a question. “In one enciphering corner of my mind I believe still that every line in every poem is the orphaned caption of a lost photograph. By a related logic, each photograph sits in the antechamber of speech.” You also said, “At times I feel as though the photographs and captions in Blind Spot have escaped from a novel named Open City, or that there are things said here, and which belong here, that first belonged in Known and Strange Things.” “The property of being distinguishable is independent of the property of being distinct—I can distinguish between my practices, but that doesn’t mean they are distinct.” Then lastly, “More than form or genre, what interests me is the secret channel that connects the work to other work. Tarkovsky calls it ‘poetry,’ this link that allows different kinds of excellence to understand one another. Nothing that remains solely within its genre succeeds as poetry. When I make a work…If everything else succeeds but the poetry fails, then everything has failed.” By this definition, it feels like you already write poetry, but I know you are a deep lover of poetry. I also know in reading your work, where the prose is becoming more distilled over time, and spare, you’ve created a desire in me to read your poetry. I was just curious if we might ever get Teju Cole poems.

TC: [laughs] That’s very nice, David. Well, if I “might ever”: that’s a large question because I don’t know where the “ever” will take me. [laughter] At the moment, I read a lot of poets and it’s possible I’ve cited more poets today than writers of prose because those are the streams from which I’m fed. I don’t plan to become a poet in part because I was thinking about the wonderful violinist, Hilary Hahn. I was thinking: somebody like Hilary Hahn is so good at violin, if she took up cello, she’d probably be pretty good as well. But it would also be a shock like, “Why are you taking up cello? [laughs] Why don’t you just keep getting better at violin?” I think she’s not going to take up cello because she has too much respect for how difficult it is to play cello. She knows it particularly because she plays violin. Meanwhile, while she’s playing violin, she can do a lot of things with it—all kinds of music, collaborations, composition, and all that. I think that poetry is very difficult to write. I think if I put my heart to it, I could write some pretty good poems. But I just have too much respect for not just how difficult it is to write poetry, but that to do something much better than “competent” in any field requires: years of work familiarizing yourself with the problems of that field; accumulating a certain number of failures; and getting a certain amount of imitativeness out of your system, as well as a certain amount of unproductive innovation. It’s both that you have the risk of resting too much on your models and the risk of being too original. It takes years to figure all of that out.

DN: As a poet, in the Tarkovsky sense—because I think you are a poet in the Tarkovsky sense—as someone who allows different kinds of excellence to understand one another, I just feel a great gratitude for your work as poetry, the way you connect me to the past, the way you connect me to ancestral knowledge, the way you connect me to the present moment, the way you open my eyes to new art or to other ways of seeing the political.

TC: I feel very, very moved by that, and abashed by it, and very grateful for it. The goal, as I said in that passage, is to try to find a way there. It’s so hard to find the word for it, and maybe because I admire poetry so much, I had to lean on that word without wanting to claim to be a poet…

DN: I’ll claim it for you. [laughs]

TC: But I can propose a slightly different metaphor. Do you know about kintsugi?

DN: Yes.

TC: Yeah, so, Japanese joinery, basically golden joinery. You take the shards of a broken pot, and you repair it with pieces of molten metal so that when the thing is restored—getting us back to repair—you have something where the breaks are absolutely visible. Sometimes it’s made of gold, so that what’s most visible is where they joined; sometimes lead. So let me not claim gold for myself, but let me claim lead. I want to try to be like the pieces of lead joinery between all these things that I care about. I truly feel, when there’s a photograph that I’ve taken that works, it does feel like I have recovered a fragment from somewhere. When I have an essay, less often a book, but in the larger arc of all these things, everything now seems to be a search. Something got broken primordially and I’m responsible for gathering up the fragments in one particular section of the shared house, one fragment after another, and joining them so that what is presented has all the seams visible. And if I’m never a poet, that’s fine too, the world has so many great poets, why just go out there and then be an ordinary one?

DN: Yes. It was extraordinary having you on the show today, Teju Cole.

TC: This was a very rich blessing for me in a time of trouble in our shared world. Thank you, David. I was really looking forward to this. It was good to be here.

DN: Me too. We’ve been talking today to the author, Teju Cole. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers, I’m David Naimon, your host.


Today’s program was not recorded at the studios of KBOO but at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener sponsored, full strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Teju Cole’s work including his wide and wondrous world of Spotify playlists at Teju also adds a three-part reading to the bonus audio archive of John Berger, of Etel Adnan, and finally, of a letter to John Berger that is part of Teju’s as of yet unpublished essay collection, Black Paper. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, head over to to learn about the various benefits of becoming a listener supporter. From joining conversations that shape the future of the show to bonus audio from Teju Cole, John Keene, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Carmen Maria Machado, N. K. Jemisin, Nikky Finney, and Layli Long Soldier, to becoming a Tin House early reader, receiving books months before they’re available to the general public. All of these and much more can be found at Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at Don’t forget to check out Johanna Hedva’s new book, Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain at I’d like to thank the Tin House team who helped make this show run as smoothly as it does, Elizabeth Demeo, Alyssa Ogie, Spencer Ruchti of the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Yashwina Canter in Publicity and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro, their album Imre Lodbrog & sa petite amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at