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Teju Cole: Artists Must “Think Beyond the Conventional”

Novelist and essayist Teju Cole talked about politics, social media, and the writing process on April 7 at this semester’s final WLP Reading Series event.

Cole, author of the PEN/Hemingway Award–winning novel Open City, the novella Every Day Is for the Thief, and a regular contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Granta, spoke to students, faculty, and staff in the Beard Room in a Q&A moderated by Associate Professor Kimberly McLarin.

Following the Q&A, Cole read from his upcoming book of essays, Known and Strange Things.

McLarin asked Cole what he believes the role of the artist is, and if he considers himself an “incorrigible disturber of the peace”—one definition of an artist given by James Baldwin, whom Cole wrote about in a New Yorker essay.

Cole began his answer by referencing Baldwin and his contemporaries.

“One thing that strikes me when you read the older folks, folks who did the struggle before our time: Simultaneously they had more courage than we did and…more generosity,” he said.

Cole said much of the friction encountered by black people who were writing and leading during the 1950s and ’60s came from people within their own movement, and that, as a progressive, it’s both necessary and scary to “disturb the peace, even for people on your team.

“Your job is to think beyond the conventional and to think past what is ‘acceptable,’” he said.

Social media tends to encourage a quick gelling of “sides,” but doesn’t really lend itself to deep, nuanced debate, said Cole, who is considered a prolific and adept user of social media.

“Social media, the way it makes its money, the way the dragon lives, is through what they call engagement,” Cole said. “It’s not actually a space for thought; it’s a space for noise.”

Cole said he’s been noticing a phenomenon on social media, particularly Facebook, in which he’ll post an opinion on something and a group of people, who generally agree with him, fixate on a line or use of a word.

He gave as an example a post in which he compared Donald Trump’s alleged “honesty” as “a form of moral incontinence,” and then went on to say Trump shouldn’t be praised for what he’s saying any more than someone should be praised for soiling themselves. He was lambasted by people who were outraged that he would talk about intestinal incontinence in a negative way.

“I just feel like what is politically more productive for us is [asking]…what are we building toward? Who do we wish to be in relation to the rights of other people and their autonomy?” Cole said. “I don’t think the core of our progress is about slips of the tongues.”

When asked by an audience member about how he develops his writing style, Cole said his essay about James Baldwin, “Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s ‘Stranger in the Village,’” “damn well near killed me.”

The first draft (“one of my worst”) was 12,000 words, and it went through about 12 drafts before getting down to 5,000 words or so. The entire process only took about 10 days, “but it was 10 days of not showering, not eating.”

“That is where the real work resides,” he earlier told the audience member, “is to find a way of saying it that is worth saying.”

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