Known and Strange Things

You write not after you’ve thought things though; you write to think things through. Andre Aciman

It took me a while to finish Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things, reading the sixty or so essays from time to time, over the course of several weeks.

Cole divided his essays into three sections: Reading Things, Seeing Things and Being There. Many of the essays deal with Cole’s love of photography, the pictures he takes, what is important to him in doing so and the works of other photographers he admires.

The essay I remember best is one he wrote while being in a somewhat remote Swiss town, Leukerbad, one that James Baldwin wrote about when he was in the same village (“Stranger in the Village”). Cole, also African-American, retraces Baldwin’s steps and what being a black person in an otherwise all white community felt like.

You are a black body first, before you are a kid walking down the street or a Harvard professor who has misplaced his keys…The remote village gave him [James Baldwin] a sharper view of what things looked like back home.”

Another of Cole’s essays explores the peculiar way Andre Aciman sometimes writes, a way that appeals to me greatly. Quoting Aciman:

What was missed was not just Egypt. What was missed was dreaming Europe in Egypt—what we missed was Egypt where we’d dreamed of Europe.

Monet “realized that he liked painting this town [Bordighera] more than he loved the town itself, because what he loved was more in him than in the town itself.

In writing about why he voted for Barack Obama in 2008, Cole says he voted not because my doing so would change the outcome, but because it would change himself.

Now voting for Obama, in spite of my strong objections both to some of his ideas and to much of the system in which he functioned, was a declaration, mostly to myself, that we participate in things not because they are ideal but because they are not.

Cole wonders how the “reader in chief” could now be embroiled in wars in all but name in Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in a word and in deed, so radically different from the president he became?

And in one of the last essays Cole writes about the rarely acknowledged freedom the military gives to us. I am not naïve about the incessant and unseen (by most of us) military activity that undergirds our ability to read, go to concerts, earn a living, and criticize the government in relative safety.

Comments like this appear throughout Cole’s essays and make Known and Strange Things such a pleasure to read.


Linda said...

Very interesting post - nothing better than a good collection of essays to savor over time. Aciman's comment about learning through writing really resonates with me. Writing was always my best teacher.

Cole's comments about the unaccustomed freedoms that African Americans enjoy in the armed services reminded me of a recent PBS documentary on WWI. One of the segments told the story of a company of African American soldiers who fought gallantly in France and were decorated for their heroism. The French treated them as equals, which astonished them. They thought their service in The Great War would earn them respect when they returned home. Not so. Racists could not allow them to hold their heads high. Two brothers returning home on a train were attacked in their rail car, and when they defended themselves, were shot dead by the mob. Other returning African American veterans were quickly reminded of their place with violence and intimidation. It was a heartbreaking slice of our history to watch.

Adding this book to my groaning list.

Richard Katzev said...

I agree about the value of writing. It is a test of your beliefs, the ability to express them clearly. Absent that, your beliefs remain in some kind of limbo.

The French have always accepted black individuals. That's why so many African Americans have gone to live in France, e.g. James Baldwin.

I will try to find the PBS documentary on African American soldiers in World War I. I think the same is true for those who served in World War II.

Stefanie said...

Oh this sounds most excellent. It is on my reading list already but I like hearing about how good it is, it gives me something to look forward to :)

Richard Katzev said...

I'm glad it's already on your list. I think you'll enjoy it, Stefanie. It's to be read slowly, every now and then when you have a few extra minutes. Some of his essays are brilliant. If you've not read his Open City, add it to your what I'm sure is your huge list.