At The Millions, Steve Paulson interviews Teju Cole about why he left Twitter, his photographic inspirations, how he delights in the beauty of sentence fragments, and his meditative approach to combining text and photography in his book, Blind Spot.
SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory.
TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal.
SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences?
TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way.
SP: So you don’t want a narrative that’s too self-contained and wraps everything up?
TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Excellent sentences and they’re somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings. But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it’s jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It’s about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it’s about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I’ve tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences.
I read Alana Massey’s essay collection, All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers, with a pencil in hand. I read it behind the counter at work when it was quiet and customer-free. I read it in bed, long after my partner and cat had fallen asleep. I read it in Starbucks when I should’ve been writing but needed inspiration. Massey is a writer I’ve followed since I became interested in journalism. I admired her incisive blend of pop culture and literary criticism. I especially loved when she wrote about religion—Massey spent time at Yale Divinity School—because I went to a conservative Christian college and I was yearning to see how I could translate my weird, vaguely traumatic religious background into beautiful sentences. I bought her book as a reward for myself for meeting a writing deadline.
This reading list is partially inspired by Massey’s excellent writing about the way our society honors and rejects celebrated women—and also about society’s inclination, if not blatant desire, to know every little detail about our favorite celebrities and judge them according to our own arbitrary moral standards. (I’m not immune to this: I spent ten minutes in bed Googling potential paramours of one of my favorite YouTube stars, even though I know it’s none of my damn business.) Why do we feel like we own celebrities—not just their art or their products, but their images and their personal lives? What do celebrities owe us, if anything?
In 2016, I published my New Year’s resolutions on Longreads. As 2017 dawns, I thought I’d check in with my old self, dust off 2016’s goals and set some new intentions.
1. Alas, I never did make it to Iceland, but I did a lot of domestic travel in 2016. In Washington State, I touched the Pacific Ocean for the first time and slept on a sailboat. In Asheville, I got a new tattoo and swooned inside Firestorm Books & Cafe. I saw friends and family marry in Richmond and Chautauqua. I saw Deaf West perform Spring Awakening and the one-weekend revival of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in NYC. I even visited Foamhenge! (That’s me in the photo above.) I’m returning to Asheville in 2017; beyond that, I have no concrete travel plans. Feel free to sponsor me on a trip to the ends of the Earth and back! I’ll write about it! For now, I’m seeing the world via the following essays from 2016:
As if last week—and 2016 in general—weren’t already difficult enough, we lost another beloved musical great, Leonard Cohen. The Canadian-born singer-songwriter, a prolific poet and novelist as well, leaves behind a huge body of work. What will become of it all? It made no difference to Cohen. Two years ago, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Cohen said he didn’t care.
In an interview timed to coincide with the release of Mr. Cohen’s 13th studio album, an event in turn coinciding with his 80th birthday, the man says essentially that he cares not at all what becomes of his work after he dies, nor what his legacy will be. The music? The poems? The novels? The life? He could give a damn.
Ouch, a Cohen believer might predictably reply.
They who tend to be a mite sensitive to begin with. And remember also the bad old days, before the present éminence grise phase of the career. When to speak too lovingly about Leonard Cohen was a sure way to get one’s emotional stability called into question. So now might be excused for getting their backs up. Certain that a blasphemy has gone down, in an “et tu, Brute” kind of way.
At least that’s what I feel, but why? What is it about Leonard Cohen that not only commands my interest but can also set off no small burst of emotion? Something else, too: what exactly is my legitimate stake in someone else’s posterity? Even as a fan. Somewhere in my bones I hear my late grandmother putting it this way: if Leonard Cohen doesn’t care what becomes of his work and legacy after he dies — what’s that your business?
We pulled into a gas station in rural North Carolina. My friend’s car took diesel; my boyfriend and I needed snacks. The man at the pump across from us looked toward the convenience store and shook his head. “Line’s an hour long,” he said. This was the evening the Powerball would be announced, and folks traveling from all over were lining up to buy last-minute tickets. During the six-hour car ride, we discussed what we’d do if we won. We weren’t going to win. But what if we did? My boyfriend said he’d give each of his coworkers a grand. I wanted to pay off my students’ loans and my parents’ mortgage, nary a dent in the hundreds of millions the Powerball promised after taxes. Wide-eyed, we three walked in. By the time I left the bathroom, the line had dwindled. We restocked on junk food. My boyfriend found a five-dollar bill in his jacket and bought two Powerball tickets. “Playing” the Powerball was passive. We exchanged money for goods; it didn’t feel like a game. But it did make us feel like a part of something bigger—until the winners were announced. I closed Twitter and sighed, and all we Powerballers went back to dreaming.
Let’s be real: My 2016 resolutions are intentionally vague. I tend toward self-loathing, so settling on achievable goals is important for my mental health. But I’m still excited for a fresh year and a fresh start, even if time is a social construct. My intentionally vague, utterly achievable resolutions are as follows: Read more…
I was sitting at my desk. He was still in the doorway. He probably wanted me to ask him to sit, but I didn’t want to. I wanted him to leave so I could finish making the copies and then have a cup of coffee with my husband, whose office is down the hall.
“You should know something,” he said.
I didn’t make eye contact — not because I’m shy but because I was hoping to indicate benevolent annoyance. “What’s that?” I said.
“People are talking,” he said.
“People are talking?”
“About your favorites.”
“Who your favorite students are.”
– At The Millions, author Hannah Pittard is equal parts fascinated and repulsed by favoritism. As a child, Pittard wanted to be the family favorite. Now an adult, Pittard must face her childhood desire to be loved and decide how she wants to translate her love for her nieces and her dedication to her students.
In college, I rearranged my majors and minors, all in the humanities, for years. I loved everything. Finally, I majored in English. It was fate—second-grade me was constantly in trouble for sneaking books under her desk. Majoring in English was both the joy and bane of my life. I struggled with a Faulkner-heavy Southern Lit course, even though Faulkner remains beloved. I groused about Shakespeare. I wrote my senior thesis on Michael Chabon. And I transformed my love for editing into a prestigious position on the college newspaper. My Lit Crit class—a notorious gauntlet at my college—introduced me to Derrida’s jeu and the revelation of feminist theory. I spent my time studying and socializing in the English department suite. I TA’d for the head of the department. When I am nostalgic for college, I am nostalgic for the English suite—for the camaraderie among my fellow students and best friends, my professors and mentors, and the dusty books and teacups and flyers.
A confession: today, I whined to my boyfriend about the great gigs my journalist friends have procured. Daily papers! Grad school! Photography internships! New York City! On my worst days, I feel envy and inferiority. On my best days, I go to the library and check on a huge stack of books, remind myself to be grateful for my temp job and come home to write for Longreads. I remember that I did something right. If I remember that, I will continue to do something right, to do something, write.
The strange story of Martin Amis’s lost book, Invasion of the Space Invaders, which offered tips on how to play video games like PacMan:
He is almost as enthusiastic about PacMan, although you get the sense that he sees it (in contrast to Space Invaders) as a fundamentally unserious endeavor. “Those cute little PacMen with their special nicknames, that dinky signature tune, the dot-munching Lemon that goes whackawhackawhackawhacka: the machine has an air of childish whimsicality.” His advice is to concentrate stolidly on the central business of dot-munching, and not to get distracted by the shallow glamor of the fruits: “Do I take risks in order to gobble up the fruit symbol in the middle of the screen? I do not, and neither should you. Like the fat and harmless saucer in Missile Command (q.v.), the fruit symbol is there simply to tempt you into hubristic sorties. Bag it.”