Everything Is Fair Game In 'Known And Strange Things' Teju Cole's new essay collection covers politics, poetry, music and even Snapchat. "I love to live things," he says — and he recommends Miles Davis as a cure for election season stress.
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Everything Is Fair Game In 'Known And Strange Things'

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Everything Is Fair Game In 'Known And Strange Things'

Everything Is Fair Game In 'Known And Strange Things'

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For the writer Teju Cole, everything is fair game - politics, photography, music, Snapchat. His essays roam among decades, genres and media, drawing unexpected parallels. His latest book is called "Known And Strange Things." It's a collection of essays written for publications like The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. Teju Cole told me he's an enthusiast. He loves to love things, which means he doesn't mind writing about something that has already been deemed great, like Beethoven's music.

TEJU COLE: I can sort of understand that Beethoven is great, but that's not what's interesting about him to me. What's interesting is that there's somebody who was writing music in the 18-teens and I'm listening to it in the 21st century. And I'm actually being moved by it much as I might be moved by Corinne Bailey Rae doing a song that she wrote last year. So to see the commonality, to sort of let that history dissolve and know that art can not only transcend the years, but that it can also transcend all the layers of commentary that have accreted on top of it. So for that reason, I try not to give myself any complexes about any of the stuff I approach.

SHAPIRO: I don't want to oversimplify things, but do you think that your own history as having been born in the United States, grown up in Africa, moved back to the United States, sort of your history as a quite literal boundary crosser allows you to cross boundaries in this more, I don't know, artistic way?

COLE: I think it helps a bit. But I think culture itself is moving that direction anyway, where being omnivorous is normal. How do I put it? The individual who is at the center of our formal political arrangement is the president of the United States. But when he releases his summer playlist or his reading list, it is extremely eclectic. And it is expected to be extremely eclectic. And, of course, we're aware that there's extreme elements of calculation and...

SHAPIRO: Sure (laughter).

COLE: ...You know, propaganda and...

SHAPIRO: ...That playlist was vetted by staff.

COLE: Absolutely vetted, you know? But having said all that, I'm not doing it in order to be zeitgeisty (ph), you know?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) There's a line early on in one of the essays that really made me pause, where you said (reading) I find this stern distinction between fiction and nonfiction odd. It's not at all a natural way of splitting up the narrated experience, just as we don't go around the museum looking for fictional or nonfictional paintings.

COLE: That's right. We want to be moved. We want our eye to be enchanted. So when I look at an exhibition of Degas - like, there was a great one at MOMA recently - I don't say, oh, that painting, is it nonfiction? Because what actually matters is the state of enchantment he's able to make out of fictional and nonfictional material. So this insistence in writing, I mean, I understand it for sure if we're writing a news report. Stuff needs to be factually crosschecked. But we also have to understand that in the writing itself, there's so much artful placement and arrangement. What we really want to be is in the presence of somebody who has thought about something and has delivered their thoughts in a composed and edited way.

SHAPIRO: Your description of the importance of a writer shaping the words actually makes me think of the essay, "What It Is."

COLE: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: And it begins with a quote from CNN, October 2014. And the quote is (reading) Ebola - the ISIS of biological agents.

COLE: You could see what they were going for there, right? They were doing a little bit of fear-mongering, certainly, but they were also trying to contextualize in a way that ended up falling flat. But why did it fall flat? It's because the entire world for them becomes fodder for their brand of hyped news.

SHAPIRO: So you go on to write...

COLE: And so I go on to write a riposte to it, which begins (reading) is Ebola the ISIS of biological agents? Is Ebola the Boko Haram of AIDS? Is Ebola the al-Shabab of dengue fever? Some say Ebola is the Milosevic of West Nile virus. Others say Ebola is the Ku Klux Klan of paper cuts.

SHAPIRO: I feel a little guilty. In a book full of so much serious analysis I'm having major...

COLE: ...Don't feel guilty about it because those essays tried to meet their material with requisite thoughtfulness and seriousness, hopefully. And when you confront absurdity, the only counter you have to it is absurdity.

SHAPIRO: You have this wonderful library in your head of cultural, literary, artistic references. And I get the sense from reading this collection that when life gets to be too much, like many people, one of your coping mechanisms is to reach for something artistic or literary or historical that speaks to it. Would you mind, on a practical level, making a recommendation or two for a given scenario?

COLE: Yeah, sure. I'm game.

SHAPIRO: I mean, for example, I think many people feel overwhelmed with the onslaught of presidential election coverage. If you were feeling that way, what might you reach for?

COLE: You know, in times like this, especially in this present moment, there's this sort of tendency to be reactive to every small, little bit of news. In a way, that's actually not very productive for us because we know that what we actually need to do is go to the polls and do the necessary and not sort of keep up with every small outrage. So I actually find it tremendously helpful to focus my attention on things that are just really removed from this world and to just think about a different space. I've found it really lovely of late to go back to Miles Davis. And if I go back and listen to "Sketches Of Spain," for example, it just evokes a whole other world. It's a beautiful and perfectly made work of art that is helping me cope with the right now.

SHAPIRO: Teju Cole, thank you so much for your time.

COLE: This has been a great pleasure. Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Teju Cole's the author of the new essay collection, "Known And Strange Things."

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