A young Gambian man, let’s call him D, waits in Syracuse. He arrived in Italy eight months previously, having been smuggled into the country by boat from Libya. D has an easy-going, intelligent manner – an unexpected grace given what he has endured. At a rendezvous with his companion for the afternoon, Teju Cole, D confesses that he has never set foot in a church: he was raised Muslim. As the two of them enter Santa Lucia alla Badia together, he is amazed that no one questions his presence. What a rare taste of unencumbered movement. The pair gaze in awe at Caravaggio’s early 17th-century painting Burial of Saint Lucy. It is enormous: 10ft across, more than 13ft tall. Centuries have passed and the effects of time show in the damage to large areas of paint, but the work is no less magnificent for it.
This vignette takes place in the first essay of Cole’s astonishing new collection. Cole is celebrated for his novels, Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief. But his curriculum vitae contains a great deal more: a PhD in art history from Columbia, opinion pieces on culture and politics in the New York Times, exhibitions of photography and, most recently, the Gore Vidal professorship of the practice of creative writing at Harvard. These jewel-like essays, developed from a series of lectures that Cole delivered at the University of Chicago in 2019, are testament both to his many talents and to the uncanny acuity with which he observes the world. His writing weaves together travelogue, art criticism and meditations on the cruelty of 21st-century politics. But it is perhaps ultimately about humanity’s grappling for meaning and belonging.
For all the righteous rage in these pages, Cole acknowledges the limits of literature to change the political world
Raised by Nigerian parents between Lagos and Kalamazoo, Michigan, Cole moves comfortably between places, peoples and cultures. At one point, he spots Edward Said on 116th Street in New York. This must be in the early 2000s, since Said is still with us, though in the twilight of his career as an intellectual, activist, orchestra impresario, negotiator for Palestinian rights, and one of the most transformative thinkers of the last half-century. Cole, by contrast, is a shabby graduate student. It is easy to see why he’s enamoured of the humanist icon who stands before him. Said is, as Cole puts it, “the word made flesh, the books in human form”. In the same essay, Cole takes us from New York to Ramallah where he confronts the “insult to human dignity that is military occupation”. His outrage consumes the page. He insists, rightly, that we must repudiate antisemitism and end the suffering of the Palestinian people. Anything less is unconscionable. We move to Beirut then Berlin in just a few passages. Cole renders these cityscapes as vivid fragments, the urban quartet bringing together the places that marked Said’s life. The result is really an elegy for Said; it is touching when Cole describes the late scholar as a “navigational help” who guided him toward his own style as a writer and thinker.
Said’s influence crops up again when Cole addresses the power of imagination to organise beliefs about Africa. “Have you ever heard anything so absurd?” he asks, “Africa, sun-stunned and light-inundated Africa, described as the ‘Dark Continent’?” The poverty and prejudice of the colonial imagination has a long, dishonourable history. Where might we find new vistas of appreciation for Africa in all its complexity? This question motivates an essay about the blockbuster film Black Panther. For all it did to establish a new mythology around African superheroes, Cole remains uncomfortable with how it cloaks the African experience in a simplistic grandeur aimed at delighting American eyes. As with everything Cole writes, though, there is more to his critique. Rather than being about a film, this essay is an interrogation of what it means to be African and Black in different settings. Cole teases out the diversity of Blackness; its ever-shifting and contingent and cultural meaning; its capacious and dissenting potential.
Cole’s attention to the texture of things makes for extraordinarily vivid writing. He evokes doom in the paintings of Caravaggio and imaginative abundance in the photography of Marie Cosindas and Lorna Simpson. He conjures the sensory pleasure of having a human body when he writes about nature, nowhere more luxuriantly than in his essay Experience: “With my eyes I see the bright light on the water, with my ears hear the thrum and splash of the water, with my nose smell the grass and alpine flowers. I bring water to my mouth and I can taste its mineral intensity … My fingers touch the stones rough and smooth, the bedlike grass, the marblelike pebbles, the fugitive water.” For Cole, such moments in art and literature and nature are, in the words of Seamus Heaney, like a “hurry through which known and strange things pass”.
Elsewhere, talk of water has a different significance. A recurring motif in this work is migration. In several essays, Cole reflects on the US-Mexican border. It bothers him like an inflamed wound that won’t – can’t – heal. The violence meted out to desperate travellers is heavy and atrocious. Those fleeing conflict, drowning in the Mediterranean or being sold into modern slavery face similar treatment. He rejects our use of “watery language” (a “flow”, “wave”, “flood”) when speaking of refugees. These are people, not inanimate objects whose movement is an aberration. I am reminded of Liisa Malkki’s analogous critique of botanical metaphors – soil for nation, uprootedness for displacement – that conceive of the natural/national order of things as sedentary. Of course it is only certain (usually dark) bodies whose movement tends to be punished and policed.
For all the righteous rage in these pages, Cole acknowledges the limits of literature to change the political world. Even so, I see it as fitting that he uses lyric essays to write about dark times. For me, that form’s beauty, its hope and its power lie in its lack of rigidity, its defiance of preconceived notions. What we see is an individual taking stock of their surroundings, a mode that Cole has mastered. To read this book is to enjoy the generosity of his thought, to be invited into a contemplation of your inner life, to embrace the complexity of others, and to see in the darkness not only despair but also understanding and even refuge.
• Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time by Teju Cole is published by the University of Chicago (£18). To support the Guardian and Observer, order a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.