Alongside his two critically acclaimed novels, Open City and Every Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole has long been recognised for his essays on a range of subjects. Whether tackling political issues or photography techniques, he’s been praised for his way with words and the meaning with which he imbues all of his topics. Known and Strange Things is a collection of some of those much lauded essays and, if nothing else, it certainly displays his versatility.
The collection begins with ‘Black Body’, an account of a trip he took to Leukerbad in Switzerland. This trip, some 60 years later, followed the exact same path that writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin took in 1951. Baldwin wrote of this experience in an essay called ‘Stranger in the Village’, detailing the feeling of being the first black man to step foot into this small Swiss village, recalling the stares and the questions, the children who followed him shouting ‘Neger! Neger!’. Cole’s essay excellently compares Baldwin’s reception to his own. The stares are less evident, the shouts non-existent, but, even after all this time, his skin colour still separates him and marks him as different. It still raises eyebrows. This, for me, is the kind of writing that Cole does best. There are a few essays that make race politics their main subject in Known and Strange Things. Those were the ones that made this reviewer sit up and take notice.
But then that subject is of particular interest to me, anyway, so that’s no surprise. Others might find equal joy in his photography essays or when he writes of particular authors that he enjoys or gets inspiration from. One thing is for sure; whatever he’s writing of he’s writing with elegance and wisdom. Even when he’s writing about subjects you know little about, it’s hard not to get sucked in.
Any Cop?: Trying to read this collection in one go did become a bit of a slog. There’s a lot of essays here. But that’s not really what it’s for anyway. As a coffee table collection that you can dip into whenever you need a bit of inspiration and intelligence in your life, there can’t be many better books. Heartily recommended, as they say.