Excerpt: Teju Cole's Known and Stranger Things

Teju Cole has a new book out. Whoope! Finally! 

The Excerpt Reader has been looking forward to reading something new from this young and (very) talented writer ever since reading his excellent debut novel, Open City. Whilst waiting impatiently for a new book, I've also read Every Day Is for the Thief, a book which, to my eye, walks the border between Fiction and Non-Fiction. 

So now we have a new book, after 4 years of waiting. It's a compilation of essays Cole has written in the past 8 years, some of which were published in The New Yorker. The title is Known and Strange Things: Essays.

As a customer review on Amazon points out, 'This book of essays by Teju Cole aren’t always essays: they might be scraps of thought, well-digested and to an immediate point.' 

Here's an excerpt from the book. It's the opening chapter.

Judging by the excerpt, Cole's writing in this tome of essays is very intimate, pensive and revealing at times.

In this opening chapter, Cole writes about a visit to the town of Leuk, Switzerland, following the footsteps of renowned writer James Baldwin, who also spent a while in this town, back in 1951. Baldwin recorded his experience of being the only black person in a small Swiss town in his essay, “Stranger in the Village.” 

Being a black man himself, Cole sympathizes with Baldwin:

To be a stranger is to be looked at, but to be black is to be looked at especially [...] To be black is to bear the brunt of selective enforcement of the law, and to inhabit a psychic unsteadiness in which there is no guarantee of personal safety. You are a black body first, before you are a kid walking down the street or a Harvard professor who has misplaced his keys.

In 2013 as in 1951, to be black, indeed to be a person of color in a predominantly white environment, is to be singled out, pre-judged. 

There is one huge difference, though. As Cole rightly points out, the cultural world Baldwin inhabited was still predominantly white. Black art - be it music, literature, or painting - was regarded with skepticism and suspicion during his years as a young writer. Cole inhabits a totally different world, wherein African Americans heritage is given its due place in American mainstream culture, and black people occupy influential positions in all echelons of society. 

Still, there is a huge divide between white and black people, in the US and elsewhere: 

Black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard.

Which leads Cole to end his essay in a very pessimistic tone:

Baldwin wrote “Stranger in the Village” more than sixty years ago. Now what?

Indeed, what has changed?