In the first paragraph of Teju Cole’s new novel, Tremor, a man takes a photo of a hedge. ‘The leaves are glossy and dark and from the dying blooms rises a fragrance that might be jasmine.’ Probably not jasmine, since the main character, a photography professor called Tunde, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but frost zones are not the point. ‘You can’t do that here,’ a voice calls out. ‘This is private property.’ The property owner doesn’t specify the threat Tunde poses. It may be the act of having set up a tripod, the taking of the photograph or his physical presence, but ‘this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened to him.’
Tunde, like Cole, grew up in Lagos but has lived in the United States for nearly three decades. He teaches at an unnamed university that is presumably Harvard, where Cole teaches creative writing, and he is also, like the author, in his mid to late forties. The novel accompanies Tunde on his comings and goings in the months before the pandemic: a dinner party, a trip to the library, a weekend with old friends in Los Angeles, travels abroad to give lectures and appear on panels. Tunde is married without children. At the start of the novel he and his wife are going through a period of estrangement, but the crisis is a quiet one; Tunde seems confident it will pass. He is also mourning the death of a close friend (addressed in the novel as ‘you’), the memory of whom occasionally overwhelms him. More than the ups and downs of his personal life, however, Tunde is preoccupied with the symptoms of white supremacy and colonialism he perceives around him: in museums and in articles; in AI-generated images (‘in thirty minutes of clicking he has landed on not a single Black face’); in a serial killer’s ability to evade capture for years (‘his victims were mostly Black women, many of them sex workers’); in the microaggressions he experiences as a Black man living in America.
Early in the novel Tunde and his wife, Sadako, visit an antique shop in Maine. In this large, repurposed barn Sadako finds a desk; Tunde finds a headdress known as a ci wara, the name of the antelope which the Bambara people of West Africa credit with having taught agriculture to humanity. ‘It stands around four feet tall and appears to be old, its wood stained dark, the information on the label imprecise.’ The shopkeepers tell Tunde that they believe the headdress to be ‘authentic’. He bristles at the word:
It was in a shop among the unrelated treasures white people had collected by fair means or foul from across the globe. In the West a love of the ‘authentic’ means that art collectors prefer their African objects to be alienated so that only what has been extracted from its context becomes real. Better that the artist not be named, better that the artist be long dead. The dispossession of the object’s makers mystically confers monetary value to the object and the importance of the object is boosted by the story that can be told about its role in the history of modern European art.
Tunde decides to bring the ci wara home, ‘where it can be seen by kinder eyes, by eyes that place authenticity elsewhere’. His view seems to echo that of Thomas McEvilley in his 1984 essay ‘Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief’, a review of the show ‘Primitivism’ in 20th-Century Art at MoMA. For McEvilley, the true ‘authenticity’ of the art object is to be found in the manner in which it is received and understood as much as in the way it is presented. The knowledgeable viewer – perhaps one with ‘kinder eyes’ – sees ‘primarily not form, but content, and not art, but religion or magic’. So it is as an act of resistance that Tunde reminds himself of the object’s identity, its place in festivals celebrating sowing and harvesting. McEvilley’s critique seems not to have reached the elderly white proprietors of antique shops in Maine, in whom Tunde sees what McEvilley called ‘the parochial limitations of our worldview’.
Behind the cash register Tunde notices a card signed by Laura Bush, as well as a typewritten history of the site on which the shop stands. He reads it while paying for the headdress, and learns that in 1703 the settler family living there was ‘attacked by Indians’, who killed the mother and her children before burning down the house. The father happened to be away on the night of what is referred to as ‘this terrible tragedy’, and left for Massachusetts soon after, but he returned to Maine in 1718 ‘with a new family to reclaim the homestead’.
Back in Cambridge, Tunde can’t get the story out of his mind: ‘After nearly three decades in the US his sympathies have been tutored in certain directions. He learned early that a “terrible tragedy” meant the victims were white. Later and by bitter experience he came to understand that there is always more to tragedies than is narrated, that the narration is never neutral.’ But what surprises Tunde is his lack of sympathy for the murdered family. ‘So great a counter-reaction is a new, brutal tone in him.’ This is followed by another counter-reaction: ‘Is it brutal?’ He thinks of the Abenaki, whose lands were stolen in what was called the Third Indian War, ‘dispersed by those who took it as their God-given right to seize their lands, who took it as their right to kill them if they resisted’.
The project of dismantling the myths that have been part of white supremacy and settler colonialism in the US involves ongoing reappraisal. In recent years statues of Confederate soldiers have been torn down, streets renamed, land acknowledged as stolen. Joe Biden has marked Indigenous Peoples’ Day – the first president to do so – and made Juneteenth, the annual celebration commemorating the end of slavery in Texas, a public holiday. Universities have been encouraged by their employees and students to reckon with the ways they have benefited from the labour and trade of enslaved people. Through this process, what was once celebrated as heroism or enlightenment is revealed to have been a proxy for plunder, violence and racism.
For Tunde, as for many of us, this public reassessment of history has been accompanied by a private reckoning. It isn’t only the external world that has been revealed to be ersatz; there is also the queasy acknowledgment of the ideology that was operating on us as children reading, say, a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. In the second section of the book, Tunde thinks back to his childhood in Ojodu, a neighbourhood on the edge of an expanding Lagos. The smokestacks of a nearby asphalt plant left everything in the family home coated in dust: ‘Only later did he understand that the same fine layer of pollutant was coating the trachea and lungs of everyone in the household: his mother and father, his two younger sisters, their aunt, their grandmother, the houseboy.’ The ‘houseboy’ was Michael, who hadn’t believed Tunde when he said that men had landed on the Moon. ‘There would have been no way to tell Michael all this, to tell him that the Moon is real and space travel is real and doubt is real as well; not that Tunde had at the time more than an unsteady intuition of all of it himself.’
Now Tunde finds himself questioning the hierarchies of knowledge that were presented to him during his youth. He thinks of Pius Mau Piailug, a Micronesian man who sailed a canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976, navigating only by observing the stars, clouds, waves and fish. ‘People like him show that a deeper intimacy with nature is possible and that this intimacy does not have to rely on the obliterative arrogance of Western culture,’ Tunde reflects. He is envious of this intact subject, who is presented as the last of his kind. ‘When he thinks about Mau he wants to change his own life.’
But undoing false narratives, in the hope that a more authentic self might somehow be located, requires a repositioning on two fronts: in the way a person chooses to interact with and represent the world, and in the way they make sense of their past. At home in Cambridge, Tunde decides to shower with a bar of black soap. He remembers how, as a young, guilt-stricken Christian, he rejected local traditions: his parents spoke of the spiritual benefits of bathing with black soap, but he preferred Joy or Imperial Leather. ‘He was a city kid and anything that didn’t come in a printed package, anything that smelled like it was made in a village, put him off.’
That Joy or Imperial Leather might themselves be part of Nigerian identity today – that what might be thought of as Nigerian can include multinational soap brands without losing integrity – doesn’t seem to satisfy Tunde. The black soap with which he now bathes was produced by the artist Otobong Nkanga and sold at a gallery during Documenta 14, the contemporary art show in Kassel. ‘Nkanga had said that the circuit of manufacture and distribution, the bringing into a gallery space of commerce, craft, installation, sculpture, performance and activism, was integral to her idea of the art.’ Each box of soap bears her signature. Like the ci wara headdress, the past reaches Tunde in the form of a rarefied object to which he now tries to restore meaning, in order to bring his sense of history and self back into balance.
But even those vigilant about historical inequities are capable of appropriating the experiences of others. On a trip to Paris, Tunde is once again rebuked for taking a photograph, this time of trinkets being sold by a Black street vendor: ‘For a second he thought they were being robbed. Then he saw that it was the man whose goods he had just photographed.’ The man’s eyes ‘bulge in anger’. Tunde refuses to delete the photos; they’re images of the souvenirs, not the seller. ‘He sees these men as his brothers,’ designating himself an ally. ‘He considers himself on their side against all the hostility they experience. At least that’s the story he has convinced himself of.’
Ahead of a trip to Bamako, for a photography biennial, Tunde reads up on Mali. The word that keeps coming up is ‘poor’, yet nobody makes the connection between France’s wealth and Mali’s poverty. ‘How is one to live without owning others?’ Tunde wonders, with increasing desperation. ‘How is one to live in a way that does not cannibalise the lives of others, that does not reduce them to … objects of fascination, mere terms in the logic of a dominant culture?’
The repetition of these sorts of sentiments comes to feel performative, even solipsistic, and Cole gives no hint that such solipsism is knowingly drawn. He is not the kind of writer to make jokes at his characters’ expense, to give even a hint of satire, though it would come as a relief. Cole is often described as a writer of autofiction, but if one were to imagine Tunde in conversation with Julius, the first-person narrator of Cole’s novel Open City (2011), one could easily picture them disdaining each other. Julius’s character bears some similarity to Tunde’s – they are the same age, they are both immigrants to the US from Nigeria, they have the same tendency towards diaristic reflection – but they differ in their philosophical outlooks. Julius’s callousness is a refrain. He does not want to be mired in history and gets anxious when Africans and African Americans try to connect with him by evoking a shared heritage (‘I was in no mood for people who lay claims on me,’ he thinks after an African cab driver reprimands him for not being friendly.) When a former high school classmate confronts him about sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers, he offers no response; instead, he launches into a digression about Camus and Nietzsche.
In a memorable passage from Open City, Julius visits Brussels and meets a young Moroccan named Farouq, an autodidact who reads Walter Benjamin during his shifts working at an internet café. When Farouq insists that ‘the Palestinian question is the central question of our time,’ the test by which liberalism consistently fails to prove its commitments to democracy and freedom, Julius all but disassociates, suddenly preoccupied by his new friend’s overwhelming resemblance to Robert De Niro. ‘America is a version of al-Qaida,’ Farouq then says, prodding further. Julius chooses not to engage: ‘What I would impose on him would not be an argument, it would be a request that he adopt my reflexes, or the pieties of a society different from the one in which he grew up, or the one in which he now functioned.’
Is Tunde a purveyor of pieties? Are his historical critiques merely reflexive? There are few references to the history of decolonial thought in Tremor; the fact that entire societies have struggled with these questions seems to have no bearing on Tunde, who at times acts as if he’s the first person to pose them. ‘How much innocence is a large institution like the museum due?’ he wonders, before giving a lecture at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in which he contrasts the museum’s sensitivity around the repatriation of artworks stolen by the Nazis with their lack of regard concerning the brass sculptures stolen from Benin after a massacre committed by the British in 1897. Tunde tries to imagine those killed in Benin as ‘real and individual people’, to take them out of the nameless mass to which history has confined them, when they are remembered at all:
The most famous wrestler in the empire is dead. The head of the market women’s guild is dead. Her best friend, the one with the marvellously musical laugh, is dead too. The girl with the red ribbon in her hair is dead. The boy with perfect pitch is dead, as is his shy and handsome younger brother. The sculptor whose leg was taken in his youth by a crocodile is dead.
Here, too, Cole seems to be in conversation with his past writing. In Every Day Is for the Thief (2007), his novella about a Nigerian who returns to Lagos after fifteen years abroad, Cole’s protagonist visits the National Museum. As in Tremor, the narrator tries to take a photo, but a pious security guard looks up from her hymnal and tells him this is not allowed. (‘Her disconnection from the environment is absolute.’) The museum’s artefacts are dirty and the narrator suspects that the collection of Benin sculptures has been plundered by its custodians; one sculpture was even given back to the queen of England as a gift. ‘The whole place has a tired, improvised air about it, like a secondary school assignment finished years ago and never touched since,’ he says. He calls the museum a ‘crushing disappointment’. ‘My recent experience of Nigerian art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York was excellent,’ he adds.
If Tunde has similar critiques of Nigerian museums, he does not express them. He asserts, as Cole’s earlier character did not, that such complaints follow an imperialist logic. After his lecture, Tunde responds to a question about whether Nigeria is capable of caring for its own cultural patrimony by recounting a long list of paintings that have been destroyed in European wars. ‘My point was not to give a brilliant retort but to convey my genuine sorrow at the long and persistent history of white people thinking they know better than the rest of us,’ Tunde says.
The next section of the book, a series of monologues in the voices of Lagos residents from various social classes, could be seen as an attempt to enter what Tunde refers to in his lecture as the ‘life-worlds of others’. I wondered whether Cole had transcribed real conversations or imagined them. There’s a monologue by a man who appears to be Tunde’s driver in Lagos, a twist on the travel-writing cliché of interviewing the taxi driver. A woman who funds her accountancy degree with sex work says: ‘Deep down I know I am not supposed to be having sex just because I need money. I’m a human being for crying out loud.’ A maid reassures her interlocutor: ‘Your grandmother was a kind lady, not like the people I used to work for before.’
In one monologue the host of a radio show observes that ‘there are numerous varieties of Lagos accents from the posh to the unvarnished and there are accents inflected with the residue of various native languages and there are also British and American accents from people who have never even left Nigeria.’ This variety isn’t evident in the monologues themselves: they have a removed quality, as if we are reading something in translation. Still, it’s refreshing to be taken out of the circuit of galleries and lectures, to be immersed for a time in the immensity of the city. It is in Lagos, with its hustle and movement, that Tunde finds people who are able to articulate a sense of self without reference to a legacy of historic wrongs. ‘Every day is new in the city,’ he observes. ‘That is why there are no antiquities here just as there is no technological innovation and that is why the citizens live in the ever-evolving present.’
This section contains the novel’s most vivid writing, and it’s only after visiting Lagos that Tunde begins narrating his life in the first person rather than the third. Back in the US, however, the flood of history overwhelms him again. This is part of life in ‘anciently settled’ Massachusetts: ‘To be here is to be reminded of first principles, of who founded what and where they did it, of whose life was made impossible once the whites began to immigrate into this territory.’ Tunde returns to the hedge, which his wife has identified as honeysuckle, not jasmine. But this time he is too frightened of being reprimanded to take a photograph. He makes a third attempt, after a dinner party, when the air has dropped below freezing: through persistence and repetition, he finally gets the image he wanted. Made in darkness instead of daylight, it is shaped by the attempt to exclude him, but he has the picture, and now it belongs to him.
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