“I’m feeling a bit jet lagged and culture shocked at the moment,” a smiling Teju Cole says via Zoom from his house in Cambridge, Mass., near Harvard, where he has been teaching writing since 2019.
The Nigerian American author, photographer, and art historian just returned from a six-week trip to Europe that included stops in France, Switzerland, and the U.K., and has been busy cataloguing his photos and thinking of how he might use them in a future project.
“My sense of curiosity wants to witness things firsthand,” says Cole, whose travels have taken him to 48 countries, from Brazil to Vietnam to New Zealand. “Home is comfortable and familiar, but once you’ve traveled it can never be your all. It’s just part of the fragment.”
Reading Cole’s books is like spending time with a smart friend. He’s interested in the planet and people’s place on it, and his writings are entry points into conversations about identity, culture, and what it means to be human. His titles—which include his 2011 debut novel, Open City, a PEN/Hemingway Award winner, about a Nigerian doctor who meditates on life while walking the streets of New York City; a novella about Nigeria; and essay and photography collections—have more than 230,000 copies in print, according to his publisher, Random House, and have been translated into 16 languages.
His new novel, Tremor, out in October, follows a West African Harvard professor and photographer as he gives academic lectures, travels, and meditates on art, whether he’s antique shopping in Maine and thinking about how museums acquire African artifacts, or journeying to Mali and celebrating its contribution to music. “Human experience is generally like dancing on a volcano,” says Cole, a self-identified “obsessive revisor” who began the novel during the pandemic. “We’re trying to be happy but we don’t know what’s next. It’s precisely because we don’t know what’s next that we maybe have to live in a way that minimizes regret. That’s the complex of thought from which this novel began to find its form.”
Tremor is more contemplative than plot driven (asked what it’s about, Cole jokes that “it’s about 260 pages”) and features a narrator who thinks critically about art and the institutions that acquire it; history and who writes it; colonialism; and racism in its myriad forms. “I have a slight interest in plot, but it’s a fairly modest interest,” Cole says. “I have a strong interest in structure. The person who reads a book by me should come away feeling that it was carefully made, all the parts fit, even though some of them are strange.”
Cole’s editor Caitlin McKenna is drawn to the author’s unique storytelling ability. “I felt expanded by Tremor,” McKenna says. “It let me borrow Teju’s brilliant, erudite, curious mind while I read and allowed me to be affected by things that are outside my typical pool of cultural interests.”
Jin Auh, Cole’s agent at the Wylie Agency, adds, “Teju is always curious about people and about everything around him. He’s able to zero in on someone and make them feel like they’re the only person in the room. He’s incredibly attentive, and that’s what you feel in his work.”
Born in 1975 in Kalamazoo, Mich., to Nigerian parents, Cole moved to Lagos, Nigeria, with his family when he was a few months old and lived there for his first 17 years. “I was an extraverted child,” he remembers. “Not excessively talkative but definitely processing the world and deeply interested in art.” He calls Nigeria an “immensely complicated place” marked by political and economic uncertainty, and says that, as a kid, he felt that “anything could happen” there.
“You experience the world as fundamentally unstable, as a place that could fall into war at any moment,” he says. “That feeling that the world is teetering has been the Nigerian experience, but the other part of the Nigerian experience is that, well, I’m Nigerian and Nigerians are like me: talkative, cosmopolitan, energetic, tender, and ambitious for themselves and their loved ones.”
Cole’s parents, a businessman and a teacher, expected him to excel academically, and after his return to the U.S., he earned a bachelor’s degree from Kalamazoo College, then briefly attended medical school before dropping out. He then got his MA in art history from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, followed by an MPhil from Columbia University. Along the way, Nigeria shaped him as a writer. “Without writing exclusively about Nigeria, I want to always find a way to include the rich Nigerian experience in my account of the world,” he says.
Alan Thomas, editorial director at the University of Chicago Press, worked with Cole on his 2019 book Black Paper, which showcases Cole’s talent as an essayist and critic. “In his nonfiction and criticism, Teju tackles some dark subjects—war, atrocity, the tragedies around the immigration experience—and yet there’s a refusal of pessimism or despair that’s very moving,” Thomas says. “His photography is important, too. His eye is anything but coercive; it’s open to what’s in front of him, and is searching.”
Photography is one of Cole’s loves, along with the stories of James Joyce and the music of Mali (his website features links to several incredible playlists). He takes around 1,000 photos each month, and his prints have hung in galleries in the U.S. and abroad and have been featured in books, including 2017’s Blind Spot, which was published after he was diagnosed, in 2011, with a rare condition that sometimes causes him to briefly lose vision in one or both eyes. “What could be better for a writer than a temporary disability that gives you a sharp awareness of your limits?” Cole asks. “As if to say, watch it, nothing’s permanent. Let us be aware of hubris.”
Bosnian American novelist and Guggenheim recipient Aleksandar Hemon met Cole a decade ago on the way to a book festival and clicked with him instantly. “Teju is lovely,” Hemon says. “I like to talk to people but I often get bored. Teju is a great conversationalist. We talked about everything from books to soccer clubs to gossip. He contains multitudes.”
When not working, Cole enjoys hanging out with his wife, a social worker, cooking food or drinking wine, and maybe watching some Criterion Collection or Netflix. He walks everywhere, which gives him time to take in the world. He worries about climate change and its impact on displaced populations and wants to prioritize compassion and ethics in his art. “Even when I’m trying to make sure I include the difficult things of life in my work, I try to bring what I love,” he says. “A little bit of sugar to help with the hard things.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Cole's degree from Columbia as a PhD. It is an MPhil.