At 10 I had already read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart —-Teju Cole

Posted: March 24, 2014 in general

ImageBorn Obayemi Babajide Adetokunbo Onafuwa, on June 27, 1975 in Michigan, United States, the Nigerian-American writer, photographer, and art historian is the one Nigeria’s brightest literary artistes with prizes like the 2012 PEN/Hemingway Award; the 2012 New York City Book Award for Fiction; and the 2013 International Literature Award. In this interview, the photographer and author of Open City and Every Day Is for the Thief says the novel is overrated.

 What books are currently on your night stand?

I just got in the Selected Poems of Bill Manhire, who is from New Zealand. He’s a mature poet with his own voice, but his unobtrusive authority and his tenderness remind me of Seamus Heaney. I’m teaching Intermediate Fiction at Bard this semester, and I’ve assigned Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Petina Gappah, Lydia Davis and Stephanie Vaughn. So I’m rereading them, too.

Who is your favourite novelist of all time? And your favourite novelist writing today?

Penelope Fitzgerald was the author of several slim, perfect novels. The Blue Flower and The Beginning of Spring both had me abuzz for days the first time I read them. She was curiously perfect. Among living novelists, my favourites include J. M. Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje and Michel Tournier, none of whom need my praise. I cherish James Salter’s short stories, and his every sentence.

Sell us on your favourite overlooked or underappreciated writer.

Lydia Davis is famous, but not nearly famous enough. Ditto Anne Carson. It’s notable that neither of them is really a novelist; “the novel” is overrated, and the writers I find most interesting find ways to escape it.

Have you read any good contemporary poetry lately?

I’m very pleased to have encountered in the past couple of years the work of two astounding young poets, each of whom has one book out: Ishion Hutchinson (Far District) and Rowan Ricardo Phillips (The Ground). Both have impressive reserves of insight and the language to bring those insights to life. They are the future of American poetry.

And I’m glad I finally got round to reading Stag’s Leap, by Sharon Olds. There is the feeling that one gets when one “discovers” a new song only to realize it has a million views on YouTube already. Stag’s Leap was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize last year. But the book is new to me, and I love it.

Which recent books by or about photographers would you recommend?

Wall, by Josef Koudelka; Sergio Larrain (a monograph on the reclusive Chilean genius, who died in 2012); and The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus, by Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen.

I wrote the introductory essay to Richard Renaldi’s Touching Strangers. Nevertheless, it is an excellent book. Ivan Vladislavic’s novel Double Negative is another great book that wasn’t marred by my introduction.

What are your literary guilty pleasures? Do you have a favourite genre?

No guilt. I read many kinds of things, but my deepest happiness is in reading poetry.

What are your favourite art history books?

I was trained in art history and still get a great deal of joy from reading it. The best art history books, I feel, are as good as the best novels. Among the most illuminating for me are the following: The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, by Michael Baxandall; The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, by Paul Zanker; The Painting of Modern Life, by T. J. Clark; The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art, by Joseph Leo Koerner; and Inside Bruegel, by Edward Snow. The last of these, a startling interpretation of Bruegel’s Children’s Games, is great for nonspecialist readers.

What was the last book to make you laugh?

Rob Delaney’s Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.

The last book that made you cry?

There’s a passage late in Amitava Kumar’s A Matter of Rats that took me by surprise.

The last book that made you furious?

Dirty Wars, by Jeremy Scahill.

What kind of reader were you as a child? And what were your favourite childhood books?

I began early, around 6, and by the time I was 10 I had read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare and an abridged edition of Tom Sawyer. I wasn’t a prodigy, but I developed a sense that access to any book was limited only by my interest and my willingness to concentrate.

Whom do you consider your literary heroes?

They are many: Michael Ondaatje, most of all. But also Marguerite Yourcenar, John Berger and Seamus Heaney.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

I suppose at least a little faith in literature’s ability to make us better is what lies behind this question. But I have no such faith. The president has already read many wonderful books from many different cultures. Now we need him to act justly in certain matters: to stop killing people extra-judicially, and to stop deporting people with such enthusiasm. I doubt that more reading will quicken his conscience in these matters.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

Alice Oswald, Laila Lalami and Zadie Smith.

You’ve got an active Twitter account going. Does it influence your thinking or writing process?

I suppose it must. It’s such a combative place at times that it makes me less worried about putting ideas out into the world. You realize that anything you have to say is going to annoy some stranger, so you might as well speak your mind. But being active on Twitter also means that the literary part of my brain, the part that tries to make good sentences, is engaged all the time. My memory is worse than it was a few years ago, but I hope that my ability to write a good sentence has improved.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

I have not read most of the big 19th-century novels that people consider “essential,” nor most of the 20th-century ones for that matter. But this does not embarrass me. There are many films to see, many friends to visit, many walks to take, many playlists to assemble and many favourite books to reread. Life’s too short for anxious score-keeping. Also, my grandmother is illiterate, and she’s one of the best people I know. Reading is a deep personal consolation for me, but other things console, too.

 

Interview courtesy: The GuardianUK

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