Sujatha Fernandes reviews 'Known and Strange Things' by Teju Cole

In the opening piece of his book of collected essays, the novelist and photography critic Teju Cole feels briefly possessed by the spirit of James Baldwin who, like him, travelled outside the United States as a black writer. In every encounter, from rural Switzerland to Palestine, Rome, Rio, and Moscow, we are privy to Cole’s vantage as an embodied black subject: his seeking out of African vendors in the Lapa district of Rio, the looks he receives in Zurich, the sceptical anti-colonial instinct he brings to the museums in Rome’s Capitoline Hill.

Unlike Baldwin, Cole is not descended from slaves. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he returned with his Nigerian parents to Lagos at five months of age. He studied at college in Kalamazoo and later made his base in New York City. The essays in the book grapple with the complex notions of home for subjects like Cole who traverse cosmopolitan circuits. Like many of us who have made lives in New York City, he calls the city home even when not living there. Throughout his travels, Cole considers and reconsiders what counts as home, describing it as both a location and a state of being.

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Published in November 2016, no. 386

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