Teju Cole

An Introduction to the 2024 Finzi-Contini Lecture

Meghan O’Rourke

we are lucky to be alive in the age of Teju Cole, whom we wel­comed to Yale this spring to deliver the annual Finzi-Contini Lecture, which presents “a distinguished speaker in the field of comparative literature, broadly defined.” Novelist, essayist, pho­tographer, art critic—Cole is self-evidently polymathic, a person with his hands on many aspects of literary production; there is no other American novelist today like him. He is an artist of uncom­mon moral clarity, as his editor at The New York Times, Sasha Weiss, recently put it to me; an artist, she said, able to show us how art can be a portal to both the sublime and the unbearable aspects of human existence. Undergirding his body of work—which includes three works of fiction, three essay collections, visual art, and much more—is always an ethic of seeing in order to understand what we have allowed ourselves to forget or to not see.

As I thought about the centrality of visual art to Cole’s creative practice in anticipation of his lecture, I remembered an anecdote: I once saw the artist Robert Irwin give a talk about the notion of being what he called “available in response” to an encounter or space he is invited to. Irwin makes large-scale site-conditioned installations that play with existing sight lines and textures and patterns of light to subtly but powerfully alter our experience of the space. We reexperience the results with wonder—and more than a bit of self-reckoning. How could I not have seen what was right before my eyes, I remember thinking after stepping into a piece, Scrim Veil—Black Rectangle—Natural Light, that he had installed in a gallery I had been to many times before in the Whitney Museum’s old, iconic Breuer Building.

Of course, being available in response, truly available, means refusing to make art that caters to our preconceived notions of it. In Lawrence Weschler’s biography, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Irwin reflects on “the possibility of failure” and on failed connection inherent in this approach, which relies, in a sense, on never knowing what you might do next.

The possibility of failure, the not knowing, and then the see­ing anew: all of this is present in Cole’s work. Like Irwin, Cole, in his own distinct way, has built a body of work about being avail­able in response—morally, politically, and aesthetically. Born in America and raised in Nigeria, Cole draws on his lived experience of betweenness and bothness to complicate the forms he works in; each of his novels plays with the reader’s expectations, making us complicit in a misreading of its unfolding narratives only to force us to reappraise the scenes that have unfurled before us on the page. Cole’s 2011 novel, Open City, transfixes us with the elegant reflec­tions of its narrator, and then confronts us with a narrative amnesia masking an act of sexual violence. Was it before our eyes all along? we find ourselves asking.

These acts of re-seeing, Cole’s novels and essays tell us, are cen­tral to the humanist project of literature as it speaks across the silos of nations and identities or the constrictions of a single genre or perspective, actively seeking a form that allows the artist to explore, with nuance and destabilizing freshness, such enormous themes as racism, historical trauma, and sexual violence. Because art mat­ters to Cole—because he knows the stakes are high, and that those stakes can’t be conveyed in the stale language of op-eds—his work always meditates, quite urgently, on the morality of art, its com­pensatory possibilities, and its limits. In this way, Cole’s novels and essays embody the power of art’s resistance to us, its consumers and its makers.

Tremor (2023), his most recent novel, follows the life of Tunde, a professor at Harvard not unlike Cole himself, who gives lectures on visual art at the Museum of Fine Arts and goes antiquing in Maine only to find himself drawn into researching, after encoun­tering an unsourced artifact, the horrific history of the United States’ settler colonialism, its enslavement of Africans, and its anti-native violence. These historical threads are intimately unspooled by Tunde, who makes himself, in a sense, “available in response” to this simple encounter in the antique shop, returning home and deciding to research his questions, rather than simply move for­ward in his semester, his day-to-day life.

Research, re-seeing, revision: to really enact Tunde’s radical effort of seeing anew, of course, requires the writer to reimagine the very nature of the novel, the promise that it might tell a sin­gle story to us while we listen passively. And so Cole involves the reader in an act of reciprocal seeing: partway through, Tremor’s seemingly conventional autofictional narrative breaks apart, mir­roring back at us, in the fragmented shards that follow, our own expectations of fiction’s claims to representation and truth telling. Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees; it is also an invitation to let the scrim fall from our eyes, which may just be the truest recompense amidst suffering or horror.

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness and The Long Goodbye, as well as three collections of poetry. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, and a Whiting Nonfiction Award, she resides in New Haven, where she teaches at Yale University and is the editor of The Yale Review.
Originally published:
June 10, 2024


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.