“Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s,” read one of Teju Cole’s tweets. The tweet was one of seven short stories on drones that he posted on Twitter. It wasn’t the first time he had used the medium to publish his writing and engage readers. He will give this year’s Writer-in-Residence reading on Feb. 8.
Since 1979, the English Department has sponsored a writer-in-residence. Typically, this novelist or poet visits campus, hosts a reading, visits classes, holds workshops with students, and develops relationships with students in the Senior Composition Seminar. Oftentimes, these students receive advice on their senior theses and future endeavors.
For Cole, this residency is the perfect opportunity to reach a modern audience. “A lot of the people I want to be read by, a lot of the people I want to speak to, are not people who have subscriptions to The New Yorker or The New York Times, so it’s important for me to speak to them in this way also,” he said in a 2014 interview with NPR.
Three years earlier, he published his debut novel, “Open City” to widespread acclaim. Now he was telling a different story on Twitter. The story, “Hafiz,” was told through a series of retweets on Cole’s account to his 100,000+ followers.
According to Professor of English Amitava Kumar, “Cole is clearly one of the most inventive writers around. His work on social media is a part of it.” Kumar has worked closely with Cole in the past. “I have known and admired Teju Cole for some time,” he said. “I have interviewed him in the past and also had the pleasure of collaborating with him on an ekphrastic project Who’s Got the Address?”
After writing “Hafiz,” Cole asked people on Twitter to tweet seemingly random sentences. It wasn’t until he retweeted them all that the story came together. “When I retweeted all of these things, in sequence, they all joined together to make a coherent story,” he explained.
“The work he has done in the past on Twitter has given all of us a sense of the possibilities of social media,” explained Kumar. “Social media as a space for commentary and satire, sure, but also as a space for literary or artistic work.”
Cole has embraced the medium as a form of expression. “Maybe it’s just a generational thing where I don’t think that print media has to be the be-all and end-all,” he explained.
Nevertheless, he has had success beyond his work on social media. Open City won the 2012 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. The story centers on Julius, a Nigerian immigrant in New York City. It chronicles his relationships, inner musings and explorations outside of New York.
Cole will read from the book during his campus visit. “Like many others, I think of Cole’s OPEN CITY as one of the most astonishing debut novels to be published in the US,” says Kumar.
Cole’s work has also been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New Inquiry and more. He also serves as the New York Times Magazine’s photography critic. “There aren’t too many writers around who occupy such a prominent position in different fields,” says Kumar.
As a crossover artist, his appeal spans media, creative fields and generations. Another series of tweets in response to the 2012 viral Kony video prompted a much larger explanation in The Atlantic. In these tweets, Cole coined the phrase “white-savior industrial complex.” “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening,” he tweeted.
In an interview with Kumar, Cole discussed his work on different media. He explained, “All creative work, I feel, and all meaningful contributions that somebody can make creatively, only comes from here. [Points to heart.] It comes from something very deep, something very profound in you, from having an attentive attitude to life.”
This emotional pull unites Cole’s social commentary, photography and novels.
For English major Sarah Cohn ’18, the opportunity to meet an artist is exciting. “Just to be around someone who creates is really cool. That’s what I like about the artist in residence position,” she explained. Many students in the English Department will read Cole’s works in the coming weeks. Kumar’s course on cities is set to read “Open Cities,” while his journalism course will read and study his Twitter and Instagram.
Cole lends a contemporary perspective to the writer-in-residence position. He stands out among past residents by honing his craft and embracing new media’s role in cultivating art.
Cole’s breadth of work and the way he pushes boundaries are especially interesting to Cohn. She continued, “It’s really interesting to learn from someone who works in the field– both by writing articles in the New Yorker and The Atlantic and by writing novels. Also, he says some really cool things about like our hypocritical notions of free speech, so he’s sort of daring in that way.”