Chika Ezeanya on Olaudah Equiano: Before We Set Sail

The writer speaks out of real or imagined experience, tales do not spring from nothingness. And often, the reader studies fiction closely – for the truth. Works of fiction tell us stories of an era and complement history books. Yes, there is this compartmentalization; there are history books and there are novels and it is not often that you find a historian who tries fiction to document a lived life, writing history, so to speak. I recently got lucky; I just finished reading Before We Set Sail, a historical fiction by the historian, Chika Ezeanya. It is a novel based on the imagined life in Africa, of the freed slave Olaudah Equiano. Equiano, aka Gustavus Vassa (1745-1797) hardly needs an introduction; as a freed slave, he actively advocated for the abolition of the slave trade. In his lifetime he was variously an author and entrepreneur who travelled widely around the world. He wrote an autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, in which he maintained that he was a child slave from Igboland in Nigeria who eventually bought his freedom.

Equiano may be dead but he lives on not only through a vast volume of work devoted to his life, but thanks to controversy about his place of birth and the authenticity of his narrative as a child slave from today’s Eastern Nigeria. One school of thought asserts that Equiano was most probably born in the United States, not in Igboland as he claims in his autobiography. These scholars argue that much of his narrative is based on secondary sources. The most persistent of these “birthers” is Vincent Carretta who tried to make the case that Equiano was born in South Carolina, in a 1999 essay Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on Eighteenth-Century Question of Identity. He extends his analysis into his biography of Equiano, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. Jim Egan’s incisive review of Carretta’s book sheds more light on the issue. Skepticism about Equiano’s narrative has been met with an equally vigorous push-back from several scholars. Ike Anya’s feisty essay describes with some hilarity the fireworks that ensued when the two opposing forces met. Here is an analysis that lays out the argument for whether or not he was born in Africa.

In writing the book, Ezeanya sought to fill that gap in Equiano’s narrative, growing up as a child in Igboland, being captured as a child slave and sojourning in several places before being sold off and shipped to the West Indies. According to Ezeanya, there is little in terms of that aspect of Equiano’s life that is documented elsewhere. What do I think of Ezeanya’s work? I loved it. In my judgment, Ezeanya pulled off this ambitious project rather nicely. She combines her muscular skills as a historian with a gift for storytelling to produce a suspense-filled, engaging and informative novel. Ezeanya also wisely sidesteps controversy about Equiano’s place of birth and with the aid of deft research and sleuthing cobbles together a story about what life must have looked like for Equiano or any child in his circumstances in Eastern Nigeria during that era. That is the issue, an undue obsession about Equiano’s true origin misses the fact that these awful events happened to someone and to a people. Ezeanya has a useful book trailer on YouTube where she provides a context for the book. Biko Agozino who reviewed the book here gets to the heart of what I admire most about Ezeanya’s novel, which is that this is not yet another hagiography of Africa penned by a starry-eyed clueless Pan Africanist:

 [Ezeanya] displays evidence of thorough historical research on what Cheikh Anta Diop theorized as pre-colonial black Africa. The only distinction here to her credit is that Diop painted a Negritude picture of an improbable civilization that appeared so perfect that there were no villains while Ezeanya shocks the reader into accepting the obvious reality that there is no such thing as a perfect civilization in a history characterized by widespread violence and terrorism. Readers who expect to find an un-spoilt innocence in pre-colonial Africa will be disillusioned to find that there were already unscrupulous people driven by greed to seek to profit from the sorrows of their fellows. Similarly, those seeking the heart of darkness in the pre-colonial epoch would be shamed into finding a thriving civilization in the hinterland.

Agozino is spot on. In Before We Set Sail, Equiano the young protagonist leads the reader through several civilizations, cultures and geographic states in parts of what is today’s Nigeria, beginning with his home town which he calls Essaka from where he and his sister are abducted into slavery. Written with pride and understated passion, the book is a quietly bold and successful attempt to assert a particular narrative because as Chinua Achebe reminds us in the East African proverb, until the lion tells the story of the hunt, the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter. Ezeanya helps Equiano tell his story and assert Black Africa’s humanity and civilization with defiance and pride. In the process, the reader learns a lot about the Black Africa of the mid 1700s through the eyes of this book and Ezeanya’s heart and soul.

I loved the prose. My best line: “I stared at the ground as my tears made balls out of the mud.” (p 69) Nice. Ezeanya’s imagination is vivid, you can feel the ambience, the atmosphere; ancient groves of malevolent deities come alive and in some passages you are filled with an intimidating spiritual presence. The pacing is exquisite, it would probably make a good movie script. Ezeanya’s depiction of commerce at the Bende slave fair shook me to my roots and the savagery will stay with me for a very long time. Ezeanya does a marvelous job at capturing the times and the good and the bad. These were medieval times, commerce was robust and cowrie shells and slaves were used as currency.  It was also a highly organized patriarchy in which men spoke and women and children were mostly seen not heard. But it is a thriving place that the story describes, there is sadness and joy, and in the story of the abduction of Equiano and his sister Ezinne (at ages 11 and 8 respectively) we see children enduring heartbreaking loss and we are strangely diminished. The reader learns that Igboland was a civilization whose people were filled with the knowledge of genetics and science. Even before the coming of the white man, the men had access to guns which indicates that there was inter-state commerce.

The research is exquisite, awe-inspiring. Ezeanya invests her creative energies in developing with great attention to detail, a few major characters like Didi, easily the best female lead character in the book. Like Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Equiano masterfully appropriates the English language as his own.  There are so many lovely stories within stories in this feisty book, including one that explains the origin of the four market days in Igboland. That fable alone is worth the price of the book. More importantly, in this book, one comes face to face with a certain Africa that has been relegated to the background of history in the race to stereotype and diminish her worth. We see thriving industries, astute businessmen and women negotiating deals with the best (or worst) of the West. We see a vibrant, highly organized workforce of slaves and apprentices Iron smiths and apprentices. Ezeanya makes the crucial point that the Igbo had slaves, that indeed there was a thriving slave trade before the coming of the white man. Beyond the clinical banality of commerce, the book also offers powerful evocative testimony to the efficacy of spiritual priests and indigenous healers.

Before We Set Sail is not the poverty porn that characterizes much of of what is referred to as African writing; instead Ezeanya pens a wondrous tale of Equiano’s childhood with loving parents, living in harmony with siblings and relatives in a land thriving with commerce and industry. Ezeanya pulls this off with a writing style that hearkens to Achebe’s, words steeped deeply in a way of life that seems now to be eluding a people long used to being uncritically assimilated into Western ways:

Just as I have brought my son to you here today, so Ijeenu your great-grandfather was taken by his own father to somebody who agreed to train him. Today, you have the ways of Akputakpu in your blood. I ask only that you do unto me as someone else did to your own great-grandfather — teach my son the ways of Akputakpu so he can teach his children and his children’s children. Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch. If one rejects the perching of the other, may his wings be broken. (p 59)

Ezeanya frequent deployment of proverbs and parables to convey the book’s burden reminds us of the Igbo saying:  Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten. Equiano puts it beautifully in the book:

Father had often warned me when I engaged in rough play with older boys that “the crab says it has no business with any play that involved the twisting of arms.” Our education in Essaka, although not written like the Aro people or the British and people of the New World, involved the heavy use of proverbs, idioms and such wisdom packed in short, easy-to-remember sentences. From one proverb, one could write thousands of volumes such as the works of Plato, St. Augustine or, more recently, John Locke. (p 129)

This book is all about history, in delectable doses. Readers will find invaluable  insights into the Ekpe secret society, the ancient writing nsibidi or nsibiri, the treatment of biracial children in Calabar (they were disposed of like twins), etc.  We also learn about many dysfunctions and issues that are  with us today, for example, marital abuse, and the West’s reluctance to effect technology transfer (like rum manufacture). The hunger for Western consumer goods heated up the slave trade (not much different than today, many consumers might as well be slaves), and we observe ruefully how the wholesale assimilation into a Western culture turns a people into caricature-consumers as gaudy ostentation is bought with hundreds of slaves.

It is not a perfect book. For one thing, I am surprised and disappointed that such an important book has been so poorly publicized. Before We Set Sail is published by The History Society of Africa and is available in both kindle and paperback at amazon.com and other leading book stores.  You can read excerpts at www.beforewesetsail.com. Go find a copy and enjoy yourself. There are minor editing issues and sometimes, the prose becomes awkward and ungainly like a civil servant’s memo.  The book is rich with profound sayings, many awkwardly translated, for example, “Show me one living person who doesn’t have one problem or the other? Is there anybody whose anus you could look at and not find pieces of shit?” (p 22) This is not so much a criticism but an observation of how things get lost in the translation because of transitions like the forced voyage to the new land and the unlearning of one’s ancestral language. When Equiano reflects on “the fattening rooms of Calabar” one soon realizes that the term is a misnomer. If the dialogue is sometimes stilted, it is consistent with the style of the flamboyant Equiano. Before We Set Sail is technically a novel, but the absence of a bibliography is disappointing. A bibliography would have been helpful. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun comes to mind as a worthy example; it has about 30 helpful references on the Nigerian civil war. And yes, my pet peeve: Nigerian words were painstakingly italicized as if to hard-code our otherness.

All in all, Ezeanya spoke to me in this book. I read the book  at a time when I was reflecting on the notion of identity, chafing at the realization that even as color confounds, Africa is fast becoming a pejorative used to lump together for nefarious reasons, scores of nations and cultures and languages. Did Africans sell off fellow Africans as slaves? Did these people see themselves as monolithic Africans or as distinct nations warring each other for spoils and profits? Much of the contemporary commentary on Africa is superficial only because good scholars have bought into the myth of a monolithic Africa. Ezeanya brilliantly rejects that narrative and offers a uniquely creative version  of world history that doubles as an enduring celebration of the humanity of a people long hunted and haunted by forces beyond their control. All through this lovely book, nothing tells of the abiding dignity and pride of black Africa more than these resounding lines by a defiant Equiano:

The strength of my nation in farming is profound; my people never lacked food, and the rarity of ill-health among my people is direct testimony to the wealth of our diet, and our industriousness. We cultivated yam, our chief staple in several varieties; also, maize, beans, fruits of diverse kinds, assorted vegetables, and other crops made their way to our tables every mealtime and to the market every market day. Fish, game and certain edible insects are found in abundance in my part of the world, and provided the nourishment we needed from time to time. (p 29-30)

Hear! Hear! I love this book.

This writing life: Ranting, cutting, grunting and pasting

For you…

“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”
– Lawrence Kasdan

The other day my friend was bemoaning a writing slump. The words were stuck somewhere, refusing all entreaties to come out – and play. My friend is a fairly prolific writer; multitasking on a book, a blog that could use some more tending and an active Twitter and Facebook account. If my friend’s tweets and Facebook postings were cobbled together, the result would run into thousands of words that make delicious sense. This is the same for many other folks that I know who are regularly afflicted with anxieties about that affliction called the writer’s block. They should perhaps get off Facebook and Twitter to write what the world considers writing. I hope they do not flee into the dying warmth of books. That would be sad because like my friend, they are a lovely, vibrant presence on social media, coolly cerebral with enough wit and zing to make us grateful readers always wanting more. But like a happy spinster who is not happy until she bows to the dictates of tradition and immerses herself in an unhappy marriage, many of today’s writers are not complete until they have filled the spaces of tradition. They must write that book, maintain that blog that defines and completes them if they are to remain current in that coveted coven of writers.

If you are a writer, it is easy to understand my friend’s anxieties about (not) writing. One must write to be called a writer. Even in the 21st century, in the age of the Internet, one must write in the right places to be called a real writer. Even as the book is dying, the first and best space that establishes a writer’s cred is the book. Conventional wisdom says you are not a real writer until you have written a book. I do book reviews; as long as I fawn over a writer’s works, I am safe, but I always get the “Go and write your own book!” venom spat at me whenever I sheepishly admit that perhaps a book I just read is not to my personal taste. I have never written my own book; I have contributed pieces to a number of books. However, I prefer the digital space, it responds instantly to the immediacy of my thoughts. What I have to say should not have to wait to be cloistered in a book. I write nonstop and all my writings floating freely on the Internet would fill several books. But I am the first to agree that I am not a writer, certainly not in the conventional sense. I am a reader who writes, so there. I have previously said that I will never write a book; scratch that, I am feverishly writing a book of awsome prose. This has nothing to do with the fact that next year’s NLNG prize, a mere $100,000, will be for prose (whatever that means). I intend to enter for the competition. And I expect to win.

I do maintain a blog. This blog. If my blog is feeling neglected, it is because this is the first time in a long time that I have written my own blog post. In my defense, I was occupied elsewhere, I fell in love with a certain campaign for the presidency of the United States and I could not stop obsessing, reading and writing about it. I could not. Actually, I was propelled not so much by love, but by rage, a certain burning anger about the sense of entitlement of the other, that had declared me the other. I wanted to make this so right. President Barack Hussein Obama had to win this for humanity. I found a spot under an e-tree and I kept reading, writing and ranting about my world, the world I would leave our children in. The polls held me spellbound; I trolled the Internet looking for polls that would tell me what I wanted to hear, and I hissed and snorted with derision at those that told me that well, my Obama was toast. In my rage, I became the other, snarling, hissing, and foaming in the mouth like a venomous snake that had fatally bitten itself. In the end Nate Silver was right to the last dot, and America proved why it is perhaps the greatest nation on earth; she broke down under the withering sun-rays of my glare and elected the right person to the White House. That Tuesday night ended my long vigil of cutting, snorting, grunting and pasting war missiles on Twitter, Facebook and listservs. My audience endured this avalanche of venom, glee, data (yes, Nate Silver is the man, when it comes to accurate polling data) that kept me hostage to my own fears and desires. I could not physically write, but some would say I was writing. If I cobbled together all I have “written” in the past several months, it would be an embarrassing pastiche of borrowed rage. It is over (Obama won, yay!!!), and I feel better. So I did not write anything original in that time period, but I was busy doing my best to rescue our presidency from those who do not see us as Americans. Actually, come to think of it. that is not correct; I managed to write reams on Facebook and Twitter about Chinua Achebe’s new book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. I should cobble together all my tweets and Facebook posts about it into one essay and see if it makes sense. Now that’s a thought. Nah, I think I’ll simply keep reading.

Reading is easier for me than writing. Yes, writing has been hard for me in the past few months but I have managed to read. Most of what I have read has been about identity and our shared humanity. So, I read Chinua Achebe’s memoir, and Chika Ezeanya’s Before We Set Sail, an awesome historical fiction about Olaudah Equiano. I also read Uche Nduka’s lovely book of poetry, Ijele and Wole Soyinka’s new book, Of Africa. Achebe’s book as we all know caused a furor among Nigerians because of his views on the hell that was Biafra. It is probably the only book that I know that was reviewed by people who are yet to read the book, a big shame. I also took a detour into unfamiliar territory and devoured Lara Daniels’ romance novella, The Officer’s Bride. There was no rhyme or reason for why I chose these books; they just happened to be around, and I grabbed them to calm my nerves in the searing heat of the campaigns. I am back now, I am feeling a lot better and I promise to write more often in the traditional places where people expect my opinions. I took a lot of notes in the e-margins of these books (yes, Kindle is great like that) and I hope to cobble together my opinions on as many of these books as I can mutter. Pray that I get this done before the next presidential campaign.

In other news, a big congratulations to Chika Unigwe for winning the NLNG Prize for literature, a prize that is growing in stature and dollars. I am happy to see that the sponsors of the prize have stuck with a vision, mostly from listening to often biting criticisms. That is how it should be. The prize is still a work in progress and I shall have a lot to say down the road.  Unigwe’s victory was also a commentary on identity and porous walls. The NLNG Prize in granting eligibility to writers in the Diaspora has ensured that no Nigerian writer subject to the debilitating mediocrity of most of Nigerian publishers will ever taste that prize. Mediocrity does not compete well with imported excellence. And again, I am not referring to the Nigerian writer. Speaking of which I know of many great Nigerians on Facebook and on Twitter who should be writers based on their postings. Tell them they are writers and they embrace writer’s block.  I am back here I think, but I can’t promise I’ll stay here forever. I wail wherever dawn meets me. Let’s just make this simple, don’t wait for my blog posts, instead, follow me on twitter and on Facebook. I accept all comers.

I am enjoying reading the works of African writers, I wolf them down any and everywhere I can find them. They are doing for me, what Soyinka and Achebe’s generation did for me in my childhood. They are different writers and thinkers but they were the Internet warriors of my time. Their generation of writers taught and entertained my generation – in the absence of the mystery and magic of technology, computers and the Internet. As a teenager, I loved Soyinka’s the Jero plays, and Ake, that wondrous book ranks up there on my list of memoirs. Soyinka is a genius as a playwright, however much of his poetry does not speak to me. There are many other poets of his generation that do (JP Clark, Awoonor Williams, Okogbule Wonodi for instance); nothing against his genius, just a personal preference. My lover swoons each time she reads Telephone Conversation. Whenever I am headed to the doghouse, if I read it to her, it sometimes earns me a reprieve. I really do not much care for Soyinka’s prose; it is opaque when it should not be. How many PhD theses have been written on that (in) famous line in The Interpreters, Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes?

My favorite Achebe book is Things Fall Apart, followed by No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, Arrow of God in no particular order. I don’t much care for Anthills of the Savannah. I love his essays,. Many people I respect have convinced me that in a technical sense at least, Arrow of God is Achebe’s best book. My dad, Papalolo, the autodidact swears by A Man of the People. He also loved No Longer at Ease. He admired the new bourgeoisie, the new intellectuals coming back home from England in those big ships and he was amused no end by their antics. I remember him, glass in hand (filled with Star Lager) twirling an imaginary key ring in his hand and going, “Sam Old chap, how’s the car behaving?” That was perhaps paraphrased from No Longer at Ease. My dad always reminds me that if I had not been born, he would have ended up in England like the Soyinkas and Achebes, and returned from England dressed in a winter coat and gloves! He also loved TM Aluko’s works, especially One Man One Wife and One Man One Matchet, don’t ask me why. Those were the days. Whenever I remember Achebe, I remember my dad Papalolo and the power of words, how one man’s words far away could connect me and my dad and bond us over a shared passion. I do love my dad and many of my stories come from him, especially Cowfoot by Candlelight. I have said he was an autodidact, he did not advance past the 8th grade but the quality of the education of his time was such that he could today put many PhDs to shame when it comes to reading and writing. Rant over. And you, my friend, this is a long rambling way of saying, keep writing. I enjoy your writing. And you know that.

Teju Cole, palimpsests, and Sebald’s ghost

I don’t think one can write from a compromised moral position –  W.G. Sebald

Random House, Teju Cole’s publisher, in publicizing his book, Open City, urged readers to read his prose and be reminded of the German writer W.G. Sebald who died in 2001.  From many of the reviews of Open City, many took heed and agreed with Random House that the book reminded them, perhaps too much, of Sebald. The gloves are coming off in installments. Many readers have noticed the influence and they are muttering about it. The opinions have varied from supportive references, coy hints of plagiarism to outright outrage. I previously reviewed the book here. To be fair, even cursory comparisons of Sebald’s Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn with Cole’s Open City provide plenty of ammunition:

Here are the first lines of Sebald’s Ring of Saturn:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a month; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralyzing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past that were evident even in that remote place. Perhaps it was because of this that, a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility.  It was them that I began in my thoughts to write these pages.

And here are the opening lines of Cole’s Open City:

And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city. The path that drops down from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and crosses Morningside Park is only fifteen minutes from Central Park. In the other direction, going west, it is some ten minutes to Sakura Park, and walking northward from there brings you toward Harlem, along the Hudson, though traffic makes the river on the other side of the trees inaudible. These walks, a counterpoint to my busy days at the hospital, steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway. In this way, at the beginning of the final year of my psychiatry fellowship, New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace.

The resemblance is more than thematic and stylistic, there are similarities of substance. Sebald’s narrator starts out as a patient in a hospital, Julius, Cole’s narrator, is a young doctor in a hospital. It goes on and on; the similarities are plenty. Clearly Cole owes Sebald a huge debt; the least of which would have been an honorable mention in an introduction in the book as his primary influence and inspiration for an admittedly good book. That did not happen, Cole does not share. The blog Bauzeitgeist observes:

The book is clearly influenced by the writing of W.G. Sebald, and in many ways alludes to Sebald’s masterpiece, Austerlitz. Part of the novel takes place in Brussels, and there is even discussion of King Leopold, discussion of ancestors surviving war-ravaged Germany, passages about the Holocaust, and a number of other discrete references to Sebald’s scenery, including mention of crossing the English Channel–the opening scene of Austerlitz.

Bauzeitgeist is quick to conclude that “Cole’s novel is very much its own work, however, with a more contemporary, and American (and African) atmosphere, centered on a far less anonymous main character, who in addition to his perambulations across Manhattan and his four-week visit to Brussels, spends many parts of the novel discussing his family and other relationships, including some wonderful passages recollecting a childhood in Nigeria, including Lagos”

Jay Caspian Kang writing here grumbles about the “influences”:

I know it’s bad manners, but I find it impossible to talk about Teju Cole’s Open City without bringing up a certain dead German writer who wrote about taking walks, meeting professors, eccentrics, immigrants, and people who said things like, “I walked around, looking for an entrance, thinking of these nearby waters. Later, I would find the story recounted by the Dutch settler Antony de Hooges in his memorandum book.” The first 50 pages of Open City, in fact, read so much like W.G. Sebald that my ADD-addled imagination began to paste photos of funny owls and thoroughly unremarkable, vaguely European landscapes onto the pages of the book… As the book moved out of New York, it shook off a bit of the Sebaldian tone and that slow churn of significance, and moved into its own skin. Which I enjoyed. But Sebald still hung over everything and once I put the novel down, I wondered why an author would choose to create a voice with such an immediate, and, frankly, obvious influence.

Thomas Lewek here unwittingly, perhaps coyly, makes the point, without as much as mentioning the ‘P’ word, that when you compare Cole’s Open City with Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, there is more than a stylistic resemblance:

Comfort with sensuality exposes another noticeable disconnection between Cole and Sebald. Sexual relationships exist in Open City whereas the Sebaldian universe remains cold, and uncomfortable with the concept. Compare the following two scenes, the first from Cole, the second from Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn:

In the faux Louis XV bedroom, her shyness dissolved…Then we both went down together, by the side of the Baroque bed, both pushed up against its satin shams, and I pulled the linen skirt upward to her waist.


A couple lay down there, in the bottom of the pit, as I thought: a man stretched full length over another body of which nothing was visible except the legs, spread and angled. In the startled moment when that image went through me, which lasted an eternity, it seemed as if the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged.

(By the way, Mark O’Connell has a great piece on Sebald in The New Yorker, Why you should read W.G. Sebald.)  James Woods, the respected critic who knows both writers’ works extremely well (he wrote the Introduction to Sebald’s Austerlitz) observes in his New York Times review:

So the novel does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing). The first few pages of “Open City” are intensely Sebaldian, with something of his sly faux antiquarianism

In the end, Woods pronounces Open City “a beautiful, subtle and… original novel.” I agree. Woods notes:

[T]he novel soon begins to throw off its obvious influences. The prose relaxes into a voice rather than an effect, and it becomes apparent that Cole is attempting something different from Sebald’s project. Eschewing the systematic rigor of Sebald’s work, as well as its atmosphere of fatigued nervous tension, Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition. This is extremely difficult, and many accomplished novelists would botch it, since a sure hand is needed to make the writer’s careful stitching look like a thread merely being followed for its own sake.

Edwin Turner in his review agrees also and observes similarly:

“If it needs to be said: Yes, Open City recalls the work of W.G. Sebald, who crammed his books with riffs on history and melancholy reflections on memory and identity. And yes, Open City is flâneur literature, like Sebald (and Joyce, and Bolaño, perhaps). But Cole’s work here does not merely approximate Sebald’s, nor is it to be defined in its departures. Cole gives us an original synthesis, a marvelous and strange novel about history and memory, self and other. It’s a rich text, the sort of book one wants to immediately press on a friend…”

Not all of Turner’s readers are that generous or objective. “Squinto13” commenting on Turner’s review says ruefully:

“I remember seeing that Cole had made a top ten list of “solitude” and that Rings of Saturn was his numero uno [here]. The Sebald similarity actually bothered me substantially. I don’t know. As someone who cherishes RoS as one of those great hidden gems, knowing that Open City is probably more well-known now than RoS is (or ever was) feels like the brilliantly original prose/tone of RoS was stolen and re-directed for greater consumption. Like Google stealing an idea that a smaller company got right or something. I wouldn’t accuse Cole of intentionally doing this, and the book has many merits – it’s still probably my favorite book of 2011, though I haven’t read many beyond some of the other prize winners, and the conversation with Farouq was top notch and non-Sebaldian – but I can’t help feeling like praise for this book owes more to Sebald than to Cole himself.”

Eric Shanfield dismisses it as reading “almost like a parody of Sebald.”  The angriest comment however is on Amazon in the customers’ review section of Open City:

This is less an homage to W. G. Sebald’s novel Rings of Saturn than a wholesale picking of his literary pocket. I found it difficult to read a single page without having to put the book down in mortal outrage because of each passage’s semblance to a similar passage, done better, in Sebald. I don’t know how people aren’t taking to the streets.

I honestly believe that talk of plagiarism is over the top (Cole and Sebald are two distinctly different authors with different messages), but the relationship between Teju Cole’s works and Sebald needs further plumbing and analysis by scholars. It is fair to say that Cole appropriated Sebald’s styles and literary vehicle and adapted them to suit his own unique (yes, unique) literary burden. You read Sebald’s works and you are taken by how much Cole clings to Sebald like white on rice. Examine the following passage from Sebald’s Austerlitz and it is hard not to think of Cole’s prose:

My memory of the fourteen stations which the visitor to Breendonk passes between the entrance and the exit has clouded over in the course of time, or perhaps I could say it was clouding over even on the day when I was in the fort, whether because I did not really want to see what it had to show or because all the outlines seemed to merge in a world illuminated only by a few dim electric bulbs, and cut off forever from the light of nature.  Even now, when I try to remember them, when I look back at the crab-like plan of Breendonk and read the words of the captions – Former Office, Printing Works, Huts, Jacques Ochs Hall, Solitary Confinement Cell, Mortuary, Relics Store and Museum – the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.  Histories, for instance, like those of the straw mattresses which lay, shadow-like, on the stacked plank beds and which had become thinner and shorter because the chaff in them disintegrated over the years, shrunken – and now, in writing this, I do remember that such an idea occurred to me at the time – as if they were the mortal frames of those who once lay there in that darkness.  I also recollect now that as I went on down the tunnel which could be said to form the backbone of the fort, I had to resist the feeling taking root in my heart, one which to this day often comes over me in macabre places, a sense that with every forward step the air was growing thinner and the weight above me heavier. (p 29)

What do I think? If you ask me, Cole definitely needs to wean himself of Sebald. Too much of everything becomes more than just influence. Read Cole’s beautiful essay, Blindspot in Granta (August 20, 2012) about medical issues with his eyesight, he quotes a passage in Open City and it is as if you are reading Sebald in Austerlitz because there is a similar experience that the narrator undergoes. It is eerie. Here is my favorite passage that reminds me of Cole’s Granta essay because it is uncannily similar to Cole’s narrative about his eyesight:

I was in some anxiety at the time because I had noticed, looking up an address in the telephone book, that the sight in my right eye had almost entirely disappeared overnight, so to speak. Even when I glanced up from the page open in front of me and turned my gaze on the framed photographs on the wall, all my right eye could see was a row of dark shapes curiously distorted above and below— the figures and landscapes familiar to me in every detail having resolved indiscriminately into a black and menacing cross-hatching. At the same time I kept feeling as if I could see as clearly as ever on the edge of my field of vision, and had only to look sideways to rid myself of what I took at first for a merely hysterical weakness in my eyesight. Although I tried several times, I did not succeed. Instead, the gray areas seemed to be spreading, and now and then, opening and closing my eyes alternately to compare their degrees of clarity, I thought that I had suffered some impairment on the left as well. Considerably alarmed by what I feared was the progressive decline of my eyesight, I remembered reading once that until well into the nineteenth century a few drops of liquid distilled from belladonna, a plant of the nightshade family, used to be applied to the pupils of operatic divas before they went on stage, and those of young women about to be introduced to a suitor, with the result that their eyes shone with a rapt and almost supernatural radiance, but they themselves could see almost nothing. I no longer know how I connected this memory with my own condition that dark December morning, except that in my mind it had something to do with the deceptiveness of that star-like, beautiful gleam and the danger of its premature extinction, an idea which filled me with concern for my ability to continue working and at the same time, if I may so put it, with a vision of release in which I saw myself, free of the constant compulsion to read and write, sitting in a wicker chair in a garden, surrounded by a world of indistinct shapes recognizable only by their faint colors. Since there was no improvement in my condition over the next few days, I went to London just before Christmas to see a Czech ophthalmologist who had been recommended to me. [Sebald, W.G. (2011-12-06). Austerlitz (Modern Library Paperbacks) (Kindle Locations 579-594). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.]

Cole is his own best enemy. Cole is an accomplished and important writer and it bears restating that Open City is a unique, original novel, albeit one borne on Sebald’s powerful literary shoulders. I do not believe that Open City would have been birthed without the benefit of Sebald’s prodigy. On the other hand, you have to be a really good writer and thinker to do what Cole did with Open City. I do fault Cole on one point: Cole should have given Sebald credit in the book and not look like he waited to be prompted by alert readers before showering him with encomiums. What Cole did is perhaps a more intense version of Ola Rotimi’s adaptation of Oedipus Rex in The Gods are not to Blame. Rotimi is careful to give due credit in his play. This essay would have been unnecessary if Cole had given Sebald credit in his book.

Again, in virtually all of Cole’s works, the Sebald influence is everywhere, it is hard to miss, and it is obvious that Cole has been studying Sebald for a long time. There are little things; the grainy black and white photos in Every Day is for the Thief now remind me of those in Sebald’s books. And all of Cole’s writing today have been travelogues, what James Wood refers to as flâneur.

Cole does not like the reference to the Sebald “influences” and the negative connotation. In this interview he bristles at this question:

It strikes me that if there is a resonance between Sebald’s work and your own it’s what you’ve just described. A lot of reviewers have latched onto stylistic similarities. But it seems to me it’s far more the legacy of traumatic events connecting you than questions of style.

And he responds dismissively with an air of annoyance and tries to put some distance between him and Sebald:

Absolutely. I’m very grateful for that, and I completely agree. Stylistically speaking, I take a lot more from poets like Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott, and prose writers like VS Naipaul, JM Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje and James Salter. It’s fair to say a lot of the cadences in my sentences are inspired by Naipaul. But few critics pick that up, and somehow end up latching onto the Sebald thing instead. His sentences are completely different from mine. His are long, looping and sort of intoxicated, whereas my stuff reads like court testimony; it’s very laconic. To me, that’s an important difference. I know I shouldn’t read reviews, but I do, and somebody recently wrote that it was absolutely disgraceful how I was picking Sebald’s pocket. And I just think, “Well, I have no response to that…

Well, Cole owes Sebald a huge debt of gratitude, no ifs, no buts. Since Open City, as if stung by the criticisms, Cole has been on a charm offensive writing effusive and really good essays on Sebald’s works, like this one here on his poetry. Writing in the UK Guardian, Cole lists Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn as his number one novel of solitude (August 24, 2011). He fairly gushes and breathlessly describes it as a “novel of ideas with a difference: it is nothing but ideas. Framed around the narrator’s long walks in East Anglia, Sebald shows how one man looks aslant at historical atrocity. Formally dexterous, fearlessly written (why shouldn’t an essay be a novel?), and unremittingly arcane; by the end I was in tears.”

In any case, scholars are going to spend an awful amount of time analyzing the relationship between Cole and Sebald and judging whether it was wholesome, that is beyond my pay grade. Judging from this scholarly blog piece from the English department of St. Columbia’s College, history will be kind and just to Cole:

W.G. Sebald’s death in a car crash in 2001 was a great loss to literature; he was in rich form, and we could have expected several really fine books in the years to come. We could hardly, however, expected that a literary descendant would have appeared in 2011 in the form of a part-Nigerian ‘professional historian of Netherlandish art’ writing about the perambulations of a part-Nigerian psychiatric doctor as he is wandering around the island of Manhattan.

But Sebald is the influence that Teju Cole’s first novel Open City inevitably evokes. It’s not that Cole doesn’t have his own voice (through his narrator Julius) or that his book isn’t an achieved work of art in its own right. It’s just that some elements are inescapably ‘Sebaldian’: the melchancholy shimmer of its beautiful prose, the apparently freewheeling associations in the mind of the narrator, the fascination with loss and the layerings of personal, cultural and architectural history. ‘Novel’ also seems a crude label, as it does for The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. And the narrator himself is a tricky figure – in Sebald, often slipping behind veils of irony, in Open City an altogether more ambiguous character than his highly-educated surface at first suggests.

This testimonial in itself is a major achievement for Cole, not many writers will ever have that honor. Ironically, he has done more for Sebald’s works than Sebald could have hoped to do in his lifetime. Cole has established himself as a great voice and an important gifted writer; on balance, given his creative adaptation of Sebald’s works as a vehicle for his own unique ideas, it is a testimony to the force of his voice that he has come away largely unscathed from the grumblings about his relationship with Sebald. Lesser thinkers would be doomed today.

I am a personal admirer of Teju Cole, a groupie even, he has been a great griot and enriched literature as we know it, for that we must appreciate and honor him. Cole will be with us for a long time stoking the embers of burning boundaries, cunningly testing the limits of what is acceptable in literary discourse. I don’t know of any writer in recent times that has garnered as much critical attention as Cole. He has done incredibly well and he deserves the accolades. He does need to come out from under Sebald’s brooding voice. For now, judging by his recent essays, it will take hours of therapy to wean him from Sebald’s shadows. Cole has a flair for mild drama. Reminiscent of the mysterious nocturnal visitor to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, he recently wrote a moving essay on his visit to Sebald’s grave. No word on whether he left flowers and a half-empty bottle of cognac. And oh, did you know that Teju Cole is the nom de guerre for Yemi Onafuwa? Find out from Margaret DeRitter in this awesome essay about the writer also known as Teju Cole.