Back in February of 2011, in our very first blog post ever, we spoke about our enthusiasm for the recently released debut novel OPEN CITY by Teju Cole. Cole’s editor, David Ebershoff, had expressed his enthusiasm for the book. We were still toiling away in grad school, so it felt very cool to hear about a novel before it had even been published. Ebershoff generously explained the process he’d gone through in reading and editing the book, acquiring it, and ultimately seeing the project through to its publication. When it came out, we all went out and bought it. And, well, the book was — and is — nothing short of amazing. It made our Top Ten Literary Books of 2011 list and was given to many family members for Christmas. If you are a fan of W.G. Sebald, you will like OPEN CITY. If you are a fan of CATCHER IN THE RYE or books about New York City you will like OPEN CITY.
Now, more than a year later, OPEN CITY is the recipient of the 2012 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for a distinguished first book of fiction and a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle award. This morning, in what will likely go viral, Teju Cole’s latest essay appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. The piece is called “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” in which he clarifies a series of 7 tweets he sent in response to the Kony 2012 video, which Cole reported having recently viewed (along with 84 million other people, including this author, as of this morning). Cole sets out, in his own words, to articulate the following problem: “One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of ‘making a difference.'”
The Kony 2012 video is essentially a 30 minute sentimentally driven call to action for Americans to do something to help catch and prosecute a militant leader named Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has enacted some of the grossest human rights violations in recent memory. The purported objective of the Kony 2012 campaign is to make Joseph Kony famous, so that Americans will call upon their lawmakers to engage in military action to hunt down and capture Kony in Africa. Indeed, as the video demonstrates, last fall the U.S. Government authorized “advisors” to intercede in central Africa, where, the WSJ reports, they’re ramping up efforts to find Kony. It’s easy to understand how Americans would empathize with this call to action, as the video contains very intense footage of African children who have been victimized by Kony’s army. On the other hand, Teju Cole argues that sentimentally driven volunteerism is not the proper course of action to take in these circumstances. No one involved in this dialogue disputes the crimes of Kony, or the global need to capture and prosecute criminals of his stature. At stake, essentially, is the relationship of a person’s actions within the larger context of their country’s actions.
In response to this problem, that of the White Savior Industrial Complex, Cole articulates the following: “. . . I disagree with the approach taken by Invisible Children in particular, and by the White Savior Industrial Complex in general, because there is much more to doing good work than “making a difference.” There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”
Teju Cole’s essay today will undoubtedly thrust him into the media’s spotlight, if briefly; as a journalist, he will rightly be heard and his opinions will be dissected and refuted, or agreed upon and affirmed. His essay has foregrounded important issues relating to American foreign policy, racial tensions at home and abroad, and the role of the artist to either engage in political issues or withdraw from them. His platform — the Atlantic Monthly — might not have been available to him, or at least might’ve been more difficult to approach, if he hadn’t already achieved considerable (well-deserved) attention and success as a novelist. Regardless of each reader’s interpretation of the issues, what we’ve witnessed is that a novelist can still influence the American political dialogue, or at least attempt to do so and receive some attention from mainstream media outlets. In an era where much is hailed on the death of the novel, the form still retains the power to give authors a platform, to create intellectual celebrities, in order to dictate and direct the more topical conversations that exist in the world of journalism.
In his essay, he demonstrates an unusual degree of self-awareness and conviction. “I write all this from multiple positions,” he explains. “I write as an African, a black man living in America. I am every day subject to the many microaggressions of American racism. I also write this as an American, enjoying the many privileges that the American passport affords and that residence in this country makes possible. I involve myself in this critique of privilege: my own privileges of class, gender, and sexuality are insufficiently examined. My cell phone was likely manufactured by poorly treated workers in a Chinese factory. The coltan in the phone can probably be traced to the conflict-riven Congo. I don’t fool myself that I am not implicated in these transnational networks of oppressive practices.”
Before drawing any conclusions, either pro Kony2012, or pro-Teju Cole, take a minute to examine all the items in front of us. Read OPEN CITY, first, to familiarize yourself with Cole’s aesthetic; then watch the KONY 2012 video, in order to join the dialogue of 84 million other viewers, then read Cole’s essay in the Atlantic in order to make up your own mind about the role of the individual within the larger confines of their national and political identity. We’re not weighing in on any of the sides of this argument, but we are celebrating the role of the artist as someone who can change the way people talk, act, and think (in that order).