'Blind Spot' Is A Multimedia Journal Of Travel

Jun 11, 2017
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Salman Rushdie calls my next guest one of the most gifted writers of his generation - Teju Cole. He's the author of "Every Day Is For The Thief" and "Open City," both novels. He's also a photographer, which is something he features in his latest book. This new collection of words and images is called "Blind Spot." Teju Cole, welcome to the program.

TEJU COLE: Thank you. Nice to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me why you conceived of the book this way. Every image is anchored to a place and to an observation. What links the two things?

COLE: I think I wanted to think through what it meant to travel. Every place you go to is complicated. It has a kind of ongoing complexity that you can't quite grasp but that you're not really free to ignore. But I also wanted it to be a book about photography and about a kind of love for this art form and about the kinds of things you can make visible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sometimes these images and the words seem unrelated at first. You have explained in certain pictures when you're writing and why. But I'm curious, did a lot of the thoughts, the observations happen while you were in a place? Did you write the prose down at the time of taking the picture, or were they things that occurred to you after you looked at your images?

COLE: Yeah. I think I wanted these pictures to be not so much sort of confessional. I wanted them to be testimonial in a way. And the difference there for me is that they're telling you something a little bit different from what the most obvious facts are.

A picture can show you what the thing looked like, but you can also talk about what you were thinking about when you took the picture. But you can also talk about what you were thinking about when you selected the picture. So I wanted to complicate the question of captioning in a way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many of the images that you have taken are of hotel rooms. Can you please go to page 76 and read part of the passage from that chapter?

COLE: Yeah, sure.

(Reading) I am haunted especially by the innocuous phrase I saw in a news article - in hotels popular with Westerners, for these are the most frequent targets. And these are the places where I spend my days and do my work. I write these words in yet another hotel in yet another city. But in the places I don't live, in other cities, in remote borderlands, on farms, what happens also happens there. And it happens just as suddenly, just as grievously but less visibly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what we're seeing in the picture that you juxtaposed with those words is a closet with an image of the beauty of the Alps in Zurich. What are you trying to evoke there?

COLE: Many things, I suppose. But this is one of those write-ups where I'm kind of given a report not of what's in the room but of how my thoughts were moving across the surface of what I photographed.

You know, like you said, there's this closet there. It has a kind of mural on it all, like a kind of wallpaper on it. And it just shows, you know, a lake, a mountain, the sky. And it's about this contrast between the quietness and intimacy of a space like a hotel room and the violence that seems to characterize the world at large.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: According to the review in The New York Times of "Blind Spot," they said it's a book about human culture. But what struck me about it is that it doesn't really contain many humans. Why take people out?

COLE: Well, the book is called "Blind Spot," and it's about blindness. What is missing here? And what is missing is humans. However, human presence is not absent from the book. In fact, what we have is a lot of landscapes with things built by people, interiors with objects evidently placed by humans.

I wanted to draw attention to how we have shaped our world, but I didn't want the book to be dramatic in the sense of showing extremely dynamic scenes of human presence. But, of course, the other reason for this was so that at the moments where people do show up, it has a kind of impact.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. The last image of a boy in Brazzaville. And you write that he is looking out, looking outward but here poised at the edge of the crisis. He is also looking inward, looking in. That seems to be you as well?

COLE: I think so. I mean, I think that's what I aspire to in the book, that it is - it's self-reflective, but it is also looking out into the world. But I'll say that, you know, the phrase I used there was he's poised at the edge of the crisis.

And I'm very much hoping that that's a phrase that has a resonance for us, that we have a sense of - having arrived at a critical moment and that some kind of extreme vigilant seeing is actually what is called for.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Teju Cole. His new book is called "Blind Spot." Thank you so much.

COLE: It's a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.