Skip to main content

Author Teju Cole

'The old customs have passed away, and the new, less reassuring, less traditional modes of life are struggling to be born. Mobs arise out of this crisis. They are a form of impatience," wrote the Nigerian-American Teju Cole in an essay on Nigerian mob justice for The Atlantic. So let us ask – is there a place more crisis-prone, more impatient than Nigeria? Nowhere else, or nowhere I've visited, feels more tethered to the future. It is a country the size of British Columbia, inhabited by 170 million people. By 2050, that number will grow to 450 million, and Nigeria will become the third-biggest country by population in the world. At the turn of the century, Nigeria will be home to almost a billion.

So Nigeria, to say nothing of its talismanic megalopolis, Lagos, is rising. Here you'll find the planet's warp-drive propulsion system, generating all of our restless striving, boundless hope, and manic aggression; here you'll find our terror at the sheer speed of life as it's lived today. Lagos, already packed with 20 million souls, is roaring its way up the West African coast, an unbroken strip of concrete soon to be as populous as the eastern seaboard of the United States. It seems inevitable that Lagos will come to serve as the emblem of the 21st century.

Lagos inspires such fetishism mostly because it is that most city-ish of cities. It has something of everything and nothing of anything, and has thus become the subject of thousands upon thousands of scholarly examinations. And while the academic papers are helpful, if the outsider has any hope of understanding the place, she must turn to its music or its movies or literature. But beware – as Sefi Atta put it in her collection Lawless & Other Stories, "Who was I to think art could save anyone in Lagos?"

Over the last century, many have written the city into being: colonial-era nutjob Frederick Lugard; Nobel Laureates Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka; martyred firebrand Ken Saro-Wiwa; present-day superstar Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The city has a rich history of investigative journalism, and journalists are often the protagonists of novels and stories: Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City (one of the first Nigerian novels published internationally), Helon Habila's Waiting for an Angel, Okey Ndibe's Arrows of Rain. (Don't miss his latest, the outstanding Foreign Gods, Inc.) A unique paradox: there are almost no bookshops in Lagos, but Lagos overflows with words. "The city," observed the poet and writer Odia Ofeimun, "is indeed a city of literature."

Teju Cole, the 38-year-old photographer, essayist and author of 2012's New York novel, Open City, has long been muscling his way into the Lagosian pantheon. One of the few writers to properly grasp the literary potential of Twitter, Cole has posted a series called small fates, hundreds of Nigerian news stories reconfigured as Félix Fénéon-style faits divers – grisly tidbits from the bowels of the quotidian. A personal favourite: Joining the fight against AIDS, armed men in Edo carted away a shipment of anti-retroviral drugs. Although this series alone would make him one of Nigeria's more important voices, it's strange that his reputation was forged by Open City and not by his Lagos-set debut Every Day Is For The Thief, first published in Nigeria in 2007, and only now arriving in North America.

Like Open City, Every Day is a novel of wandering. Unlike Open City, stately Sebald-isms are discarded for brutal tautness – the book is ripped. If Cole shares a stylistic kinship with any African, it is the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic, who is an expert in "the seductive mysteries of things as they are." As with Cole's nameless narrator in Every Day, Vladislavic's avatars are Johannesburg flaneurs, bumbling through another of Africa's unwalkable metropolises. In an introduction to Vladislavic's recent novel Double Negative, Cole notes that the prose "is alert to vibrations, movements and feints, as though it were fitted with a secret accelerometer." This is equally true of Cole's work. In contrast to a preternaturally hurried Lagos, Every Day is subdued, contained.

This short book is built on a simple chassis – a young man, following his studies, returns to Lagos from the United States for a visit. We begin as everyone must, at the Nigerian consulate, where the window separating the narrator from a customs official acts as a portal; it is understood that if our hero hopes to obtain a visa, he must pay a bribe. On the way out, he notices a decrepit sign: "Help us fight corruption. If any employee of the Consulate asks you for a bribe or tip, please let us know." Nigeria is where irony travels to die.

Next step, we must get to Lagos, and we must survive the airport's welcome. A huge number of Nigerians live in the diaspora, and a huge number of Nigerian writers are dual citizens, so the re-entry scene has become something of a trope. (Cole was born in the United States, lived in Nigeria until he was 17, and is now based in Brooklyn). Murtala Muhammed International Airport, "named for a dead general, and all that is worst about the architecture of the seventies," is Lagos in extremis. Here, both newcomer and returnee are coached in the ways of the city, a species of tough love, minus the love.

Gifts, thank-yous, fiscal commendations – cash flies from pockets. "For many Nigerians," explains Cole's narrator, "the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms – the categories are fluid – is not thought of in moral terms. It is seen either as a mild irritant or as an opportunity. It is a way of getting things done, neither more nor less that what money is there for." But even the city's famous e-scammers have a literary bent. At an Internet café, our narrator witnesses any number of so-called "yahoo yahoo's" penning their extortions. "They are such enterprising examples of fiction that I realize Lagos is a city of Scheherazades," writes Cole of these e-mail jockeys. Their new genre inverts the colonial matrix of exploiter and exploited. The fool is now the Westerner, undone by greed.

For Cole, every such element of the city is a signifier, even if the signs are not easily decoded. The crowds he negotiates bring to mind the slave trade, the city's foundational trauma. West Africa, which disgorged masses and masses of black flesh from its shores, once again counts people as its most important resource. Never mind the oil: Nigerians are considered to be a growing market, and economists slather over their rates of consumption. But what society will Nigerians build if they refuse their history? "There is no day of remembrance, no commemorative museum," writes Cole. "Faulkner said: 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' But in Lagos, we sleep dreamlessly, the sleep of innocents."

Eventually, we must slam into the inevitable Lagosian literary staple: the moment born of crisis, of impatience. The narrator arrives at a market in order to see for himself where a suspected thief, aged 11, was burned alive by a mob. The incident is filmed by digital camera, and Cole recreates it in all its ghastly vividness. "Every day is for the thief," runs the Yoruba proverb that lends the book its title, "but one day is for the owner." After being shared online, the burning is forgotten. "It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes," notes the narrator, "but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to ply their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes."

Lagos is a city of words, but those words can arrive too easily. Cole has said in interviews that he believes the musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti to be the town's true bard; for his troubles, Fela was severely beaten, jailed, and saw his mother tossed from a window. Lagos takes its pound of flesh. You can sense this in Every Day's deep melancholy; it is a book that feels like it was written at dusk, during that strange, lonely peace before Lagos's generators power to life. Every Day does not encompass all of Lagos, which is anyway impossible. But if the city is a map of the future, Cole is one of its principal cartographers. His book is a quiet triumph, and a eulogy for what awaits.

Richard Poplak is currently co-authoring a book interrogating the notion of Africa rising, called Continental Shift.