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Teju Cole on Nairobi: death and birdsong, death and poetry

[ by Charles Cameron — on the topic of Nairobi there’s the news — and then there’s Teju Cole ]

Teju Cole, left, Kofi Awoonor, right -- photo credits Teju Cole & Peace FM Online respectively


We’re interested in creativity as well as natsec issues here at Zenpundit, so i thought it might be appropriate to see what a fine writer had to say about the hideous attack and siege of the Westgate mall in Nairobi — and perhaps more importantly, how he chooses to say it.

Teju Cole is a writer (“award winning” and rightly so) whose insightful and skilfully deployed tweets caught my attention some while back, and have only increased my admiration for him over time. I followed his twitterstream along with others while the events in Nairobi were playing out, and today read his New Yorker blog post covering much the same ground in greater detail.

What is striking to me about Cole’s approach — the approach of a fine writer, in Nairobi at the time, a friend and admirer of the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor who died at the mall — is the care he takes to balance death with birdsong, death with poetry. In treating matters this way — and we can be sure he is every bit as deliberate in his use of 140 characters as he is in longer-form writings — he both gives a world of context to the small world of the mall event itself, and offers us hope to balance our despair and disgust.

Cole is reading from his novel Open City at the National Museum at the time the attack on the mall begins:

During the reading, as word of the attack filtered in, people answered their phones and checked their messages, but, onstage and oblivious, I continued taking questions from the audience


Here, then, I have pulled together most of the tweets Cole posted in recent days for your consideration, in the order in which he posted them… Together, they offer us a very different way to encounter tragic events from those presented by journalists or analysts.

Nature has entered the picture: next up will be death — the death of his poet colleague and friend, described first obliquely in the poet’s own words:

Then comes the first of two tweets in which Cole judiciously balances the tragically human and blithely natural worlds, including in his tweet a short soundscape in which those voices are woven together in counterpoint:


This one is grim — suitable, or a bit overstated, with its echo of the Holocaust? — a question best left to individual taste, perhaps:

And then his second polyphonic melding of sounds natural and human-made, joyous and terrifying:

He returns to his friend’s death…

And then again to birdsong, to the natural world, to the world in which the events of the past days are framed…


There is something powerfully moving about Cole’s tweeted reflections, and I believe they take their impact from the precision with which Cole himself frames and balances the horror with beauty.

Just today, my friend Jessie Daniels posted a tweet that caught my eye:

Teju Cole has gone from a tweet to a blog post on the New Yorker site in a matter of days. Here’s just a brief taster:

The massacre did not end neatly. It became a siege. In my hotel room, about half a mile from the mall, I was woken in the mornings that followed by the sounds of gunfire, heavy artillery, attack helicopters, and military planes. In counterpoint to these frightening sounds were others: incessant birdsong outside my window, the laughter of children from the daycare next door. I read Awoonor’s poems, and watched a column of black smoke rise from the mall in the distance. The poems’ uncanny prophetic force became inescapable. A section of “Hymn to My Dumb Earth” reads:

What has not happened before?
An animal has caught me,
it has me in its claws
Someone, someone, save
Save me, someone,
for I die.

But you should really read the whole thing: Letter from Nairobi: “I will say it before death comes”.

3 Responses to “Teju Cole on Nairobi: death and birdsong, death and poetry”

  1. zen Says:

    A beautiful post Charles.
    There’s a curious and often tragic historical legacy of poets and politics. I have been reading a long and academic history of Fascist Italy and one the points made was about Gabrielle D’Annunzio in his romantic nationalist seizure of Fiume being a John the Baptist figure and enabler of “new politics”to Mussolini’s Fascist Messiah, Lord Byron was moved by political ideals to his death while both Mao and Stalin were poets ( Stalin, who Simon Sebag Montefiore reports was talented enough a poet to impress Georgia’s national poet laureate while an unknown young man, seemed to have dropped the pretension. Mao never did). I have never heard of Awanoor before – he seems to have been a radical in his youth of the Fanon-Nkrumah variety, it’s deeply ironic that he perished as an old and apparently revered man at the hands of radicals of an entirely different kind

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Zen.
    I haven’t studied Yeats’ political life, but Willian Irwin Thompson’s first book was on the Irish revolution of 1916, and had as its thesis:

    The Irish revolutionaries lived as if they were in a work of art, and this inability to tell the difference between sober reality and the realm of the imagination is perhaps one very important characteristic of a revolutionary.

    That’s a very interesting insight. WB Yeats asked in his later years whether his own writing had had mortal impact:

    Did that play of mine send out
    Certain men the English shot?

    As for China, writing poetry was a necessary skill for a gentleman / bureaucrat / member of the officer corps, no? So showing himself able to do a competent — though not necessarily literarily top flight — job of it might have been Mao following a well-worn path. Do we know whether he thought of himself as a “great” poet?

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    BTW, Teju Cole tweeted me: “I appreciate your kind words and thoughts. Thanks.” Very gracious, i thought.

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