Teju Cole on Open-Ended Stories

“Incoming” is a collection of short pieces, written separately, which we assembled with the idea that they were thematically linked and would resonate together. Can you tell me what prompted you to write them, and over what period of time?

For many years now, I’ve been trying to understand what constitutes a “story” (as distinct from a novel). Every now and again, I’d note a story idea in a folder on my computer. It might be inspired by something I read in a book, or something I saw on the bus, or something that came to me in the lees of a dream. The folder is still there. But the ideas are kind of inert, probably because they’re too conventionally storylike. A couple of years ago, at the beginning of 2022, I had an idea for a different kind of story, something more open-ended and intense. I worked on the idea—it involved two people sitting in a cabin during a blizzard, trying to get cell-phone reception—and I thought the result was interesting. A few weeks passed before I had another idea. And another few weeks before the next idea. They were arriving incredibly slowly; I was at their mercy. But I knew I had found a way forward.

The thematic connections have to do with immigration, migration, people in movement and in danger—from border guards, from turbines, from political betrayal, and other undefined threats. Were the pieces inspired by specific events, or an attempt to capture a more general atmosphere (or both)?

It’s true that some of them seem to touch on questions of migration, but, really, they are not so politically confined. More than migration, domination seems to me to be at the center of these stories. Even when people find themselves in the same predicament, it can be quite a struggle for them to maintain equality. Master-and-servant relationships structure our world.

Why do you think these themes lend themselves to this very short narrative form?

Because, if you say too much about them, the effect is ruined. The door to other possible meanings snaps shut.

Do you intend readers to see these scenes as literal or as more symbolic or allegorical? I’m thinking most of “The Turbine,” in which a mysterious person arrives on a doorstep one day and then stays forever. Is that person a random stranger? A refugee? A spy? Or something less palpable?

They are not allegories, which have a hidden and “correct” meaning. I wrote “The Turbine” a few months ago, and the news headlines have changed since then. There are unspeakable new developments in our world. I think new meanings are available for “The Turbine” now, as well as for the other stories.

Most of these pieces will appear in a book of short texts and photographs, “Pharmakon,” which will be published by Mack Books, in Britain, early next year. (One of those photographs is used to illustrate “Incoming.”) Can you tell us about the book and the images in it?

I have written about twenty of the stories so far, a dozen of which will be in the new book. They will be juxtaposed with a hundred or so photographs I’ve taken in the past four years. Like the stories, the photographs are suggestive and have a kind of fabular air. I approach photography exactly as I approach fiction. Who knows what counts? All we can do is listen and try to note down, accurately, what we’ve heard. ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *