Essay On Life Is Full Of Strange Happenings
DIEHL: Where did this novel begin for you?
SMITH: The plot came to me in a crazy post-partum dream. I was participating in a scenario on an island near Seattle, with environmental devastation, a religious sect, strange women, and imminent peril. It was incredibly vivid—full color, smells, tastes—and came with backstory, in that way that dreams sometimes supply a parallel universe to make sense of strange happenings. Getting the dream onto paper wasn’t as easy as transcribing, obviously, but it was as complete a vision for a story as I’ve ever had when I began writing.
DIEHL: How was writing this book different from writing your first? Did writing Glaciers prepare you to write Marrow Island in any way?
SMITH: It must have, although I’m not sure I could tell you how. The lack of plot in Glaciers allowed for more poetic, lyrical chapters. I could labor over language in a way that I didn’t have the time or energy for in Marrow Island. And since the plot of Marrow Island was so complicated, it felt like learning to write a novel all over again. But knowing that I could execute the vision for Glaciers and that people responded to it–that definitely gave me the confidence to have a stab at another book.
DIEHL: While reading Marrow Island, I had the sense that a wealth of research went into the project. How much of this story originated from prior knowledge and interests, and how much of it came from new research?
SMITH: Research was really important, though I didn’t use half of it. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest my whole life, so the landscape—geography, plants, animals, weather—are part of my consciousness. Digging deeper into the places and things I thought I knew was the best part of writing the book. For one thing, every trip to the coast or the woods felt justifiable as “research.” I became obsessed with mushrooms. My trail running pace slowed significantly in the fall and spring when I would stop every few feet to take a picture of different specimens; I interviewed everyone I knew about their experiences with psychedelics; I have lots of mushroom paraphernalia now, and of course lots of books. The thing about research, when you’re writing fiction, is that you have to be ready to soak it in and let it do unconscious work, because if you put too much of it into the story itself, it can get really boring. I didn’t want to fill pages with descriptions of mushroom farming, just to increase the page-count, or prove that I knew something about it. If it didn’t make sense to labor over those details in the scene, I held back or edited out. And, of course, I made stuff up that sounded scientific, but wasn’t…
Photo Credit: Alexis M. Smith
DIEHL: Can you share a fact about mushrooms that didn’t make it into the book?
SMITH: I can’t actually remember all the facts that made it into the book… I guess one exciting thing that has come about since I finished writing the book is that Paul Stamets (whose book Mycelium Running was a huge source of inspiration) has been working with scientists at Washington State University to save bees with the help of mycelium. It’s an incredible story–you can look it up online–about everyday observations leading to breakthroughs in science. Bees who drink this sort of dewy nectar that forms on certain kinds of mycelia are more resistant to hive die off. It’s amazing. Mushrooms serve roles in the ecosystem that we’ve only just begun to understand.
DIEHL: The chapters in this novel alternate between 2012 and 2016, which adds a rich texture to the story. The scenes that take place in 2016 cast suspense on her time on the island, and also helped me to feel a connection with and warmth for Carey before even Lucie did. Can you speak to the chronological structure of this novel and how it came about?
SMITH: I had intended on writing the story linearly, starting in the islands and working toward the aftermath in the Malheur. But early on I started to get restless with Lucie’s deep contemplation of the past. It felt really heavy. As an exercise I skipped ahead to a time in the future, when I knew she would be in the Malheur, and I enjoyed writing that chapter so much that I decided to stick with that structure of moving back and forth in time. It was an editorial headache, later, to make sure the timelines were in sync—I had butcher paper timelines written in multi-colored Sharpie pinned to my office wall—but it energized the story and increased the tension.
DIEHL: Were you inspired by any real-life communities when writing about the group on Marrow Island?
SMITH: Only vaguely. Intentional communities were one thing I didn’t want to add to the list of things to research. I even avoided reading other books that came out dealing with communal living and environmental activists because I didn’t want them to influence my story.
In Teju Cole’s new book, Known and Strange Things, there are 50+ essays. Cole is a busy writer. In the last 8 years, he has written lots of essays and literary sketches, all of which are scattered across various publications, online sites, and social media platforms. Known and Strange Things is the first attempt to collect some of these writings in one place.
The book is an intimate encounter with Cole’s intellectual universe. It covers his many ideas about politics and aesthetics. It’s thrilling to work through the collection of essays, in part, because it feels like walking through a magician’s den and being dazzled by an expansive collection of images, objects, ideas, spaces, and questions.
Writing is, for Cole, in the most literal sense, an act of collecting. Little wonder that Known and Strange Things is a book everything: Ebola, the 2008 American election, Wole Soyinka, Google, Goethe, blackness, blindness, Sebald, Simone de Beauvoir, Dame Patience Jonathan, Beowulf, Boko Haram, and a host of many others things.
Perhaps because of this encyclopedic texture, the essays can come across as brainy and scholarly. To the initiated reader, watching Cole geek out on all his signature intellectual interests can be illuminating and fun. But to the reader with a taste for the light and the fluffy side of intellectual thought, these essays might feel a bit crusty. You might find yourself lost in a sea of unfamiliar references to classical music, obscure European towns, strange literary works, and time periods no one cares to talk about.
Don’t despair. There are a number of lovely moments—moments of inspiring insights, moments when Cole says things that touch on the little joys of everyday life—a few of which we have selected for your enjoyment.
ON SELFIES — “Portrait of a Lady”
For those days when you need a lesson on how to take the perfect selfie, flip to the first full paragraph on page 127. “A visual soliloquy” is what Cole calls it. He is describing one of Seydou Keita’s masterpieces, but there’s a enough tips on how to give Kim Kardashian, the Selfie Queen, a run for her money. Recline on a bed. Make sure your makeup is on point. Your face should be striking. Rest your head on your arm. Narrow your eyes. Remember that you’re going for self-possessed look not seductive. Avoid looking into the camera. You should look beyond it. You want to strike the vacant, “I don’t give a damn about anyone but myself” look. That’s it. Now click the camera button.
ON DIGITAL DETOX — “Touching Strangers”
In a world of communication gadget and social media obsession, it’s easy to forget the power of touching. Thanks to social media apps and mobile phones, we see images of people we love. We read things they write. We hear recordings of their voices. But Cole’s essay reminds us that touching them is different. Touching, he explains, “is a sense that goes both ways: the sensitivity of one’s skin responds to and is responded to by the sensitivity of other people’s skin.” It’s a two-way thing. When all the snaps and instragram posts and tweets are all sent and done with, we still need to feel that two way mystery and power of touching someone. Lesson: drop that phone once in a while, reach out and touch someone.
A CASE FOR SCRAPBOOKING — “Finders Keepers”
Here is all the motivation you need to organize the gazillion photographs you have stored on your phone and various cloud apps. The essay opens with a scary truth that we know all too well: we are a camera-obsessed generation. “Nearly one trillion photographs are taken every year,” Cole observes. Yes, the hundreds of photos on your phone make up a sizable part of that scarily large number. Now that the Iphone 7 has increased the storage space on phones to 256 gigs, expect things to get worse. Let Cole’s essay be a reminder that storage is not the same as memory. The act of storing images and videos on your phone is different from actively transforming these stored items into a meaningful account of life. Think of your phone or icloud storage unit as an abyss where everything enters and risks being forgotten. At some point you have to look through and begin to find ways to assemble these things you’ve stored into meaningful accounts of your past.
TOOLS FOR DATING IN THE 21ST CENTURY — “The Unquiet Sky”
There is this moment in “The Unquiet Sky” when Cole dishes on the ultimate stalking tool—Google Earth. Cole says he does this only when he is missing his parents who live in Lagos. “I go to Google Maps and trace the highway that leads to our family house in the northern part of the city. I find our street amidst the complicated jumble of brown lines just east of the bus terminal. I can make out the shape of the house, the tree in front of it, the surrounding fence. I hover there, “visiting home.” But this tool need not be used only for “visiting home.” It opens up a whole new dimension in the relationship between technology and intimacy. If Google Earth can abolish the distance between self and home, it could fulfill other desires for intimacy as well. We can think of a thousand other, not so appropriate uses for such a tool—like keeping up with a secret crush.
ELECTION JITTERS — “The Reprint”
The 2016 presidential election in the US is all done and gone. For those who felt like their side lost, election day and the day after had to have been rough. But it didn’t have to be. In “Reprint,” Cole gives us a detailed rundown of what he did on the day Obama won the 2008 presidential election. It contains some useful tips on how to survive the tension of an election day and prepare yourself for the outcome. Here is what you do: reserve a seat in your favorite bar. Invite friends to join you before hand. Arrive there a little before. Order some beer and dig into a dinner of “catfish stuffed with shrimps and a side of collard greens and yams.” Whoever wins, you’ll have the extra energy to either jubilate or weep.
ON CREATIVITY — “Wangechi Mutu”
How do you write or create art in a way that “escapes foolish stereotypes?” The first step is to break the habit of seeking out familiar things. Open yourself up to unconventional things. In this essay on the Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu, Cole points to a certain mysterious quality of her work that comes from her attraction to discarded and forgotten things—like myths, folktales—things that people see as past or backward or strange and as a result as irrelevant to our contemporary world. She assembles these objects and images, and surprising things happen. The most magical work can emerge from the most ordinary idea.
Tags: book review, Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole