Teju Cole: My life in books Advertisement

Teju Cole: My life in books

The flash-fiction star on the writers who influenced him

By Cheryl-Ann Couto  March 22nd, 2014

Teju Cole tells us about the words that shaped his own:

“The matter of influence in any writer’s life is both utterly simple as well as extremely complex. As a novelist, I was blown away by JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, a tightly woven account of life in post-apartheid South Africa that felt at once realistic and fabulist. I treasure Coetzee for his ability to look closely at reality without leaving out the painful bits. I see him in the line of authors like Camus and Beckett.

Another author whose compassion has taught me a lot is Michael Ondaatje, though his style is warmer and more lush than Coetzee’s. When you read Ondaatje, you feel as though you’re dreaming with him. The sentences are so free, so light, and yet so precise in their construction. I can never quite figure out how he does it. His novelistic memoir, Running in the Family, is a book I return to again and again, and it was a major influence on my first book, Every Day is for the Thief

Even though I am primarily a writer of prose, I am a serious reader of poetry, I learn a lot from it. Two books that have mattered most in this regard are Anne Carson’s Nox and Tomas Tranströmer’s The Half-Finished Heaven – very different, but each deals with the interstices of experience in extraordinarily meticulous language.

And, finally, I have to mention a classic: James Joyce’s Dubliners. He wrote this book in his twenties, and published it a century ago. As I approach 40, it still seems to me the perfect ideal of what English prose can be.”

A revised version of Teju Cole’s 2007 novella Every Day is for the Thief (Faber & Faber) is out March 2014