Over the holidays I was in Sydney, Australia for a conference and then some travels. When I consider those experiences that have impacted my life certainly living abroad and traveling to different countries has made its mark. Indeed, cross-cultural life has made such an impact on me that I worry at times about the insularity of Americans in general, and our research experiences in particular. I learn when I travel. I learn not only about the country and people I am visiting or living with, but also about myself.
I know there are those who try to insulate themselves from local peoples and customs. Many years ago I recall a long-distance conversation I had for a job that would have been in New Delhi. I forget what the job was, but I recall the fellow telling me that the complex I would live in “was just like the States. You won’t even know you’re in India.” He was trying to convince me to take the job, but his statement did the opposite. I instead went to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota.
By coincidence, when I was in Oz I read Teju Cole’s Open City. Cole was raised in Nigeria, but he was born in the United States of Nigerian parents. The novel reminded me of W.G. Sebald’s work in the quiet nature of the text. A young Nigerian doctor wanders around, mostly in New York and Brussels. He meets someone; he observes them, records what they discuss. The conversations prompt him to reflect on various aspects of his life—the breakup with his girlfriend, his time at a private academy in Nigeria, his experiences of being black in New York City. The book is an extraordinary meditation on identity, one’s place in the world, and our relation to one another.
Not much happens in the book. There are a few villains—a sadistic high school music teacher, for example—but by and large this is not a story that proceeds from one place to another or is populated with good or evil. People die—his father passing away from cancer is recalled—and occasionally a child enters the story. But really this is a quiet meditation on not only the protagonist’s life, but all of our lives.
The writing is superb. He is as good an ethnographic observer as I have read in a very long time. I frequently tell my students that if they want to learn how to write then they certainly shouldn’t read social science. Cole’s book is a perfect counter-example of what anyone should read to learn about good writing.
He meets a woman on an airplane and describes her as he is waking up:
What I saw when I opened my eyes was a person with a head of gray hair so thin it was as though the very substance of it, and not merely the color, were fading away. The face underneath this fragile crown was narrow and wrinkled, and the skin was covered in fine liver spots. But there was a firmness around the mouth and jaw, a prominence in the forehead, and a sharpness in the eyes. Undoubtedly, for most of her life, she had been a great beauty. The first thing she did, as I put my sleeping mask away, was wink, which took me aback, but to which I responded with a smile.
Reread those words slowly and savor them. Cole’s work is “thick description” at its most elegant. And the description is not merely to describe but to give us meaning not only into the protagonist’s life, but our own lives. It’s the sort of understanding and description I try to gain when I travel.