Teju Cole’s “Tremor” probes art, history and identity in a shifting world

Teju Cole’s latest novel, Tremor, delves into the complex interplay between art, history and identity, leaving readers to ponder the weight of these themes in contemporary society.

According to a review in the Los Angeles Times, the story revolves around Tunde, a multifaceted character much like the author himself, who is a professor, photographer and art critic at Harvard University, hailing from Nigeria. The narrative kicks off with Tunde attempting to capture an image of a “glossy and dark” hedge when he’s confronted by an assertive voice declaring it’s private property, challenging the boundaries of public and private space.

As the tale unfolds, Tunde and his partner, Sadako, explore a small town near Cambridge. Despite outward friendliness, signs of history’s heavy hand are ever-present. A store displaying a card signed by Laura Bush and an heirloom marked with a historical plaque that mentions “my negro man Jeff” expose the persisting shadows of the past.

Tunde’s world is characterised by the constant presence of historical injustices and racism, even within the hallowed grounds of Harvard. He navigates an environment where his own legitimacy is questioned, reminding him of the ongoing struggle for inclusion and fairness.

The novel takes an unexpected narrative twist, shifting to amplify the voices of the people of Lagos, Nigeria, destabilising the reader’s perspective and reflecting the tremors in Tunde’s own life. Teju Cole masterfully exposes the indelible stains of history, racism, fear, and violence in Tunde’s daily experiences, raising critical questions about their role in art and literature.

Tremor provides a thought-provoking commentary on the limits and responsibilities of autofiction in literature, challenging the often-criticized focus on upper-class white narratives and emphasizing the need to consider the broader tapestry of human experiences in storytelling. Cole’s writing offers a deeply introspective and captivating exploration of these themes, leaving readers contemplating the profound questions it raises.

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