During African Community Learning Program’s January 29th session, I introduced the students to the words of Nigerian-American author Teju Cole. The words, offered to help understand the importance of language broadly and writing particularly, were posted to Cole’s Twitter account—a mere four lines in keeping with the writers characteristically epigrammatic wit. “Writing as writing. Writing as rioting. Writing as righting. On the best days, all three.” The concision of the composition belies its force. What I take Cole to be conveying is that writing can be something other than itself; indeed, writing must be something more than writing.
Taken one line at time, we can unpack their meaning. Writing as writing is Cole’s way of urging that writing be taken seriously as a craft, as something that requires discipline and practice. This approach to writing thoroughly counters our cultural moment, where production trumps quality and hot takes prevail over serious engagement with issues and ideas. Writing as rioting is Cole advocating for writing that is at the same time an uprising, writing that cuts fundamentally against the grain and allows suffering to speak. This line by Cole is for me the most powerful because it does the work demanded by its sentiment. By appropriating “rioting,” a word with a traditionally negative connotation, for his own uses, Cole bucks convention by refusing received wisdom, thus achieving the very thing he calls for. Finally, writing as righting offers writing as the medium through which to set the record straight. From this perspective, writing allows correction, it allows for a mode of writing intent on grappling with the nuances and complexities of the subject (or subjects) it engages. On a good day, Cole states, writing is all three.
This is the Cole I encountered in Known and Strange Things, where one can detect a sort of Proustian throughline that understands discovery not as residing within a set of new experiences, but in employing news lenses through which to view those experiences. As Cole suggests, writing is one of those things that we can discover anew by viewing writing as something other than itself. This is what I wanted to impart to our students: that writing, like language more broadly, can be refashioned so that it serves the interest of students that look like them. To illustrate this point, I had the students watch Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk on the danger of a single narrative. In the talk, Adichie argues that part of what writing allows us to do is to tell a different story. As exemplified by Cole’s writing on writing—by the different story he tells about writing—for people of African descent telling a different story is a necessity, as it allows us to engage the world as other than it is, as it could be.
Hazim Hardeman is an instructor at Temple University where he studied strategic communication, concentrating in rhetoric and public advocacy. He is also African Community Learning Program's secretary, tutor, and mentor.
African Community Learning Program educates, connects, empowers, and supports people of African background in West Philadelphia.
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