I have a thing for short story/essay collections. I like moving quickly from one idea to the next, but I enjoy it most when there's a cohesive theme running through each idea, linking them all together as a whole. The only thing I can liken this concept to are those particular style of movies where there's a large main cast of characters, whose stories are all somehow linked together through each other. Movies such as Love, Actually, Valentines Day, He's Just Not That Into You, etc. Those are all fairly superficial examples, in comparison to Known + Strange Things by Teju Cole. However, the notion of relating lives and observances is the same (and yes, I thoroughly enjoy these romantic comedies as much as I do essays on political, cultural, and social issues).
Cole was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Nigerian parents, who shortly returned their family to Lagos after his birth. This conundrum of being born American, but raised Nigerian, sets the premise of one the first essays in the book, and understandably so. It's a very relevant topic for my generation, because so many people struggle between their cultural identities. While he was raised Nigerian, he always felt it was special to be American as well, to have that passport. Once he moved back to Kalamazoo to attend the University of Michigan though, he felt a dispossession of his original feelings towards being a dual-national. Everyone's experience of citizenship in this country varies, and as with most things in life, it's never what you expect it to be. Going from Nigeria to Michigan is one of the most drastic changes I can imagine, environmentally, but humans are still humans, and Cole's observances of the way people live showed that the actual people weren't much different, just the circumstances.
Almost all of Cole's essays gave me a new insight into others lives that I was aware of, but couldn't exactly sympathize with. This is solely because I don't ever try to pretend that I've been through the same things as those who have had a hard, "abnormal", or marginalized life, out of respect for those that have. My life, in the scope of things, has always been relatively easy, thanks to the life my parents were able to build for me and my sisters. While I am and always will be greatly appreciative of my special life, I have never lived under the impression that this is the norm. Which is why I've always read books, especially ones like this. Fiction, nonfiction, art books, essays, anatomy books, biographies, anything that can show me or tell me something new. I've just consistently tried to understand, and probably will continue that adventure for the rest of my days.
That being said, one of the largest understandings I gained from this collection is that of a Nigerian Americans knowledge, criticism, and love for Africa. It's been my experience that if you want to know more of the massive continent than just safaris, the Sahara, and third world countries, you have to do that kind of research on your own. I don't remember geography or world history teachers saying much about Africa outside of a small covering of ancient Egypt. Their reasoning for rarely discussing any other continents other than our own or Europe was that it "doesn't apply to you", which is probably one of the most ignorant things someone could say. Maybe 50 or 60 years ago it didn't, but in todays' day and age, when you can travel anywhere, and you live in a country made up of people from every corner of the world, it very much so applies to everyone. Understanding is essential to being stuck on a planet together.
Through Cole's essays, I learned of African poets, mob lynchings, and a bit on Nelson Mandela. I also learned that the sympathy white people feel for the poverty stricken parts of Africa, while a nice thought, is a bit insulting. I hadn't realized before that even though the intentions behind wanting to help are admirable, the person helping gets more out of it than the people they are trying to help. Cole titles it the White Savior Industrial Complex, which is the idea that white people subconsciously use helping those in need as a "big emotional experience that validates privilege". I get that and can see that, but I don't agree with generalizing white people, just as much as I don't believe in generalizing any other race. I do believe that if you feel the need to help anyone in any way you can, then you should do it; but don't just do it because you think it will make you a better person. Donating and offering aid isn't about you, it's about those that receive that aid, and I think that was part of the message Cole was trying to get across.
I wouldn't have come to any of these conclusions had the argument not been presented by Cole. When you live in a bubble, it's hard to remember that there are things going on in the world, the country, your back yard that you have never been aware of. Some people prefer it that way, but I like to play the optimist and hope that most do not choose to stay ignorant. I've questioned that a lot in the last year, yet I still come to the same conclusion that even if I'm wrong, there will always be change and evolution whether people want it or not. Just like the weather, humanity is uncontrollable. I see that as a good thing because I'm not afraid of other peoples opinions and ideas, and this book validates that I have no reason to be.