By some estimates, the Nigerian city of Lagos has a population of 21 million, making it one of the largest cities in the world. Its vibrancy as well as its grit are captured in a novella by Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole. Through his words and photographs, the streets of Lagos teem with life and commerce, traffic jams and injustice. The narrator is returning to Nigeria after many years in the U.S. Everything he sees is through the fresh eyes of a foreigner, but also with the compassion — and impatience — of a local. A conversation with the author of the award-winning novel “Open City.”

Guests

  • Teju Cole author of "Open City," a debut novel that won numerous prizes, including the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from EVERY DAY IS FOR THE THIEF by Teju Cole Copyright © 2014 by Teju Cole. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Teju Cole's debut novel, "Open City" won the 2012 PEN/Hemingway Award. Today, a novella written by Cole is being published here in the U.S. It's an unflinching look at the city where he grew up, Lagos, Nigeria. The city pulses with humanity in every shade. Corruption is endemic. Violence is never far away. Like the author himself, the narrator returns to Lagos after many years away. He cannot avoid the meanness of the streets, but he's always alert to the beauty and wisdom. His new book is titled, "Every Day Is for the Thief."

  • 11:07:42

    MS. DIANE REHMAnd author Teju Cole joins me in the studio. You're welcome to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. It's good to meet you.

  • 11:08:06

    MR. TEJU COLEIt's very nice to be here, Diane.

  • 11:08:07

    REHMThank you. Teju, tell us about the narrator and why he decides to go back to Nigeria.

  • 11:08:20

    COLEI think the moment you leave home, you start thinking about going back. You start to plot and scheme about how you can get back to what you've left behind. In the case of this narrator, he hasn't been back to Nigeria in 15 years. And I had not been back to Nigeria in about 11 years when I wrote this book. I made it a longer distance for him, a more radical separation, but the fundamental curiosity was the same, which was to try to understand what it is that a person makes of a place that they know well but haven't seen in quite a while.

  • 11:09:05

    REHMYou were born...

  • 11:09:07

    COLEIn the U.S.

  • 11:09:08

    REHM...in the U.S.

  • 11:09:09

    COLEYes. It's one of those only slightly complicated contemporary stories. I was born in the United States when my parents were studying here, and I went back to Nigeria at the age of four or five months. And I lived in Nigeria until I was 17 years old.

  • 11:09:30

    REHMYou studied there?

  • 11:09:32

    COLEI studied there. I finished high school there. And then...

  • 11:09:34

    REHMAnd then came back here...

  • 11:09:36

    COLEYes.

  • 11:09:36

    REHM...to go to university.

  • 11:09:39

    COLEThat's right. And this has basically been my home since then. Short spells in Europe, but for the most part, I'm Nigerian and American.

  • 11:09:52

    REHMBut you thought of yourself as having a home in Nigeria.

  • 11:09:59

    COLEOh, it -- not just thought of it, it was home.

  • 11:10:02

    REHMIt was home.

  • 11:10:03

    COLEIt was sort of the only home I knew, except that in that peculiar way that kids have, you can also sort of latch onto a fact, and I sort of latched onto the fact of my having been born in the United States, even though I had never really lived there. So it was real to me also. Growing up all those years in Nigeria, I thought of myself as a Nigerian and as an American.

  • 11:10:27

    REHMDoes the narrator want to rediscover those memories?

  • 11:10:35

    COLEI think he wants to figure out who he is in this journey back. And he has sort of hoped against hope that there's been a trajectory of progress in his absence. There hasn't been, certainly for most of, you know, the '90s, which covers a period or which is a lot of the period while the narrator's away. Nigeria's under military rule, and things were bad and they got worse, economically and sort of socially. And he sort of arrives in Lagos in the aftermath of that, not as democratic rule, but it's at this moment where there's a lot of potential, but nothing has really come to life yet.

  • 11:11:26

    REHMSo in a sense, the narrator's story mirrors your own.

  • 11:11:34

    COLEYes, there are many similarities for sure. Yeah. Well, as they say, write what you know.

  • 11:11:40

    REHMWrite what you know, but in this case, you decided to fictionalize.

  • 11:11:47

    COLEYes, because it allowed me to explore other modes of being. I mean, they do say write what you know, but that has also become a kind of a cliché of creative writing. I wanted to explore the troubled relationship between an author and a narrator who is quite close but not quite the same. I think that's -- there is an interesting tension there, because in this -- I think this fictionalizes in a new, well maybe not new, but in a kind of provocative way.

  • 11:12:24

    COLEIf you have -- if I wrote a story about, I don't know, a biker chick in Montana, it is so sort of far from my own reality, I mean, unless I have sleepwalking activities I'm not aware of -- it's so far from my own reality that it is maybe excessively clear to the reader that this is invented. But if I have a character who's close to me but who has attitudes that are rather different from mine in some places, I think that creates a productive tension. I mean, this is my view of writing anyway.

  • 11:13:02

    REHMAnd it also, pardon me, it also means that in your own mind you'd have to be very clear of what your narrator's thoughts are as opposed to your own thoughts, your own memories, your own experiences.

  • 11:13:28

    COLEI know those things in my own mind. There's really no way that a reader of this book or of my other book would really know where the identity overlap between the narrator and the author -- would not really know where those things begin or where they end. And I think this is interesting because one of our main anxieties as people is, we don't want people to think that we think a certain way.

  • 11:13:56

    REHMA certain way.

  • 11:13:57

    COLEYou know? And this crazy thing called writing fiction, where you're basically challenging other people to think that you think this, or to possibly think you think this. Or...

  • 11:14:12

    REHMGive me an example of how and where you and the narrator might differ, for example, in a confrontation with someone who is trying to exert a bribe.

  • 11:14:33

    COLEWell, it's sort of hard to say because some of those incidences are also fictionalized. And what can be said about being put under pressure to give a bribe is you don't actually know what you're going to do until you're in that situation. So it's tough to say, oh, I would never do what he does. I mean I think one of the more interesting sort of situations are in those cases where the narrator is short tempered or where he loses patience with someone, or where he's dismissive of somebody. All of us, at our very best, would not want to be that way, but of course that's also part of the realism of the thing.

  • 11:15:11

    COLEI mean, I could sort of say, well, I would not be as dismissive of this person as my narrator was. Except that, again, I don't really know that for sure. So...

  • 11:15:23

    REHMAbout yourself.

  • 11:15:25

    COLEAbout myself. I mean, I know what I would wish to be. I think one of the central ideas of "Every Day Is for the Thief" is that, when you are in a really tough environment, you are not able to be your best self.

  • 11:15:43

    REHMThe title of the book, "Every Day Is for the Thief," is taken from a longer statement. Tell us about that.

  • 11:15:54

    COLEYeah, so "Every Day Is for the Thief" is translated from Yoruba, which is my first language, and it's one of the largest language groups in Nigeria, and it's spoken widely in Lagos. The Yoruba's proverb is (foreign language), which basically means, every day is for the thief, one day is for the owner of the house. And the idea of it is, you know, things come to a head, you know?

  • 11:16:30

    REHMUh-huh.

  • 11:16:30

    COLEThere is...

  • 11:16:32

    REHMWhat goes around, comes around.

  • 11:16:34

    COLEWhat goes around, comes around. The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. But that's a more high flown way of expressing it. This is sort of more practical, more down to brass tacks. There's somebody who's climbing through your window and stealing from you, and one day you're going to reach your hand out and grab him by the ankle. And all it takes is one day for all that nonsense to stop.

  • 11:17:02

    REHMBut...

  • 11:17:02

    COLEBut the other reason I love the title, or the other reason I picked it, or the other reason it seemed so right for me is because it, for me, it satisfies my ear. It's almost perfectly iambic. Every day is for the thief. And those little things can make a fragment of language satisfying.

  • 11:17:31

    REHMDo you love poetry as well?

  • 11:17:33

    COLEVery much. Why -- how could you tell?

  • 11:17:37

    REHMAnd you write poetry?

  • 11:17:39

    COLEI don't really. But I try to write prose with an -- what's a certain intention...

  • 11:17:44

    REHMAn ear.

  • 11:17:46

    COLEWith an ear. With a certain intention to the internal organs of the language. Yeah.

  • 11:17:50

    REHMDo you read your work out loud to yourself as you're writing?

  • 11:17:56

    COLEI do. I find that what works on the page does not always work on the air. And I think my goal is always to try to convey complex ideas in the simplest and most rhythmic language that those ideas -- that can sustain those ideas.

  • 11:18:16

    REHMAmerican-Nigerian writer, Teju Cole, his new book is titled, "Every Day Is for the Thief." We are going to hear him read when we come back. We'll take your calls, you emails. I look forward to speaking with you.

  • 11:20:00

    REHMAnd welcome back. My guest in this hour, Teju Cole. His first book was actually one that won a critical award. Now the first book published in the United States titled "Every Day Is For the Thief." And Teju Cole, I wonder if you would read for us.

  • 11:20:32

    COLEI'd be happy to. So this passage was -- this book is one that's concerned with telling stories. It's kind of -- you know, one other dimension of this thief in the title is it's this person who wanders around the city pick pocketing stories, finding things to sort of take away with him. And this is one of the stories told to him by an uncle about some of the dangers of street life. You know, the narratives of a comeback. He's not completely -- he's not quite as streetwise as he thinks he is. And his uncle gives him a cautionary tale.

  • 11:21:13

    COLE"My Uncle Belu, (sp?) a well-built man in his 40's told me about going to Oshudemarket (sp?) and being accosted. A rough looking man approached him on the Oshili (sp?) overpass and asked for money. My uncle thought about it and gave him 200 lira. The man was unimpressed. Uh, no, my money's 1,000. Uncle Belu said he had to assess at that point whether to call the guy's bluff or to cave into the extortion. He called his bluff. It was a bad move.

  • 11:21:41

    COLEThe guy got extremely hostile. Huh, what do you mean by no? I will waste you. I will waste you. You see this bridge? I'll dangle you from the edge. I'll throw you off it. My uncle's options were suddenly limited. He knew that if he gave the thug a 1,000 lira his whole wallet could get cleaned out. The man could tell him to take off his trousers and crawl on all fours in the dirt or similarly humiliating. On the other hand he really did look like the kind of guy who could make good on his threat of murder.

  • 11:22:09

    COLEUncle Belu's instincts told him to fight fire with fire. He had lived in Europe for a long time studying management and (word?) in the 1980s. In fact, he was still fluent in Polish, but he had also grown up in a relatively poor family and had to fend for himself from an early age. So he knew the ways of the street. He started shouting at the man, waste me? Waste me? Are your eyes functioning? Look at me very well before you say another word. You don't recognize me? I will injure you. I will kill you. You understand? I will kill you.

  • 11:22:41

    COLEDo you know who you are talking to, huh? Do you know me? I will make your wife a widow. But of course my Uncle added with a deep laugh, the whole time I was saying this I was quaking in my shoes like you wouldn't believe. The guy bought the act though and started begging my uncle to forgive him. Finally my uncle gave him another 200 and they parted ways. About $3 had changed hands, both lived to tell the tale Lagos."

  • 11:23:09

    REHMTeju Cole reading from his new book "Every Day Is For the Thief." As you were reading that, I was wondering about the presence of guns on the streets of Lagos.

  • 11:23:28

    COLEIt's not quite as bad as Brooklyn, but it's -- I love Brooklyn. No offense to Brooklyn, but I mean, it's not so much the presence of arms. You don't see people sort of hanging around the street corner, you know, toting AK47s. It's not a city at war in that sense. And this is one of the challenges about writing about a place that is a little bit far away from the experience of, for example, American readers and presenting such a work to them because it's hard to be accurate about what kind of danger we're talking about.

  • 11:24:07

    COLEAnd I think the kind of danger that's present in Nigeria, and Lagos in particular, is sort of a danger of weakness being sniffed out. It is not that everybody who goes out onto the street to work every day, you know, is in danger of their lives. It's more that if you are in a vulnerable position, there are people who are floating around willing to take advantage of that. So it's not so much the guns as the kind of desperation of people who are poor and some of whom have turned to violence to find a way out of there.

  • 11:24:52

    REHMAnd others find a way out through the so-called 419s. Tell us about those.

  • 11:25:02

    COLESo 419 is the section of the Nigerian criminal code that is concerned with fraud. And there is a particular reiteration of that fraud that is familiar to our American listeners, which is the advanced fee email scam. When you get a beautifully wrote, but grammatically imperfect email from a friend you have not yet met who's writing to you from Nigeria, suggesting that there's some money available that he needs help transferring or securing, this is a little cottage industry.

  • 11:25:52

    COLEI like to sometimes think of Nigeria as a city that has more writers of fiction than most other places in the world. Creative writing is highly celebrated, certainly by these guys. There are very many of them and, you know, there's no two ways about it. They're crooks. They're trying to scam you out of your money.

  • 11:26:17

    REHMHow often do they succeed?

  • 11:26:21

    COLEOften enough to keep doing it.

  • 11:26:22

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:26:22

    COLEI mean, it doesn't take a whole lot of effort. I mean, you've gone to school, you know English. You have access to achieve internet café, which is a story I sort of tell in the book. And you just sort of sit there all day and you might sit there all night because it's cheaper at night to use the internet cafés. And you just sort of send these letters out. It doesn't cost you anything to send an email. It's not like sending a telegram, so you just -- what if you'd send out 1,000 emails and one person bites? Well, that's worth it, you know.

  • 11:26:57

    COLESo you sort of keep the dream alive in that way. Well, except that, you know, there's somebody out there in the other end of this -- on the receiving end of this. Most of us are grownups and we know that we've all been sort of taught not to take money from strangers. Most of us know that. But then there are people who receive those emails and you're saying, well, you know...

  • 11:27:21

    REHMWhat have I got to lose?

  • 11:27:22

    COLE...what do I have to lose? Africa's a mess anyway and there's always some free money floating around. So the moment you respond to one of these guys, you know, you've let the devil into your own heart as well. You've committed a sin of wanting money for nothing. So I do feel sorry for the people who will take him in but I can sort of see the dark humor in all of it.

  • 11:27:46

    REHMAre they outlawed?

  • 11:27:48

    COLEThey are outlawed except that as in any country that is based on laws, there are ways to get around the law.

  • 11:27:59

    REHMIt's interesting because from the start our narrator encounters people who ask for bribes right up front, even in the face of signs that say, if you are asked for a bribe, please report it immediately. And yet...

  • 11:28:26

    COLEEverywhere, everywhere.

  • 11:28:26

    REHMEverywhere.

  • 11:28:28

    COLEThe police, the man at the ticket booth, you know, the security man at the gate, the person at the civil service office that you need some document from or the other. I like to think of Nigerian corruption as democratic. In the United States corruption tends to be oligarchic or aristocratic. We have lobbyists, which is kind of amazing to me still after more than 20 years in the United States. And we have the influence of corporations on the -- very strong influence of corporations on at least two of the branches of government. So that is corruption as well but it is oligarchic corruption.

  • 11:29:19

    COLEIn Nigeria, corruption is democratic.

  • 11:29:21

    REHMEverybody does it.

  • 11:29:23

    COLEEvery -- not everybody does it, but it is present at every level of society. And it is potentially present in any interaction. Interactions all become transactional. And this is -- I mean, what I say about American corruption, but it is profoundly sad to be in a place where corruption is democratized -- where corruption is democratized where money becomes the language with which you interact with people. It does poison things.

  • 11:30:00

    REHMIt's interesting, we have a posting on Facebook that says, "What is sad about Nigeria is that it has never learned to govern. It's a wealthy country even without the oil, but corruption there is endemic."

  • 11:30:25

    COLEI think that's a fair assessment. I'm just going to go back for just a brief moment and talk about the formation of Nigeria, 1914. The British amalgamate two of their West African territories and create a country called Nigeria. And they've been there since -- they've been in Lagos, for example, since the mid 1800s and they stay in Nigeria until 1960.

  • 11:30:54

    COLENow, colonialism, when you get down to brass tacks, is a system of taking resources out of a country for your own use and not for the benefit of the people who live there. That is a pretty good definition of corruption. Nigeria by design was made to facilitate the corruption of colonialism. And after colonialism ended, the systems were simply in place for the leadership to continue to be corrupt.

  • 11:31:28

    COLEAnd then after -- you know, after a while people living there realized that the only way to actually live inside the system is to participate in that corruption.

  • 11:31:42

    REHMBut the idea that Nigeria has not learned to govern itself without that democratization of corruption, seems sad.

  • 11:32:01

    COLEIt is sad and it is also deeply complicated. It's very sad. It's deeply complicated. It has to do a little bit with the resource curse. We have a lot of oil. The United States is one of our major buyers and we're one of its major suppliers. So there's a lot of incentive to just keep business going and not exert too much pressure, you know, from either side.

  • 11:32:26

    COLEAnd then there's also Nigeria's very complicated level of ethnic diversity, which in a way I feel makes people -- makes it difficult for people to feel as if they have common cause with each other.

  • 11:32:43

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." How has this ethnic diversity been created? Explain it.

  • 11:32:56

    COLEWell, it goes back to what I said before, which is that, you know, there's a way in which nations that form themselves by the organic form by which nations are created, it's through historical conquests. And then it is through a coalition of related language groups. So, you know, Japan is Japan and France is France. And, you know, from -- what's the name -- Massey (sp?) to Normandy, they speak French. That's how they became a nation.

  • 11:33:33

    COLEIn the case of Nigeria, we were stitched together to provide raw materials for the British Empire. And Hausa is not particularly close to Europe as a language and Igbo is different from Urabi (sp?) and the other 250 languages we have. And now we sort of all have to get along. And we should be able to except that, you know, cultural distress is a very powerful thing. And it is not unique to Africa of course. It is also...

  • 11:34:07

    REHMHardly.

  • 11:34:08

    COLE...it's also true of every other place in the world. So...

  • 11:34:12

    REHMTell me about the photographs you've included in the book.

  • 11:34:17

    COLEYeah, I read somewhere recently somebody saying these are sort of like photos seen, you know, at the bottom of a well. It's odd to include photographs in a book of -- in a work of fiction, particularly if that work itself, the text has a kind of -- a bit of a documentary feel. But I'm interested in the role that photography can play in storytelling, the imprecise role that a photograph can play. Because for me a book is something that attempts at a certain length of -- you know, a certain number of pages that attempts to deliver a certain psychological payload. And images is one of the ways we can do that or we can add to that.

  • 11:35:16

    COLESo the photographs have a psychological function. They certainly reflect my own very strong interest in photography. I probably spend more time taking photos than I spend writing.

  • 11:35:26

    REHMReally?

  • 11:35:26

    COLEI do, yeah. It's -- I mean, I take both equally seriously, but photography's more time consuming. And so I included the photos because I think they are complex and beautiful in a way that appeals to me, but also because I want them to not quite -- the photographs are slant rhymes with the text. They don't quite match it...

  • 11:35:53

    REHMFit.

  • 11:35:56

    COLE...but they are sort of slant rhymes with it.

  • 11:35:59

    REHMThey're not what I would think of as precise photographs.

  • 11:36:09

    COLENo.

  • 11:36:10

    REHMThey're sort of off a little bit.

  • 11:36:12

    COLEYes. A good friend of mine said, well you know, the thing with your photography is that in all of them there's something wrong. And...

  • 11:36:23

    REHMI wouldn't use that word. I would just say off.

  • 11:36:26

    COLEOh, well, I thought it was very flattering.

  • 11:36:28

    REHMOff and blurry photographs.

  • 11:36:34

    COLEYes.

  • 11:36:35

    REHMAnd a photograph -- a double-page photograph of a man driving and we're looking through his windshield.

  • 11:36:46

    COLEYes. There's a lot of portals in these photos. There's a lot of windows. There's a lot of glass. There's a lot of weather.

  • 11:36:54

    REHMBroken glass.

  • 11:36:55

    COLEThere's broken glass. There's misted glass in another. There's dirty glass in another. Some are seen through cracks in a wall. I mean, part of it is that, you know, one of my big heroes is Lee Freelander, the American photographer who says that, anything that's in front of the photograph is part of the photograph. And he would include, you know, trees and electrical poles and everything in the picture.

  • 11:37:27

    REHMTeju Cole. His new book is titled "Every Day Is For the Thief." Your calls, your comments when we come back. Stay with us.

  • 11:39:58

    REHMAnd welcome back. Teju Cole is with me. He calls himself an American Nigerian. He spent a good deal of his growing-up years in Nigeria. In this fictionalized version, his narrator returns to Nigeria and confronts many of the issues that perhaps he thought about earlier, but didn't really want to confront again.

  • 11:40:37

    REHMI have an email from a former state senator from New Hampshire, whose name is Wayne King. He says, "I've been going to Nigeria since 1997. I want to say the problem of bribes has really improved. When I first went everyone in a uniform was holding out his hand and saying, 'What do you have for me?' Today, if someone asks for a bribe, they do so in a whisper. And if you simply ask them to speak up, they will walk away. Change is coming to Nigeria. I love it for so many reasons, that I am willing to wait."

  • 11:41:32

    COLEWell, that's very beautiful. And I love the sentiment, you know. I think some things are changing. When I'm in Nigeria -- and I go quite often. I go once or twice every year now -- it's not that I don't get asked for bribes, it's that I exercise my right of refusal, except for the places when I cannot refuse. When it would sort of ruin my day or get me into trouble. And so you get asked all the time, but I should also say that you very often can refuse.

  • 11:42:07

    COLEAnd I also want to say that, you know, this is also a love story. This book is about the people that the narrator loves. And for myself, 17 years living in Nigeria, my first experience of love is Nigerian. And the people I love most in the world, most of them are Nigerian. And the kindest, most thoughtful, most intelligent, most humane people I know are Nigerian.

  • 11:42:38

    REHMAll right. Let's take a call. Adiamo, in St. Louis, Mo., you're on the air.

  • 11:42:47

    ADIAMOWow, this is amazing. I'm a longtime listener. I listen to Diane Rehm almost every day and also the podcasts. I'm so happy that my first comment is from a Nigerian. Teju, I'm really, really proud of you. Thank you for your writing. Your writing and your experience are right on the spot.

  • 11:43:13

    COLEThank you.

  • 11:43:14

    ADIAMOI could not have said this any better myself. I'm also torn between two countries. This book reminds me of home. And I love Lagos. Once you live in Lagos, Nigeria, you never leave Lagos. You wake up think about Lagos. Lagos is such a wonderful place. I remember growing up. I mean, I would never trade the experience of growing up in Lagos at that time. Now, I'm not so sure.

  • 11:43:48

    ADIAMOBecause I went to a school, maybe you know about the school, it's called St. Gregory's College.

  • 11:43:55

    COLEDefinitely, yes.

  • 11:43:56

    ADIAMOYeah, my dad went to the Catholic school, too. Very, very good school. When you compare Nigeria in the '60, in the '70s, in the '80s, Nigeria was it, Lagos was it. Even Paul McCartney, when he wanted to record his album, "Band on the Run," he went to Lagos, Nigeria…

  • 11:44:22

    COLEThat's right.

  • 11:44:23

    ADIAMO…to record the album. And also, one of the greatest musicians in the world, ever…

  • 11:44:31

    COLEYes.

  • 11:44:31

    ADIAMO…Fela Anikulapo Kuti…

  • 11:44:33

    COLEYou got it.

  • 11:44:34

    ADIAMO…what he said many, many years ago, 30 years ago, is still true to today. He had one song called, "Everything Upside Down." I want you to listen to that song. And then (unintelligible). Teju?

  • 11:44:51

    COLEYes?

  • 11:44:52

    ADIAMOYou are a star, man. I love you.

  • 11:44:54

    COLEThank you. (speaks foreign language) thank you.

  • 11:44:56

    REHMThank you so much for your call. Well, clearly, Nigeria is a country, I must say, as the United States is for me, that is in the heart, clearly.

  • 11:45:16

    COLEAbsolutely. Yeah, you may be disenchanted, but it's a disenchanted love.

  • 11:45:21

    REHMAbsolutely, absolutely.

  • 11:45:23

    COLEIt is love, yeah.

  • 11:45:24

    REHMAll right. Let's go to a caller here in Washington, D.C. Hello, Sumah, you're on the air.

  • 11:45:32

    SUMAHYeah, good morning, Diane. How are you?

  • 11:45:35

    REHMI'm fine, thank you, sir.

  • 11:45:37

    SUMAHOkay. It's a good timing for me. I have this story, Diane. I am the owner of Sumah West Africa, it's a restaurant in Washington, D.C. On January 31st I had a reception dinner for one Nigerian guy by the name of Anton Adilikay (sp?) and his finance, Susan. He was at my restaurant from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. for a dinner, engagement dinner. But before that we had demanded the total amount.

  • 11:46:17

    SUMAHThe total bill was $1600, the food, the reservation and everything. This guy gives me a deposit of $1000 on January 8th because that's our policy to buy supplies and rent it for a reservation on everything. We did that. He give me deposit of $1,500 on January 8th. The dinner was supposed to be on January 31st, which was on Friday, the last Friday in January.

  • 11:46:49

    SUMAHThey came in the last Friday of January, we agree that he told me that the guest is -- there were going to be 45 guests. We made the table set up and everything for 45 people. This guy brought three people with him in January 31st from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. They had fun. We served them as fellow Africans. They left, but they left at 9:00 o'clock. Then what this guy did was after we ate he called his credit card company, that they didn't show up for the dinner.

  • 11:47:27

    SUMAHBut luckily, Diane, I had my restaurant Sumah's West African Restaurant, it's right next door to United House of Prayer on 7th Street. They had a function there, too. So most of the congregation at the church know my restaurant. You know, I talk to them, we talk to each other.

  • 11:47:46

    REHMAll right. So what you're saying is that you got scammed. Scams take place everywhere, whether they're here in the United States or in Nigeria or any part of Europe. Scams take place.

  • 11:48:09

    COLEYou got it.

  • 11:48:12

    REHMThat's all there is to it. Would you read for us another spot in your book?

  • 11:48:20

    COLESo, as I said, this is a love story, this book. He talks to his aunts, to his uncles, the narrators orphaned in this book. I'm fortunate not to be myself. And in this particular case he goes looking for his first love. It's always sort of the dream of somebody who goes back. You think you can maybe capture a little bit of the past. Everyone thinks that. And, as he tells us in an earlier section, he calls her Amenah (sp?).

  • 11:48:55

    COLE"Amenah's living room has solid red floor-to-ceiling drapes and hushed air. She looks less girlish now. The interior has brought a seriousness to her mood and her body. I notice the bags under her eyes, little dots of heat rash on her cheeks and the nubs where her right, middle and ring finger used to be. Daylight shoots through in a white column where the drapes failed to meet in the middle.

  • 11:49:22

    COLE"Conversation is polite. Henry's a kind, narrow-shouldered man with the beginnings of a paunch. The flat screen TV, which is on, but muted, is playing a Nollywood drama. He's a banker. He has Friday mornings off. Amenah recently left banking and is looking for the next thing. She says she enjoys the opportunity to be with her daughter, but there's something dutiful in the answer.

  • 11:49:50

    COLE"I ask them about their commutes to work and about whether they plan to have more children. They don't ask me much about myself. They do ask if I'd like lunch and I say no. She has, I presume, told him about me, the first heart she broke or perhaps it was the other way around. It would be different if I was alone here with her, without the stranger who knows nothing of our conversations, our letters, belabored cursive on perfumed paper.

  • 11:50:18

    COLE"Where are they now? Our long ago truancy, our first frightened moments in bed, the shame and delight after, and then doing it again and again, any opportunity we had, swept up in a hunger like none since. The pauses last too long, the tension is that of a waiting room. And I wonder why I have come, why I have chosen yet again to recover the impossible. I tell them about my encounter with the policeman, careful not to sound too angry about it. 'Now you see what we have to face in this country,' she says, laughing.

  • 11:50:55

    COLE"'But you paid too much, 1000 naira would have done it.' I listened closely to her laughter. I can't quite reconcile it with what I remember. I can't tell if it is has darkened or if it is some other difference. Is there some trace in her every reaction of that day her hand was caught in the food processor? There had been a power surge, a mutual friend had told me. Something had slipped somehow or she had reached into the machine, the blades had whirred and she had lost a lot of blood.

  • 11:51:25

    COLE"I'm distracted by this thought when Henry asks me something. 'Sorry?' 'I said, do you think you could move back here?' 'Oh, who knows? The money would have to be right, things would have to fall into place. It's easier for bankers than for doctors. We have good banks and bad hospitals.' Another pause. Traffic outside, generators. There are many lives and many years and relatively few moments when those individual histories touch each other with real recognition."

  • 11:51:55

    REHMTeju Cole, reading from "Every Day is for the Thief." I must ask whether when you have gone to Nigeria, and specifically to Lagos, whether you've searched out an early love.

  • 11:52:22

    COLENo.

  • 11:52:25

    REHMNo?

  • 11:52:26

    COLENo, no. Late bloomer. My first love is in the United States.

  • 11:52:33

    REHMA late bloomer. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Meghan, in Rockville, Md. Hi, you're on the air. Meghan, are you there?

  • 11:52:50

    MEGHANI am.

  • 11:52:52

    REHMGo right ahead, please.

  • 11:52:53

    MEGHANWell, I just wanted to address what your guest referred to as the cottage industry, with the scams. And the kind of sense I got that it was thought of as a victimless crime, buyer beware. I am a social worker and I work with the elderly. And the incidents of financial exploitation of the elderly has mushroomed. And one of the reasons is these Nigerian scams. And I've worked with people that have been bilked out of their entire life savings, millions of dollars.

  • 11:53:29

    MEGHANAnd while certainly there are bad people everywhere, I don't think that there are any other countries that would call such a thing as a cottage industry. Not to besmirch the country, but let's not minimize the situation either. It really affects the most vulnerable. And it's a tragedy for these people.

  • 11:53:49

    REHMI agree.

  • 11:53:52

    COLEAnd I agree, Meghan. So I thank you for your comment. I would like to sort of correct the idea that, you know, I certainly did not want to suggest that it's a victimless crime. And I know that I have a dark sense of humor sometimes. Just in terms of, you know, the idea of mutual greed on both sides of, you know, both the criminal and the victim. But what you said is serious and it is real. And people have suffered terribly because it's just like, you know, any time somebody is robbed, you cannot blame someone for getting mugged.

  • 11:54:34

    COLEAnd there are people who, you know, trust other people. And there are people who have ill intent towards other people. When I said cottage industry I actually meant just along the specific sense of there are quite a number of these people and they know each other and there are people in Nigerian society who sort of look up to those who have made money by illegal means. And there are many people in Nigerian society who are disgusted by these guys.

  • 11:55:04

    COLEAnd who would not want to be associated with somebody who is known to have made his money through fraud. So it is suddenly very sort of textured and complicated situation. And I think one of the ways in which some of the criminals narrate it to themselves, is that they are bamboozling foolish foreigners.

  • 11:55:30

    REHMYou talked to me off the air about a psychologist.

  • 11:55:36

    COLEYes. I remember reading an article in "The New Yorker," I believe it was, several years ago, about a psychologist in Massachusetts, who was sort of taken for a ride by these guys. You know, there some money from the Opacho (sp?) family, it's in Switzerland, if you help us, da-da-da-da. And he just lost everything.

  • 11:55:56

    REHMEverything?

  • 11:55:57

    COLELost everything. Lost his house. And even at the end, he still had a hard time believing that the man who had scammed him was not on some level, you know, a good guy. And that -- it's just that things didn't work out. So, you know, it's so complicated, the human psyche and our need to believe other people and, you know. But there it is.

  • 11:56:27

    REHMTeju Cole, and as he says, "Every Day is for the Thief." His new novella is actually a love story. Thank you so much for joining me.

  • 11:56:44

    COLETremendous pleasure to be here. Thank you.

  • 11:56:46

    REHMThank you. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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