Known for his literary expertise and thoughtful book reviews, when interviewer Leonard Lopate asked critic, James Wood to showcase his finger drumming, the audience could not help but laugh.
More than 400 people at the LeFrak Concert Hall were not sure if Wood or Lopate were being entirely serious.
As Wood began to think, twitch his fingers and readjust the mic, Teju Cole spoke: “Can I just say how happy I am that the African is not the one drumming for us tonight?”
Music, race, privilege and literary influences were just a few of the topics discussed by writers James Wood and Teju Cole as Queens College’s Evening Readings series kicked off its new season on Nov. 13.
Founder of the series, Joe Cuomo, introduced each writer and praised them for their ability to “reinvent character, reinvent form and reinvent self.” He even compared Cole to Gustave Flaubert.
Wood is a literary critic who teaches at Harvard and writes for The New Yorker. “The Fun Stuff,” a collection of his essays where he discusses authors from George Orwell to Cormac McCarthy, was published this past October. This was his fifth appearance on the Evening Readings stage since its launch 36 years ago.
Wood praised Cole’s novel, “Open City,” about a Nigerian immigrant graduate student, living in New York City who tries navigating himself in a post-9/11 world.
As Lopate and Wood analyzed and dissected phrases from the novel, Cole sat in the middle both amused and humbled.
“It’s like you’ve got two leopards and I’m the baby goat,” Cole said. He was delighted that Wood even read his “small book.”
“You know, Teju said it was thrilling to get [my] review, but it is much more thrilling to get the book,” Wood said.
Cole is a Nigerian-American writer, art historian and photographer. With both his writing and photography, he tries to capture the perfect image, despite believing that they both “depend on chance.” To him, you cannot plan to capture a thought or a feeling, sometimes it just happens.
“Capturing images in writing feel too direct, so photography is a relief. It’s not quite as explicit and it’s not a first person decision,” Cole said.
Both writers read from their works, with Cole reading a passage from his novel where the main character, Julius, flies over New York City and thinks of the majestic World Trade Center now gone from the skyline.
Wood read a deeply personal essay on his experience going through and packing away his father-in-law’s bookshelf following his death. The prose haunting and private, forced the audience to a stillness as he read aloud.
Discussions on race and privilege followed as Lopate asked Cole and Wood to discuss instances of prejudice Julius faces and sometimes perpetuates.
As Cole and Wood joked throughout the evening, at its end, Lopate mentioned a YouTube video where Wood is performing an intense finger drum solo for his children. When asked to play one for the audience, Wood happily obliged.
“There’s something primal, childish—vandalistic even—about drumming,” Wood said, citing Keith Moon of The Who as one of his influences.
His 45-second drum solo elicited applause from the audience.
This event was originally the second Evening Readings planned for the 37th season. Playwright Edward Albee was scheduled to appear at the college on Oct. 30, but due to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the reading has been rescheduled to March 5.