Teju Cole discusses his novel Open City (now in paperback) and its potential for use in college common reading programs:
Open City is narrated by Julius, a young psychiatrist of mixed Nigerian and German heritage. The story begins in 2006 in New York City and is essentially an account of the year that follows in the life of Julius. He wanders the post-9/11 city, at times talking to strangers and at other times keeping to himself, but always sorting through the layers of the city’s history.
This is a novel of the mind, in the modernist tradition of Virginia Woolf and W. G. Sebald. But it also owes something to James Baldwin’s essayistic freedom. Julius is a loner and he is distrustful of causes, and as we follow his life—in addition to New York, he travels briefly to Brussels, and he remembers incidents from his Nigerian childhood—we see that he is also averse to drama. Because of his mixed heritage, he was an outsider while growing up in Nigeria and thought of as white. As an adult in America, he is identified as black. Because he belongs everywhere and nowhere, he takes in the world in an intelligent and detached way.
I was raised in Lagos, Nigeria (both my parents are Nigerian), and am a professional historian of Netherlandish Art, currently working on my dissertation at Columbia University. Not long before I began to write the novel, I worked as a cataloguer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that experience taught me a great deal about curating. Which objects belong with each other? How does one bring together seemingly disparate micro-narratives into a coherent whole? Open City, unlike most novels, is not plot-driven. Rather, it is propelled by the narrative voice, as James Wood pointed out in his laudatory review in The New Yorker.
I hope you will consider Open City for your college-level courses. I believe that it is a challenging but accessible book, formally bold, complex and memorable. The New York Times reviewer Miguel Syjuco wrote that it “does precisely what literature should do: it brings together thoughts and beliefs, and blurs borders,” and called it “a compassionate and masterly work.”
Teju Cole was raised in Nigeria and came to the United States in 1992. He is a writer, photographer, and professional historian of early Netherlandish art. Open City is his first novel. He lives in New York City.