Conversation: Teju Cole’s ‘Open City’

BY Jeffrey Brown  March 18, 2011 at 4:40 PM EST

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Open City, a new novel by Teju Cole, follows a Nigerian-born medical student as he walks the streets of New York City. Cole, who was raised in Nigeria, has lived in the U.S. since 1992. He’s a writer, photographer and professional historian of early Netherlandish art, currently working on a PhD at Columbia University.

I talked to Teju Cole by phone from his home in New York:

[Read a transcript after the jump]


JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t usually start with the title, but the “open city” idea helps us, I think, talk about this book and your way of writing it. The main character, Julius, goes on walks through the city. He talks to people he meets, he thinks about what he’s seeing. How did you think about the idea of the open city? What does that mean?

TEJU COLE: Well, there were two things I thought about when I gave the book that title. One is this idea that this city is accessible to him. It’s open. The way we talk about open hearted, open minded. So it has a positive connotation that way. It’s about a sensitive narrator who has taken in a lot of the signals that the city has given him as he walks around. But the other idea was the meaning of the term “open city” itself, which is not such a positive meaning. It’s a city that has been invaded, but a city that is trying to deal with the enemy to prevent physical destruction of its infrastructure. So when that deal is signed, the invading army marches in and is there without breaking the city apart. So that’s an open city, too. New York is, of course, not actually an open city. But I wanted to capture a little bit of that siege mentality and that sense of invasion happening on several levels, historically, psychologically. Those were the two ideas that made me give the book its title.

JEFRREY BROWN: This layers and levels that you’re talking about — the protagonist is seeing layers in the city that we don’t usually see, I guess. As you said, he’s a sensitive person walking around. He’s seeing the history in the buildings, the ancestry in the people, I guess, and raising a lot of questions.

TEJU COLE: That’s right. One thing I wanted to add to the “open city” idea is that he does visit— there’s a section in the middle of the book where he goes to Brussels. And Brussels was actually an open city in the Second World War, so that also resonates with that title. But Julius is looking at layers of New York City’s life. And I wanted to evoke these layers of many different registers; he’s talking to immigrants, he’s thinking about his story. He’s musing on facts of the city’s life itself, such as shops going out of business and the bed bug epidemic and things like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, there are things very “of the minute” like bed bugs and discussions of the role of Islam in Europe. I mean, some of these things are very up to the minute, some of these things are from the distant past, like the role of slavery in New York for example

TEJU COLE: That’s right. I think I wanted to suggest somehow that everything is linked. That this is a place that’s constantly reinventing itself, but it’s also a place that— it’s not always very good about dealing with the past, and that also tends, in the present sometimes, to ignore some of the important things that are going on, because they’re not necessarily as visible. So when you think about things that are not so visible, of course bed bugs are not physically very visible, but they’re kind of there and they’re ominous and troubling— but the plight of immigrants is also not always visible. And meanwhile, it’s a central part of our lives. Especially in New York City, but in the whole country, where almost all of us are immigrants here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Often in these conversations I’ll say, we’re not gonna walk through the whole plot of the book. This is a book where plot is not the issue. There’s not a lot of plot, there’s not a lot of action. So are the things that you’ve just been describing “the plot,” in a sense? Or “the subject,” or the ideas behind it that were most important to you?

TEJU COLE: Yes, you’re right. It’s not a plot-driven book. It’s an ideas-driven book. But it’s also a book that’s driven by the narrative voice. We are more or less inside Julius’s head and what propels the book along is the wish to stay with him and to come to a better understanding of how this person thinks about the world. And the specific way in which Julius thinks about the world is to assert narratives, and observations in a way that end up making sense. To give a specific and peculiar picture of what life was like in New York between 2006 and 2007 for one particular person.

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess because it is a first novel, I’m curious about your own background here, how you came to write it. Have you written for a long time? Was this something in your head as, you know, the obvious question— you live in New York City, you share some of these experiences, I guess?

TEJU COLE: That’s true. Well, I think what’s most important to say is that I have read for a long time ,and I think that is the most important preparation of all. I’ve been an avid reader for a long time. I’ve thought about the problems of writing fiction for a very long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meaning what? When you say the problems of writing fiction?

TEJU COLE: What I mean is that there are technical challenges involved in writing fiction that I was interested in solving for myself. And one of those things was saying, there’s a certain way to express reality, but then there’s a certain way books are shaped and formed. We don’t experience our lives as plots. If I asked you to tell me what your last week was like, you’re not really gonna give me plot. You’re gonna give me sort of linked narrative. And I wanted to see how do we bring that into fiction without losing the reader. But of course, I’m not the first person to think about this. This is actually a problem that the Modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Wolfe solved pretty well. So part of my thinking was going back a little bit to re-inventing that particular wheel, which only seems innovative because most novels that are written today are being written on Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, 19th century novel. This is my first novel; it’s not my first book. I wrote a novella that has not been published in this country. So I have a little bit of experience in writing. And because I’m an art historian, I have some experience of writing that comes out of close attention. That’s what really art history is. You’re looking at something very closely and you try to write in a meticulous way about it. So I think being an art historian certainly helped train me.

JEFFREY BROWN: I made that connection myself. I mean it has to be there, right? The art of looking carefully, closely. Also, I was reading that you made the comparison to a Breughel painting, for example, where looking— you have to look, and each time you look you see something new.

TEJU COLE: That’s true. It’s funny that you raise that, because there are many art works that are referenced in the course of this book, but Breughel in particular happens to be the artist I’m writing a PhD dissertation on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really?

TEJU COLE: I sort of made it—

JEFFREY BROWN: You left him out of—

TEJU COLE: I think I intentionally didn’t say too much about him in the book. I think maybe I mentioned him just once. But Breughel is an example of an artist— I mean, this is true about artists and painters in general, but he is a specific example of an artist whose work contains more than you think it does at first glance. Whose work rewards, sustains attention and looking. And in fact, one of the very earliest writings we have about Breughel, written in late 16th century, in his time period, is somebody writing that there’s always more in his works than is first apparent to the eye. I think some of those habits transferred a little bit when I came to create the character of Julius.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well let me ask you finally then, because now you have at least two hats, with this art historian side and the novelist side, the fiction writer. What happens now? You’re working on your dissertation, right? But are you also planning to write more fiction?

TEJU COLE: Well, the answer is yes to both of those, plus other things. Actually, I’ve just started work on a non-fiction narrative of the city of Lagos, Nigeria, where I grew up. So I think of myself as a writer, not necessarily restricting myself to the idea of only being a fiction writer. I’m continuing my art history work on Breughel. I’m also an avid photographer. So when I’ve had enough of words I go out into the city for a long walk, sometimes I’ll go out walking for several miles. And I’ll just take photographs and hope for something striking or unusual to happen that I can organize into a picture frame. And that’s the other thing I do.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Teju Cole is the author of the novel Open City. Very nice to talk to you. Thanks a lot.

TEJU COLE: Thanks very much, Jeffrey.

JEFRREY BROWN: And thank you all for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown