“American identity is beautifully tautological”: An Interview with Teju Cole

07/14/2011 2:42 PM |


Teju Cole’s debut novel Open City, released to enthusiastic reviews earlier this year, follows the peregrinations of a young, somber half-Nigerian psychiatrist living in Manhattan and searching for a sense of who he is and what his ancestral past actually means. Like his narrator, Julius, Cole is Nigerian, and came to America when he was 17. And unlike Julius, Cole is an artist with a capital A, an accomplished writer and photographer who is also pursuing his PhD in art history at Columbia. He lives in Brooklyn and will next read at Bryant Park’s Word for Word series on August 10th. He answered some questions over email this month.

Open City, despite its international outlook, is very much rooted in New York City. Julius seems to relish his walks through New York—yet frequently, as in the scene where he attends a concert with mostly older white people, feels alienated from the population. What is your relationship with New York City like? What aspects of city life are you most ambivalent about?
This is my home now. A cup of chai in Jackson Heights, hip-hop at Southpaw on a Saturday night, and Central Park on a summer evening mean as much to me as anywhere else in the world. The city offers a variety of experiences and, on balance, alienation is part of that. But feeling like you belong is also part of it. It depends on the day and on one’s mood. Julius is more alienated than most, but it had to be so because there were things I wished to explore through his alienation.

As for ambivalence, I think the most striking thing about New York is the brutal gap between the rich and the poor. This is true of most metropolises in the world, but New York has dozens of billionaires and large numbers of people who live in abject need. I mean, there’s some startling and awful poverty in entire neighborhoods of this city. It makes you stop and think: how can I enjoy this place, which is so unequal that it’s like the scene of a crime in progress? How can some city schools be so wretched when some people drop thousands of dollars at dinner?

Do you think the way individuals feel alienation today differs from the past?
I wouldn’t know. I imagine not. The cosmopolitan reality and with it the unmoored self have been with us an awfully long time.


You write very eloquently about Mahler and art. How has your study of art history, and music connoisseurship, affected your writing? How would you describe the interplay between these mediums?
I’m not a connoisseur of music, really, just a guy who went to a lot of concerts and read a lot of concert notes in the past eighteen or so years. But art history does have a connection to what I do. Svetlana Alpers’s book, The Art of Describing, which is about artistic practice in the Dutch Golden Age, lays out ideas about how Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others approached their work. The book is not a history per se. It tries instead to get close to what it meant to make pictures at that particular time in that place: the seventeenth century, the Netherlands, a place of heavy mercantile activity, a place that was opening up the world and being opened up by it. And for various reasons, the kind of picture-making that was most favored, practiced, and paid for there was the densely descriptive kind. It was visual in the extreme, it was optical, it loved the world of surfaces and sensations. It loved lenses and maps. It wasn’t story-driven like sixteenth century Italian art had been. In a similar way, it suited me to have Open City not be story-driven. I described related things and let those descriptions, descriptions of what Julius saw, in the fairly straightforward language of witness, become the story of a year in his life.

Identity seems like a theme that surfaces, again and again, in Open City. What does it mean to be an American writer in the 21st century, especially when our national identity becomes increasingly difficult to define?

An American writer is someone who writes and holds an American passport. Jessica Hagedorn, Simon Winchester, Ai, Luc Sante.


I don’t think our national identity is any harder to define now than it’s ever been. An American isn’t someone who has a particular bloodline or an immemorial claim on a patch of land. An American is someone who participates, willingly or forcibly (as in the case of enslaved people), in the American experiment, which is about signing up for the way things are done here: no kings, no hereditary advantages, at least in theory, and a certain engagement with those ideas of liberty and self-determination we settled on in the eighteenth century. American identity is beautifully tautological: an
American is someone who is an American, and every American is “really” American. There are not, or ought not to be, any pre-requisites, not the way your face looks, not the way you bury your dead, not even
having a good opinion of America. If you can find a legal way of getting that blue passport, and you can behave yourself for the duration of the swearing in, you’re in.

You’ve been compared to W.G. Sebald, J.M. Coetzee, Joseph O’Neill, Zadie Smith… But which writers do you admire most?
Marguerite Yourcenar and Penelope Fitzgerald.

September 11th is alluded to several times in the novel. What particular challenges do writers face when addressing cataclysmic world-historical events like 9/11?
There’s always the risk of saying too much. Best to do it with a sidelong glance, I think, best to talk about it by talking about something else. I’d much rather read Sebald on the Holocaust than anyone else, precisely because he says very little about the Holocaust. He understands that sometimes the best you can do is to write as subtly as you can about emotional aftershocks. I think there’s great ethical value in being appropriately dumbfounded.