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An Immigrant's Quest For Identity In The 'Open City'

Ever since he moved to New York a little over 10 years ago, author Teju Cole knew that he wanted to write about the city, with the general structure of a character walking and walking around the metropolis and making discoveries. After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he says, he suddenly found the freedom to write this story. The result is Open City, a debut novel that has met with high praise and is being called a new landmark in post-Sept. 11 fiction.

"My view of writing about those things [like Sept. 11] is that you can best write about it by writing about other things," Cole tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "And by understanding that catastrophic trauma is not new in this city."

Cole cites the erasures of the Native American past and the history of slave-holding in New York as other instances of extreme violence that have been suppressed over time. By writing with those stories in mind, he says, it's more possible to comprehend the trauma of Sept. 11.

Open City
By Teju Cole
Hardcover, 272 pages
Random House
List Price: $25

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Julius, the novel's main character, walks around New York for days observing his surroundings. The central conflict of the book, Cole explains, is what happens to a mind that takes things in — and one that's sensitive to what's going on around it.

Cole says the title, Open City, can take on two meanings — in both an invasive and welcoming sense. It can refer to the practice of allowing an invading army to enter a city in an effort to save its physical structure, as international law prohibits that army from bombing or destroying it. But Cole also wanted to describe the city as "open" in a more positive sense — that of being openhearted. Julius exhibits that porous, open-minded quality by walking all over his adopted town simply to talk with strangers and learn their life stories.

Cole himself spent time talking to many people in cafes, on planes and at concerts in an effort to research his novel. He found that a surprising number of people wanted to tell him about their lives.

"People are able to detect that there's something unusual going on here; this is somebody who actually wants to hear the small and insignificant and boring details of my life," he says. "People open up — they trust that, and they open up."

Most of the people Julian talks to in the novel are immigrants, or at least somewhat culturally outside the mainstream — Julian himself is both German and Nigerian. Cole, as well, was raised in Nigeria but moved to the United States in 1992. He began to embrace his American-ness, he says, when he realized that it was OK to be what he calls an "eccentric American," looking to the president or Dominican-American author Junot Diaz for examples.

"It's a bit like Ralph Ellison in The Invisible Man ... where he talks about when you're making white paint, put a little drop of black in it and it comes out even more vivid. So there's a little drop of something else in my version of American-ness; I think that's a story worth telling," he says.

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Transcript

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

First-time novelist Teju Cole has worked at many jobs, and this list is in no particular order: a gardener, an art history professor, a dishwasher, a medical student and a photographer. But a curious mix of the last two informed the writing of his debut novel, "Open City." It's a story told through the cinematic eye of Julius, a young medical student who spends large parts of his days walking the streets of New York.

Mr. TEJU COLE (Author, "Open City"): (Reading) At the corner, the lights of the diner flickered with large neon words: Support Our Troops. The first two letters of troops failed to light. Christmas shoppers stalk the streets, huddled under black cloaks rimmed with fur. As I came to 9th Avenue, there was a silent commotion along the stand of trees just one block to the south on 33rd where I saw pamphlets opposing the war, fluttering in the wind like a flock taking sudden flight. I had the impression of a crowd dispersing, the height of the activity just passed. The police barrier lay on its side.

CORNISH: That's Teju Cole. He's in our New York bureau to talk about his new book, "Open City." Teju Cole, welcome to the program.

Mr. COLE: Thank you. It's very nice to be here.

CORNISH: "Open City" is a very meditative book. And it's this meditation with Manhattan as the backdrop. And what led you to call the book "Open City"?

Mr. COLE: Well, I was thinking of two sort of different senses of that expression. There's formerly an open city is a city that has made some kind of deal with the enemy and invading army that if we let you in, you won't destroy the physical structure of the city. You won't bomb us. So, I wanted to evoke that sense of an invasion but a quiet invasion.

But on the other hand, I wanted to suggest openness. We talk about open-minded and open-hearted and I like this word, this openness. Julius goes around and he really is - he's open, he is permeable, he's a bit porous to what's going on in the city.

CORNISH: And Julius is the central character of the book. He's a, I guess, a psychiatry fellow in medical school, and he takes to going on these long walks, sort of. And it seems as though the story is basically an unwinding of the identity of a person who knows a lot about a lot of things, but I'm not so clear that he knows so much about himself.

Mr. COLE: Right. I guess you could say that's the central conflict of the book. What happens to a person who's so sensitive to what's going on in the world around him. And I really wanted to explore a mind - not just Julius's mind, but a mind like ours. You and me and everybody, a mind that's always taking things in, but that's no guarantee against self-deception.

CORNISH: In his travels in New York, Julius encounters so many people 'cause he's just sort of walking and walking and walking. And he takes a vacation to Brussels at some point and he does more walking there. And each time he encounters someone he manages to get their life story essentially...

Mr. COLE: Right.

CORNISH: ...characters who were immigrants, or characters like Julius himself, who is German and half-Nigerian - sort of cultural outsiders. How did you research these stories?

Mr. COLE: I'm somebody who enjoys talking to strangers and listening to stories. This book is a fiction. I've made up the majority of it, but that experience of talking to people in cafes and on planes and at concerts and on and on like that, definitely informed the approach I took for the book. And I just wanted to see what happened if you patterned together a series of conversations from various strangers. See what kind of picture of the present that that gives us.

CORNISH: A lot of people have sort of called this part of a post-9/11 fiction, which I wasn't clear was a genre at this point. But, I mean, how do you feel about that?

Mr. COLE: Oh, I don't shy away from the description. It is a post-9/11 book because it happens after 9/11 in the city where this disaster happened. But my view of writing about those things is that you can best write about it by writing about other things, by understanding that catastrophic trauma is not new in this city. There has been extreme violence all through the history of New York that has been suppressed.

And so the way to process what happened on 9/11 is to cast back and be sensitive to previous traumas, such as the erasure of the Native American past, such as the erasure of the slaveholding past of the city. And so Julius, for example, is sensitive to that fact that if you look above the street level, if you look up to the second floor of buildings in New York City, immediately you're drawn back into the 19th century and earlier. So, the past is present with us.

CORNISH: That's Teju Cole. His new novel - his debut novel - is called "Open City." He spoke with us from our New York bureau. Teju Cole, thank you so much.

Mr. COLE: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

CORNISH: You can hear a reading from the book at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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