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Thoughts on Teju Cole’s “Open City”

I’ve been following Teju Cole on Twitter for a while now. I’m not sure how I stumbled upon him, but when scrolling quickly through tweets on my iPhone, almost without fail I stop and read his, as odd as they tend to be.

Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Cole returned to the US two decades ago, and is a writer, photographer, and “professional historian of early Netherlandish art.” His book, Open City: A Novel, was published in hardcover a year ago today. I just finished the paperback (thanks to Random House for the review copy; they haven’t paid me to make the book sound good, by the way).

The narrator of the story is Julius, a young Nigerian psychiatrist who, like the author, lives in New York. Much of the book consists of his thoughts and experiences as he wanders the streets of the city, with a short stint in Brussels, and memories of Nigeria interspersed here and there. While reading I was struck by the strange juxtaposition one experiences living in a big American city like New York — people everywhere, but everyone (seemingly) alone. An immigrant feels this acutely.

Many of his thoughts and conversations have to do with identity — his own, and that of others. Having been a dual citizen of two quite different (but geopolitically connected) countries for the first eighteen years of my life, I can relate to those identity questions: Who am I? Where do I belong? For more and more of us these days, such questions are inescapable.

There’s a bird on the cover of the book, and birds are scattered throughout its pages as well. The metaphor is profound. In anticipation of winter they migrate south, and in the spring they return, and in between they do the best they can wherever they are. We’re led to consider that perhaps birds, creatures both communal and migratory, can teach us a thing or two about life itself. In the closing pages of the book, scores of birds meet their fate in an iconic and paradoxical way, amplifying, I think, Julius’s storyline.

While the story may seem slow-moving and relatively uneventful, Cole is a masterful writer, and has a knack for surprising us — and Julius too, maybe — with unexpected twists and turns, including some strange ones. Some of the subject matter isn’t for everyone, but all in all, I’m glad I read it.

Here’s a short video with Teju Cole on some of what undoubtedly provided inspiration for the novel from his own story:

[Photo credit:]

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