An Immigrant's Quest For Identity In The 'Open City' Teju Cole's debut novel, Open City, follows Julius, a half-Nigerian and half-German doctor, as he wanders the streets of New York. Julius struggles to understand his identity as an immigrant, an experience the author himself is familiar with.
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An Immigrant's Quest For Identity In The 'Open City'

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

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

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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

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