An honest look at fiction

Teju Cole discusses the direction of social and political discourse in America and what he calls the "hyper-realism" of his new novel.

teju cole_521 (photo credit: Teju Cole)
teju cole_521
(photo credit: Teju Cole)
In one sense at least, Teju Cole had modest ambitions for Open City.
“I just wanted to tell one person’s story in a way that was convincing, for that one person,” he says over coffee recently in New York.
Cole has made the United States his home for the last 18 years; New York, where he currently lives and works, is an exceptionally diverse city. Whose among the city’s eight million individual stories was he trying to tell? His own, perhaps?
“Anything that’s true of the book is true of me,” Cole says. But that it is true of him doesn’t necessarily mean it is him.
Open City is an African book because I’m African; an American book because I’m American. Because I’m an immigrant, I write from the point of view of a particular kind of immigrant. I think it’s important not to reject any of these categories...”
But? When he talks, Cole speaks softly, but with an intensity that carries clearly even in the noisy coffee shop. He mentions a review that lamented his book’s supposed failure to depict accurately the experience “of an African to assimilate into American society.”
Cole is unperturbed by this.
“This particular reader had an agenda about what a book by an African should be. I’m happy to think of my book as African literature,” he continues, “but if people have an agenda about what African literature should be, then they’ll be disappointed.”
Open City was published in the US earlier this year to critical praise that is rarely accorded to a new writer. (Cole has written one other work, the novella Every Day is for the Thief, but it is available only in Nigeria.) Colm Tobin suggested that the “soft exquisite rhythms of [its] prose” made it a novel to savor and treasure; James Woods, the influential fiction critic of The New Yorker, described it as “beautiful, subtle, and... original.”
Ambitious and unabashedly intelligent, Open City is a story about one person – Julius, a Nigerian-German immigrant and psychiatry resident – but is about many other things besides: memory and loss, emotional honesty or its lack. The story is populated with metaphorical ghosts from the past, the type that so often linger in a person’s unconscious; it’s about a solitary individual trying to make sense of his own existence amid the complicated, multilayered tableau of a multicultural world. It is the story of one person, as Cole suggests, but by avoiding the cliches and stereotypes that are so often applied to characters who lie outside the supposed mainstream, it is a story imbued with meaning for many.
Open City is not precisely a stream-of-consciousness narrative, but Cole’s attention to the minutiae of Julius’s life in New York can be likened to a diary. Diarists, of course, are the most unreliable of narrators, not because they seek to deceive their audiences – after all, a diarist’s first true audience is oneself – but because they lack the objectivity and distance to see their life as it is. Julius, both in his work as a psychiatrist and in his personal relationships, is acutely aware – and critical – of the failings he perceives in others. He is less so of himself; what particularly impresses in Open City is how Cole negotiates this contradiction, of his hero striving but never quite achieving a state of true self-awareness.
Cole describes this paradox within Julius as his blind spot: “This is perhaps the defining image of the book... it is about having a form of an extreme sensitivity that becomes a form of blindness.”
This theme runs through the book; when Julius travels to Europe in search of his mother’s antecedents, he meets Farouk. Of Arab origin, Farouk is trying to mediate between how the outside world views him and how he himself forms a part of this identity imposed upon him from without. From verbal jousts between the two comes perhaps the defining line of the book: “If you’re too loyal to your own suffering, you forget that others have suffered too.” It is possible to become so locked within one’s own experience that one forgets no man is an island.
COLE, 36, was born in the US and returned to Nigeria with his parents at the age of two. By the age of 15, he had published cartoons in the popular Nigerian lifestyle magazine Prime People; two years later, he returned to the US. Aside from what he describes wryly as “an unhappy year studying medicine,” he has since studied and taught art history. His specialty is in Dutch art, specifically the Golden Age. One fancies that one can see the influences of this period – the attention to fidelity by the masters, such as Rembrandt and Vermeer – in the rich detail of Cole’s writing.
Cole acknowledges what he describes as the “hyper-realism” of his fiction, something that suits the unconventional – but nonetheless effective – narrational structure of Open City, placing emphasis on observation and experience over the traditional literary tropes of plot development.
“Even if I have jettisoned some of the conventions of fiction whilst writing this book,” he says, “I have only done so because... I was interested in realism, how close one can bring an invented world to reality.”
It is perhaps inevitable that in a book as deeply personal in outlook as Open City, one would face questions about its connection to real life. Julius is intelligent and articulate, but also deeply emotionally circumscribed. Would suggestions that the book reads like a roman-à-clef trouble Cole?
“With fiction, one of the things that one does is to play with reality,” he answers. “For me, the point is not whether it is real or invented, but rather that the reader believes it all to be true of the man called Julius.”
Which answers the question, but only up to a point. I try again. Would he be bothered by direct comparisons between himself and his hero?
“One of the things on display in the book – if not my actually existing in these psychological states of mind – is my capacity to enter them; at the very least, I’m showing that if need be, I can enter into these states in order to evoke them convincingly.”
Which suggests some familiarity with the abstract if not the concrete detail, I suggest. Cole nods. He acknowledges the necessity of some level of personal exposure in fiction writing. It is not so much this that bothers him, but that the biographical detail that he created for Julius might in some way be mixed up with his own. Julius, for instance, loathes jazz; writing a character that embodies this felt like a “profound loss.”
“To have someone think this of me would really bother me,” he laughs.
Having lived in the US for half his life, Cole thinks of it as a “good place to do his work”; he tells me that he particularly admires the pragmatic American mind-set, “the idea that there is room for political nuance.” But at the same time, he is fiercely critical of the current social and political discourse, one he sees as attempting to suppress dissenting voices. One can discern this in Open City, with a pointed subtext concerning the relationship between the majority and minorities.
“American society – New York not excepted – is basically built upon a series of acts of profound oppression,” Cole asserts. “Historically it has been a profoundly oppressive place, and (in ways) it still is.”
This is a challenging observation, but one that does not discomfit Cole. Writing, he tells me, is a vehicle for advancing nuanced yet truthful perceptions about the world – a philosophy evident in Open City, which never allows the reader the comfort of simple solutions to the complexities of Julius’s life.
We talk about authors whose work he particularly admires, including the Nigerian Wole Soyinka and South African J.M. Coetzee. Cole names Amos Oz as another literary hero: “I mention him a lot because he is fully honest about reality as he sees it.”
Something common to all three writers is that they are unapologetic in their presentation of their protagonists as complex, at times even unsympathetic characters.
“Whoever you are is something that you fully inhabit,” Cole elaborates. “Anything of value that one is able to do comes from testifying to the point of view of who you are, rather than pretending to be anything else.”
Be true to yourself and yourself alone, Cole seems to suggest. And how does this philosophy manifest itself in his writing? He replies that he thinks the role of the writer is to present a dense and complex description of the world, and to trust the reader to have the capacity to engage with this without preconceptions. “The best one can do is to see things from one’s own perspective, but to try not to be too radically convinced of this.”
Ambition has never been a dirty word: If there is anything that can be said with certainty about Cole, it is that he is ambitious. He is already looking beyond the success of Open City, at a point where perhaps many others would be tempted to rest on their oars. He does not even see himself as limited to the literary form in his attempts to capture the nuances of life. Rather, he defines the underpinning philosophy of his art as one of capturing the detail that forms the whole, slowing life down in order to absorb its essence. Photography is a particular passion; he suspects that his next project will involve this in some way.
“I want to capture the detail and slowness of life, to try and put it together in a beautiful way…”
And for a moment, I fancy that everything around us seems preternaturally still, the bustle around us filtered out by his quiet intensity.