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Teju Cole

Teju Cole: breaking all the rules.

Well, rules of readings—not the most badass of rebellions, but I still admired the author for mixing things up. At Community Bookstore on Thursday night, Teju broke out two readings moves I’ve not seen so far: reading someone else’s work along with his own, and asking the audience to read parts of his work out loud.

Thirty-something Teju’s debut novel Open City follows Julius, a psychiatrist who wanders NYC and Brussels, coming into contact with people, hearing their stories, musing on his own shizz (social theory, art, music, books). Teju admitted he takes his own seven-mile walks around Manhattan, which, given that the entire island’s only about 2 miles across and 13 miles long, is a pretty impressive feat in itself.  

Teju lives near Community Bookstore, and as CNN International set up video recording equipment (prompting him to announce, “My life continues to be surreal”) he extolled the virtues of the well-curated bookshop, which offers forgotten classics and other niche books. I’d not been to the bookstore before, but it really is delightful, with the token friendly cat, and—wait for it—an actual backyard, where they hold post-author wine/cheese events and BBQ’s (more on that later).

In a dapper suit and glasses, Teju first read from Telegrams of the Soul by Peter Altenberg, a Viennese author. In Open City’s first chapter, Julius mentions the author, and Altenberg also prompted Teju to write a certain incident in the last chapter, bookending the tale. In Telegrams, Altenberg writes about a zoo in 1893 Venice that brought in people from Ghana to show as an exhibit (!). In the passage Teju read, Altenberg converses with one of the tribesmen, who says that the zoo has forbid them to wear clothes, and left them to squalid living conditions that would be unheard of back home. Very disquieting.

Teju turned back to Open City to read a passage where Julius comes across a Haitian shoe-shiner, and his hesitance in getting his shoe shined. And then, he jokingly instructed us: “Please turn to p. 74 in your Bibles.” In ecclesiastical fashion, Teju asked us to trade off lines with me. He later told me he’d worried this might seem “precious,” but it was a new way to experience the work—and it did loosen everyone up for the Q&A afterward.

The first question asked why Julius always seemed to pull back from those he was interacting with. “In other words,” Teju said with a smile, “what’s his problem?” Teju’s goal in crafting Julius was to make him a lifelike person, with good and bad traits, someone who’s “sensitive and a good listener, but also carefully guarded.” Teju went on to ask: “Reviewers have complained about his personality—do they just want to read about nice people? Many mainstream novels hold back on the complexity of individuals.”

Building on the idea of realism, Teju said that, though his novel isn’t funny (except for a lone joke on the aforementioned p. 74!), one of his inspirations was stand up comedy—where the humor relies on a common experience (e.g. “Did you ever notice…”). Teju said that many writers don’t include these common thoughts or experiences because they figure everyone has them—but that’s where the common connection comes in.

In terms of Julius’s specific character traits, Teju made two major choices—for him to be a psychiatrist and for him to be mixed-race (half Nigerian, half German). Teju himself dropped out of med school after 1.5 years (“I wanted to be a doctor, not a med student”), but during his time there, he’d been interested in psychiatry: “It trafficked in the unseen and helped those whose suffering may have been denied.” The racial aspect also connected to the idea of in-between-ness, or invisible-ness, that the book explores.

And what does the title mean? Also two things: a positivity provoked by both words (open—good, city—also good). But also an ominousness, given the phrase’s technical term for a city that strikes a deal with the enemy in a time of war, in order to avoid destruction.

Open City has been called a “post-9/11” book, as Julius also ruminates on the tragedy. Teju said he tried to deal with this topic subtly, as a “sidelong glance,” but needed to include because the story deals with realities. In terms of writing about 9/11 he said that greater atrocities have been forgotten, and that the incident was a comma in a long sentence of human tragedies.

Last question o’ night: Were the detailed convo’s in the book based on real-life? Teju responded that writers have to study the technique of falsehood in order to reach the deeper truths. He challenged himself to do this, and the parts of the book that seem too detailed to have been made up probably are. “It’s the author’s own secret,” he said. “And I’m happy to deceive you.”

After the reading: wine! cheese! an impromtu rendition of “Blister in the Sun”! Those Community Bookstore folk—they know how to top off intellectual discourse with some good old-fashioned fun.