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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.

There's a little drop of something else in my version of American-ness; I think that's a story worth telling.

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.

Hear Teju Cole read an excerpt of 'Open City'

"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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