Open Book Fest

Discursive curveballs


Teju Cole – Open City, 10 September 2013, Fugard Studio.


The audience for Teju Cole’s interview with Mervyn Sloman trickled into the packed venue until well after six o’clock, despite this being the writer’s fifth event in as many days, if one includes his conversation with fellow Nigerian writer Yewande Omotoso at the University of Cape Town the day before. People can’t seem to get enough of him, and this no doubt has much to do with his ease and familiarity, his comfort in the spotlight, his irresistible American flavour, his freshness in all things – from the luminescent pairs of scissors emblazoned in the pattern of his loose-hanging shirt (“Great shirt,” said Sloman) to his Tweets about the Cape Flats.

However, in South Africa his charm may have as much to do with his refreshing directness as a public figure; he is simultaneously unafraid to offend and unable to – partly because of his good nature, and partly because of his awareness, as Kavish Chetty put it, of the “infinite implicated-ness of all things”. Despite the denseness and sense of doubt in his novel, Open City, and the opacity and vagueness with which it is sometimes discussed, his pronouncements (often prophetic) as a political voice are sharp, absolute, and imbued with a sense of responsibility. It is with this sense that he tells the audience at the beginning of the interview, “this audience is very white. Come back next year, but bring your friend of a darker shade.”

His simultaneous role as neutral observer resisting a position and someone who questions, probes, challenges and pushes the political envelope is a theme which recurred throughout the interview. He writes not as a Nigerian or on behalf of any group, he insists. His favourite type of narration is the first person, because of the challenge it presents to the reader. His protagonist Julius does not assume the neutrality of the European flaneur in the tradition of Baudelaire, but the reader is lulled into a sense of empathy with him – he is both believably you and believably Teju Cole.

It is this that, when it is revealed that this seemingly trustworthy narrator may have committed some terrible form of abuse, Sloman said he “struggled with”. It seemed “out of whack” with the narrator, he said, and made him realise that Julius is totally unreliable. Cole’s response was categorical in a way that I have come to recognise as characteristic: “Abuse should never be introduced comfortably,” he said, adding that the best response he got to this part of the novel was when his friend flung the book across the room and started weeping. “Knowing me, she had slipped into thinking that Julius was me,” he said, adding: “Abuse is never done by anyone we know, or anyone who’s like us. Yet it is exactly people like Julius who do the abusing.”

Similarly, notions of “Otherness”, racialism and multiculturalism recur frequently in Open City, as Sloman pointed out – but Cole maintains that he did not make a conscious effort to write multiculturalism into his text. “I was just writing New York as I experience it,” he said, yet jokes that he was trying to write the opposite of Sex and the City. “It takes a perverse effort to represent New York in the way that sitcoms such as Friends and Seinfeld do,” he explained – all-American and all-white, with the only characters of other races or cultures as ethnic curiosities on the periphery. “Yet, people continue to do it,” he said. Sloman added to this point by quoting a lament of one of the characters in Open City, that difference has become unacceptable: “Difference as Orientalist entertainment, yes, but difference as something with its own intrinsic value, never.”

“Ah, but remember that is the character Farouq speaking,” said Cole, throwing another discursive curveball, “and whenever a character is presenting a particularly attractive position, that’s when you should be the most sceptical of it being the author’s own views.” What he is really doing is playing with his own doubts, explained Cole. “What Farouq says denies the agency of cosmopolitanism. Fiction is strange in that way,” he continued. “It will lull you into believing something, when really I am trying to question the liberal project.”

Nevertheless, Cole responded conclusively when questioned further about his views on multiculturalism: “There are people who go through their entire lives with friends of only one race and one culture,” (“Definitely not in South Africa,” said Sloman). “People who are not organically living a cross-cultural life should consider themselves a problem, and solve it.”

With that one felt a large portion of the audience silently looking within themselves and leaving with the sense that, perhaps if we did more walking instead of driving, we would be all the wiser for it.