by Margaret DeRitter

Yemi Onafuwa ’96 has been winning praise nationwide for his debut novel (written under his nom de plume, Teju Cole), but it was on the quiet campus of Kalamazoo College that his creative spirit was nurtured. During an interview for BeLight several months after Open City was released by publisher Random House, Onafuwa captured the essence of his “K” experience, as he talked about his former professor Billie Fischer, now Professor Emerita of Art.

“We would sit together at her house and watch movies,” said Cole. “I remember enviously spying the stack of New Yorker magazines that came in every week. That was a revelation to me that people lived that way and made the arts the center of their lives. Without people like that, my imagination might have remained more parochial.”

Open City reveals that Onafuwa’s mind is anything but parochial. The novel ranges freely over ideas about art, music, photography, politics, immigration, and more. Its narrator, a Nigerian immigrant who is carrying out his psychiatric residency in New York City, wanders the streets when he is not working. The plot takes him to Brussels in search of his grandmother and to his homeland in the form of memories.

Earlier this year, Open City was given a lengthy, laudatory review in The New Yorker – an honor many writers would envy the way Onafuwa envied Fischer’s stacks of the magazine. The New Yorker also published an essay by Onafuwa about his immigrant experience.

Onafuwa, 36, was born in Kalamazoo and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y, but grew up in Nigeria, his parents’ homeland. His father received an M.B.A. degree from Western Michigan University, and his mother was a French teacher. They returned to Nigeria shortly after he, the oldest of their four children, was born. As Onafuwa finished high school, they decided to send him to college in the U.S. “We considered various places,” he wrote in his essay, “but I was destined to end up in the one town they knew and trusted: Kalamazoo.”

Onafuwa spent a year at WMU before transferring to “K” on a scholarship. “For me the most important thing about Kalamazoo College is that it was a small, quiet campus,” said Onafuwa. His favorite place was the library. “My grades were indifferent, but I think I got a pretty solid education because I spent a lot of time in the library reading things that had nothing to do with the courses I was taking at the moment.”

He didn’t wander the streets the way his narrator does or spend much time at parties. “I was probably too much of a nerd to do that. I didn’t get into my habit of wandering until I went to Boston for my senior individualized project [cell biology research at Harvard Medical School].”

Through all of his reading – and watching films and listening to music – Onafuwa was absorbing a lot about the world. “Very early on, you are told you have to choose a major, become an expert in something. But my own natural inclination was to take all the world as mine.”

He sometimes felt guilty knowing that perusing books and journals and watching movies was taking time away from homework in his chosen fields of studio art, art history and pre-med, but “practical considerations were never the biggest part of it,” he said.

Yet, he added, “I do have to say that my professors – I’m not a total autodidact – were very encouraging people, and it was a very positive place to be.”

In fact, he said, “one of my professors is still a good friend of mine.” He was referring to Fischer, an art history professor and the one he credits with nurturing his broad imagination. “She was one of these people who gave me the sense that the world did not have to be narrow.”

Fischer, who still has New Yorkers stacked up at home, was flattered to hear about Onafuwa’s comment but said it was obvious he had a strong interest in the arts before he met her.

“The first time I ever met him he came to my office from study abroad in Aberdeen, Scotland. I remember thinking, ‘Who is this kid from Africa who wants to talk about Vermeer?’ He was engaged as a student more so than most. I remember getting a letter from him a few years after graduation telling me what he was reading, and he mentioned novelists from about eight countries.”

Wherever he learned that the world does not have to be narrow, Onafuwa’s novel – and his life – show that he absorbed the lesson deeply. He dropped out of the University of Michigan medical school to pursue his own creative dimensions, and now, in addition to writing fiction, he is seeking a Ph.D. in art history at Columbia University, working on a nonfiction narrative about Lagos, and taking street photographs.

“I don’t have a lot of published photography, but if there’s a theme that’s emerging, I think it’s a theme of isolation, of how people end up unmoored from other people, of ways that people look lonely,” he said.

“There’s something in my imagination that is drawn to that subject. Maybe it has something to do with my formative experience of living one half of life in one place and one half in another, of having to find my feet in a place I don’t really belong to.”

Onafuwa also is drawn to another theme: the power of individual choice, a power he exercised back in the Kalamazoo College library.

“I’m interested in the ability of individuals choosing which way they want to go. I admire Emerson, Thoreau, Kierkegaard, Camus, the idea of marching to the beat of a different drum. I want to explore something of what it’s like to be an individual.”

Extended Conversation (Reviews of Open City)

Common themes emerge as one wanders through the many reviews of Teju Cole’s Open City, from Seattle to Los Angeles, Mumbai to Abu Dhabi.

Set in post-9/11 New York City and narrated by a young doctor named Julius who is carrying out a psychiatric residency, the novel has been praised for its honesty and fearlessness, its beautiful language and imagery, its quiet tone, its panoramic scope, and its intelligent engagement with the issues of the day.

Some compare Cole (the pen name of Kalamazoo College alumnus Yemi Onafuwa ’96) to writer W.G. Sebald, whose book The Rings of Saturn has been described as “a collage of history, geography and memory.”

James Wood, in The New Yorker, says Cole’s novel “does move in the shadow of … Sebald’s work,” but he goes on to say that Cole is attempting something different and that “the novel soon begins to throw off its obvious influences.”

Wood calls Open City a “beautiful, subtle, and, finally, original novel.”   

"She was one of these people who gave me the sense that the world did not have to be narrow."
Taylor Antrim, the fiction critic for The Daily Beast, a Newsweek-affiliated website, describes Open City as “disquietingly powerful” and “exquisitely written.”

“Immigration and exile are not new literary subjects … but Cole’s treatment of them has a quiet clarity and surprising force,” Antrim writes.

Not bad for a first novel. Or any novel, for that matter. And then there are these glowing comments from New York Times critic Miguel Syjuco:

“With every anecdote, with each overlap, Cole lucidly builds a compassionate and masterly work engaged more with questions than with answers regarding some of the biggest issues of our time: migration, moral accountability and our tenuous tolerance of one another’s differences.”

“Cole’s writing is assured, his ideas are well developed, and his imagery is delicious: a bus is ‘like a resting beast,’ public chess tables are ‘oases of order and invitations to a twinned solitude,’ and in an ailing friend’s room Death hovers ‘with its cheap suit and bad manners.’”

“… His talent for juxtaposing the past and the present turns this book into a symphonic experience. …”

Syjuco even says that Open City points to the possibility of the Great World Novel and that Cole may eventually be the one to write it.

The novel does come in for a few criticisms from Syjuco – “plot developments … at times can seem perfunctory,” “metaphors may seem too capacious, or references too ponderous.”

But the most significant criticism relates to a plot twist near the end of the novel that comes across as a shocking revelation about the narrator and then is barely dealt with.

“In any other story, such a twist would send tremors across the pages,” Syjuco writes, “yet here, set against the novel’s grand scope, it feels unnecessary, either a misstep by a young author or an overstep by a persuasive editor. Could the denouement not simply have comprised the undramatic culmination of the book’s ideas?”

Paul Beston, of the New York-based City Journal, is similarly puzzled by the inclusion of this revelation. “I don’t pretend to know what Cole means by ending this way,” Beston writes, “unless it is to show us, in a novel that never shies away from moral darkness, just how dark the human soul is. Or perhaps Cole, attempting something larger by introducing this revelation about Julius’s character, has proved unequal to the task of resolving it. If so, it is the only time in his searching novel that examination fails him.”

It could be argued that Cole laid the groundwork for this revelation with subtle foreshadowing. Certainly the foreshadowing includes references to blind spots in the human psyche and to the need for people to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. And the narrator’s own reticence suggests he could be hiding secrets from others or even from himself.

In any event, Open City is built primarily on character and ideas rather than plot. As such, it will not appeal to some tastes. But, as Syjuco says, “Cole need not worry. His readers will be those who understand that all stories are interconnected, that literature is not mere entertainment, and that art is nothing if not an extended conversation spanning eras, nations and languages.”

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