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National Allegory in Teju Cole’s Open City

Derek F. DiMatteo


This article analyzes Teju Cole’s Open City as a political novel, arguing that Open City functions as a national allegory critical of the United States. This stance is facilitated by its portrayal of the protagonist Julius as suffering not a dissociative fugue but a dissociative amnesia, which I arrive at by using the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) V and a rereading of Ian Hacking to revise prior interpretations of Julius as flâneur-fugueur. Drawing on the work of Fredric Jameson, I read Julius’s amnesia-like repression of his past crimes as allegorical of his adopted nation, the USA, which tends to forget its responsibility for its own historical injustices. By selectively forgetting these injustices and traumas—even as they happen—the USA behaves with the same dissociative amnesia as Julius. Open City reflects the psychopathology of the USA on the scale of the individual and the city. Within the palimpsests of history scattered materially throughout Manhattan (and within the repressed memories of society and the individual) resides the location of national allegory in Open City.

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1. Introduction

after the poisoned gift of independence, radical African writers…find themselves [back in the iron box], bearing a passion for change and social regeneration which has not yet found its agents.
– Fredric Jameson, “Third-World Literature” (80)

so few of our contemporary writers could actually be described as political. It seems to me there has sadly become this separation between politics and creative work in America. You're one of the few writers who manage to inject your fiction with a very clear political message without it toppling into propaganda.
– Christopher Bollen, interview with Teju Cole (n.p.)

1In the first epigraph, Fredric Jameson’s allusion to the “iron box” is a reference to a fable by Lu Xun which dramatizes the dilemma of the socially conscious artist. The fable tells of a sealed iron house whose sleeping inhabitants will “shortly die of suffocation,” and Xun wonders whether it is better to wake the few light sleepers and cause them to suffer the agony of death or to let them die unaware and without suffering. The fable pessimistically suggests that no socio-cultural change is possible, that “no political solutions seem present or visible on the historical horizon,” since even those you awaken will die without being able to change their circumstance (75). But by writing politically, you are committing to making the effort to wake them anyway. At least then you have changed the conditions of possibility. Jameson notes that Western intellectuals have “restrict[ed] our consciousness of our life’s work to the narrowest professional or bureaucratic terms” so completely that the notion that “a literary article could be a political act, with real consequences, is for most of us little more than a curiosity of the literary history of Czarist Russia” (76). He suggests that “as intellectuals we ourselves are at present sleeping soundly in that indestructible iron room…on the point of suffocation” (77). If Western intellectuals have been the ones asleep in the iron room, then as Christopher Bollen suggests perhaps Teju Cole is one of a new generation of African writers who has become an agent of “change and social regeneration” capable of showing Western intellectuals how to overcome “this separation between politics and creative work.”

2In this article, I explore just such a role and intervention by Teju Cole, focusing on his 2011 novel Open City, which I read as a political novel that functions first as a national allegory and second as a provocation to his fellow intellectuals to break out of Lu Xun’s iron box. My central argument is that Open City’s aesthetic and political project functions as a national allegory critical of the United States and the Global North more generally, and that this stance is enacted through its figuration of the narrator Julius as a dissociative amnesiac (a revision of earlier interpretations of Julius as fugueur) and the novel’s palimpsestic layering of (personal and national) history and memory.

  • 1 A fascinating article published in 1957 by Horne describes the changes that New York City will make (...)

3The work of national allegory begins with the novel’s title, “open city,” which resonates on multiple levels. Denotatively, “open city” refers to a city that is under siege and which makes an agreement to open itself to the invading forces as long as the invaders do not destroy the city. For example, Brussels, where Julius goes ostensibly to search for his maternal grandmother, was an open city during WWII. This seems to have nothing to do with New York City, but let us recall that in 2006–2007, the city was invaded by bed bugs, a phenomenon immortalized by Julius in the novel (175–7). The bed bugs irritate, but are difficult to see, are hidden. They are evocative, then, of the palimpsests of history dotting the surface and subsurface of the city, hidden in plain sight and ignored by the passersby, but every so often irrupting into their presence, invading the present. Connotatively, the notion of an “open city” speaks to the idea of entry by outsiders, whether it is the Dutch who settled New Amsterdam centuries ago or the immigrant doctor named Saidu whom Julius meets at the Homeland Security detention center (25–26; 62–70).1 Mixing the two registers of meaning, New York as open city functions as both gateway to and metonym for the nation. This metonymic register was reinforced by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. That too was an invasion of sorts—or if not an invasion, then it certainly induced a siege mentality among people both in the city and across the nation, as the consequences of decades of American military and economic imperialism returned in this uncanny attack. Thus the novel’s title comes to signify the phenomenon of a nation repressing a history that threatens to disrupt “the present of postmodernism” (Jameson, “Third-World Literature,” 66). This is a history that the dominant culture has a tendency to repress, for it is a history that hurts, to paraphrase Jameson (Political Unconscious, 88). Given the tendency of nations to resist self-reflection, it is perhaps fitting that such an examination comes from someone like Teju Cole, who is both a product of that nation and an outsider.

2. Teju Cole, the American Context, and Open City as National Allegory

  • 2 See Casanova’s analysis in The World Republic of Letters (2004).

4Teju Cole and Open City have been produced and marketed within the globalized Western publishing industry as part of a new wave of African-diasporic and cosmopolitan writers within the category of global anglophone or world literature. Furthermore, both Cole and the novel benefitted from the surge of interest in African writers during 2000–2010s, which far exceeds interest in the postcolonial writers of the late 20th century such as Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka. This interest is analyzed by Felicia R. Lee in her New York Times article “New Wave of African Writers with an Internationalist Bent” (29 June 2014), in which she accounts for this boom in popularity by citing increased immigration of Africans to the USA, higher enrollment of Africans in MFA writing programs, awards for African writing (e.g. the Caine Prize), and the expansion of the literary canon in the US academy. Another important factor is the marketability of this new wave of African writing: “the stories being told, while sometimes set in Africa, often reflect the writers’ experiences of living, studying or working elsewhere and are flecked with cultural references—and settings—familiar to Western audiences,” writes Lee. She goes on to cite the example of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s success as being “a major factor in sending publishers scrambling to find other talented African writers.” These two factors—the writing of internationalist cosmopolitan novels and the support of publishing companies—are determinant of the bulk of what now qualifies as world literature.2

  • 3 See Dalley; Vermeulen “Flights of Memory”; Hallemeier; Chude-Sokei; Epstein. Goyal includes Cole in (...)

5Accordingly, most critics and scholars who write about Teju Cole’s 2011 novel Open City, have tended to engage with Cole as an African or African diasporic writer, constructing arguments about his works through an African literary context or a cosmopolitan framework not bound by national literatures.3 Scholars Madhu Krishnan and Hamish Dalley note the novel’s aspiration to reach beyond the nation-state, with Krishnan describing Open City as a “post-national space” (677) and Dalley arguing that Open City is “shaped around ambivalent spatio-temporal imaginaries that exceed the national-generational framework” (15). In contrast, I read the novel as grounded in a context of American settler-colonial and imperialist history, and I consider its spatio-temporal imaginaries to be the palimpsests of that history. This history often lies just beneath the surface (and sometimes in plain sight) but is typically ignored or forgotten by the majority of (mostly white) Americans. As Julius’s patient V., an academic at NYU and “a member of the Delaware tribe” that he is treating for depression reveals to him, “the horrors Native Americans had had to endure at the hands of white settlers, the horrors, in her view, that they continued to suffer, affected her on a profound personal level” (26–27). This history of the near genocide of Native Americans is a historical fact that most contemporary Americans rarely confront or even remember, which for V. is deeply problematic: “There are almost no Native Americans in New York City, and very few in all of the Northeast. It isn’t right that people are not terrified by this because this is a terrifying thing that happened to a vast population. And it’s not in the past, it is still with us today; at least, it’s still with me” (27). The past is not past, it is still present—sometimes hidden in plain sight, sometimes carried as the scars of historical trauma.

6Furthermore, in making my argument about the novel as national allegory, I want to build on Erica Edwards’ argument that “Open City is about the failures of connection, both intraracial and interracial, intranational and international” (677). Those failures occur through Julius’s seemingly limited ability to connect emotionally to others, which confounds readerly expectations given Julius’s cosmopolitanism. In this vein, I am aligned with Sara Faradji, who describes Julius’s cosmopolitanism as “superficial—a façade cultivated to negate his own imbrication in brutality” (5). In my reading, both Julius and the USA aspire to cosmopolitan ideals—NYC, like and Brussels, is a haven of cosmopolitanism—yet underneath the façade of cosmopolitanism lies a history of domestic and international violence, the forgetting of which Open City critiques.

  • 4 In this article, I follow Goyal and the editors of PMLA in capitalizing Third World and First World (...)
  • 5 Bady observes that many contemporary African writers are also American or have spent many years liv (...)

7If you accept critics’ categorization of Teju Cole as an African writer, or as a postcolonial, a cosmopolitan, or even an Afropolitan writer, then it may seem odd that I argue that Cole’s novel is allegorical of the United States. In making this argument, I may be seen as taking up Yogita Goyal’s interest in “revisiting [Fredric Jameson’s] thesis that all Third World literature must be read as a national allegory” as a way of exploring the usefulness of “allegorical reading as an archetypal postcolonial practice” (522). However, I do not consider Teju Cole a purely postcolonial writer nor Open City a purely Third World novel because I perceive Cole as straddling two cultures, Nigerian and American.4 Cole was born in Michigan and is an American citizen, although his parents moved almost immediately back to Nigeria, where Cole was raised until age 17, whereupon he returned to the USA for college in 1992, and where he continued to live and work prior to the publication of Open City in 2011. However, Cole expresses no particular interest in being labeled an African writer, and no particular interest in any other label for that matter: “Teju Cole told me he didn’t care what he’s called. ‘Labels are really a game we play with whomever happens to be sitting at the table with us,’ he said…’I’m an Afropolitan pan-African Afro-pessimist, depending on who hates me on any given day’” (Bady, “Introduction,” n.p.). Similar ambivalence and seeming resistance to being labeled an “African writer” are readily observed in many of Cole’s contemporaries, according to Aaron Bady in his 2014 interview series “African Writers in a New World” on Post45.5 In Cole’s case, this ambivalence combined with his many years based in the United States means that Cole is as much an American writer as he is any other type of writer. Yet it is perhaps Cole’s subjectivity as the outsider-within that gives him the critical distance needed to write an allegory of the USA.

8As Louis Chude-Sokei notes, new African immigrants writing in America (such as Cole, Adichie, Oguine, and Mengestu) feel some need to differentiate themselves from the tradition of African American writers (68). Chude-Sokei argues that this new African literature “finds itself in a context overdetermined by multiple demands of affiliation and by the tensions between rival claims of trauma and memory, all within the crowded and obfuscating skin of racial classification” (54). The result is a marginalization of African Americans and their histories in these new novels, which Chude-Sokei interprets as a necessary strategic technique, “a space-clearing gesture that prevents [contemporary African writers] from becoming too easily erased or masked by African American interests, priorities, and narrative conventions” (71). Rather than use this observation to explore the novel’s politics of Black solidarity (c.f. Edwards 2017; Krishnan 2022), I would like to focus on the parallel between the way this space-clearing gesture mirrors the sublimation of history enacted by an amnesic white America and the presence of that history within Open City, just below the surface of the novel, only occasionally irrupting into narrative visibility.

9The irruption of that forgotten history into the present can be read as “a return of the repressed” (Lazarus 108). However, this is a return of the repressed primarily for white Americans, not for those who, like Native Americans or African Americans descended from the slave trade, have lived (and still live) with those memories. An example of this is when Julius stumbles across “a memorial for the site of an African burial ground” (220). Hidden in a patch of grass between two office buildings, the tiny monument described what used to be a six-acre plot but which “was now under office buildings, shops, streets, diners, pharmacies, all the endless hum of quotidian commerce and government” (220). As contemporary Americans went about the routines of everyday life, they walked, played, worked, ate, and slept literally above the corpses buried on what had once been “the outskirts of the city” but which was now part of the center of Manhattan. In this case, that which had been forgotten, a historical chapter repressed by the nation, literally returns “when, in 1991, construction of a building on Broadway and Duane brought human remains to the surface” (220) in an “echo across centuries, of slavery in New York,” an uncomfortable reminder that slavery had occurred not just on southern plantations but in the North, too. Open City’s treatment of history and memory (both national and personal) is central to my reading of the novel as national allegory.

10In this paper, I intend my use of “national allegory” to be in line with how Jameson used the term in Fables of Aggression (1979) as a way to explain how individual characters can stand in for “more abstract national characteristics which are read as their inner essence” (90). Imre Szeman elaborates on this original use of the term, noting that “[w]hen dealing with any one such correspondence between character and national essence, this allegorical mode becomes a form of ‘cultural critique’” (814). I would instead suggest that the cultural critique is enacted through the analogy that arises from the figurative comparison between the individual character’s traits or behaviors and those exhibited by the nation—in Open City, the traits of Julius and those of the United States. Drawing on Santiago Colás’s paraphrase of Jameson, I argue that Open City fits the description of a novel constructed with postmodern aesthetics that reflect the “repressive social processes which have homogenized the real and imaginative terrain of the ‘First World’ subject” while also opposing those social processes and the postmodern present by offering readers a “historical foothold through which to recall the past”; at the same time, the novel reflects contemporary culture’s resistance to “thinking the present historically” (Colás 258).

11As I noted in my discussion of Lu Xun’s fable of the iron box, and as noted by Goyal in “National Allegory and Beyond: Postcolonial Critique Now,” Jameson valorizes the political nature of Third World texts and critiques First World writers and intellectuals for not being more political. He makes an argument for increased political activism among First World intellectuals, including writers, which is something that he perceived had been lost among First World cultural production, but which was still present in Third World literature. Because he views “third-world cultures [as being] all in various distinct ways locked in a life-and-death struggle with first-world cultural imperialism [and the] penetration of various stages of capital” (“Third-World Literature,” 68), Jameson identifies nationalism as an expression of politicization that he sees as the only force that can counter the eventual hegemony of “some global American postmodernist culture” (65). In this way, Jameson posits “non-canonical forms of literature such as that of the third world” as a way out of the intellectual iron box that imprisons the first world “in the present of postmodernism” and which could serve as a historicist call “for a reinvention of the radical difference of our own cultural past and its now seemingly old-fashioned situations and novelties” (66). Open City makes precisely this call when Julius’s wanderings uncover remnants of American history scattered in layers, like palimpsests, within the city.

3. Historical Palimpsests and Dissociative Fugue

  • 6 Julius’s wandering leads some scholars and critics to liken Julius to a cosmopolitan flaneur (e.g. (...)
  • 7 Neumann and Kappel also read the novel’s “excavation of repressed histories of violence” as exposin (...)
  • 8 See, for example, Vermeulen (“Flights of Memory”; “Cosmopolitan Dissociation”); Faradji. An interes (...)

12These palimpsests of history occur throughout the novel and are revealed as a consequence of Julius’s (often aimless) wanderings through the city.6 This conjuncture is significant in that the wanderings can be read as an unconscious attempt to recover that history.7 In addition to the layered histories of Native Americans and African Americans discussed earlier, other prominent examples of historical palimpsests encountered by Julius include: Professor Saito as the embodiment of the history of Japanese interment during WWII (13), the vicinity of Trinity Church harboring two hundred years of Manhattan history (49–51), and the ruins of the World Trade Center (52). Of the former World Trade Center area, Julius writes: “The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten” (59). As an allegorical figure, Julius is also engaged in a project of writing, erasing, and rewriting history—his own. Like the Rwandans he observes at the discothèque in Brussels, Julius is a displaced cosmopolitan, present in a foreign country “as an act of forgetting” to leave the past behind (139–140). Julius’s problematic memory is often noted by critics alongside his flat affect (readable as dissociative) and his habit of taking aimless walks through the city.8

  • 9 The only experience that Julius has tried to forget is his Nigerian past by walking away from Niger (...)

13Julius’s forgetting, flat affect, and wandering are interpreted by several critics and scholars (e.g. Vermeulen, Faradji, and others) through the lens of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM IV (1994), imaginatively transforming Julius from flâneur to fugueur. However, the more recent DSM V, published in 2013, troubles this interpretation and has implications for my analysis of Open City as national allegory. To tease out the implications of the change made in DSM V, it is useful to examine the origins of the fugueur. The figure of the fugueur was recovered from the dustbin of nineteenth-century medical history by Ian Hacking in his monograph Mad Travelers (1998). According to Hacking, the first fugueur (a French soldier named Albert), suffered “obsessive and uncontrollable journeys [that] were systematically pointless, less a voyage of self-discovery than an attempt to eliminate self” (30). Albert’s story serves as a case study for Hacking’s thesis in which he argues that mental illnesses such as dissociative fugue are often the result of a diagnosis mutually constructed by doctor and patient, a “folie à deux, half madness, half folly, produced by [their] interaction” (18). In other words, Hacking means something that is not in reality a mental illness, but which nonetheless has reality effects due to its existence as a category of diagnosis. Hacking later characterizes dissociative fugue as “impulsive uncontrolled traveling, with confused memories” (Hacking 77). Hacking also reports that Albert’s doctor, Phillipe Tissié, describes Albert as suffering from “pathological tourism,” which Hacking finds fitting for what was known as the Age of Tourism (27). We can see the allure of the fugueur, then, as a way of interpreting Julius’s strange habit of walking, his occasional forgetting, and perhaps even his cosmopolitan mobility. However, unlike the fugueur, Julius clearly knows why he is setting out, and remembers where he went, what he saw, what he said.9

14Relying on the DSM IV entry on dissociative fugue fails to attend to Hacking’s main point in Mad Travelers that the diagnosis of fugue is a “transient mental illness” fabricated by a doctor and his patient, temporally localized to Europe in the 1890s, and kept in the psychiatric books mainly for historical reasons (12). In fact, the DSM V has removed “dissociative fugue” from its index. To analyze Julius as suffering from dissociate fugue, then, is to commit the diagnostician’s error of causing what Hacking calls the “looping effect,” in which “people classified in a certain way tend to conform to or grow into the ways that they are described” (Rewriting the Soul, 21). In the field of literary analysis, we might describe the error as forcing an interpretation. This has additional political implications. Naming Julius as suffering from dissociative fugue psychologizes Julius’s experience, “projecting it back into the pathological Other” (Jameson, “Third-World Literature,” 70). This evasion allows the imagined white, educated, American reader of Open City to compartmentalize the past as past rather than coterminous with the present, as Julius’s archaeological wanderings reveal. It allows readers to potentially dismiss Julius and other postcolonial subjects as pathological in their obsessive neuroses stemming from historical oppression. This risk is opened up by using dissociative fugue as the lens of analysis. Psychologizing Julius’s experience contains it, reducing it, as Jameson might say, to “an aesthetic of expression—the unspeakable, unnamable inner feeling, whose external formulation can only designate it from without, like a symptom” (“Third-World Literature,” 71). Julius’s self-expression, dissociative in its flat affect and fugue-like in its aesthetic, becomes a symptom that enables readers to name the inner feeling that Julius himself never names.

15While the interpretation of Julius as fugueur helps to explain the significance of his behavior, I argue that greater explanatory power rests in interpreting his wandering as a kind of archaeological mapping of the city, of history, and of memory, and that we should interpret Julius’s affective dissociation as a type of dissociative amnesia that is symptomatic not of a mental illness but of the presentism and fragmentation characteristic of a global postmodernism. This fragmentation is partly reflected in the novel’s aesthetic, the fugue being rather postmodern in its disjointedness, and also is reflected in Julius’s failure to achieve “a harmonious, polyphonic whole[ness]” through cosmopolitan connectedness (Vermeulen 91), which in my analysis is allegorically a failure of national historical memory.

16For Jameson, in the postmodern, “the past itself has disappeared (along with the well-known ‘sense of the past’ or historicity and collective memory” (Postmodernism, 317). Thus, in his wanderings, Julius is mapping Manhattan in a symbolic effort to grasp the social totality through an archaeology of uncovering the past—of recovering and making visible to the reader a history that is all around them but that they typically fail to see, just as Saito taught Julius to “trace out a story from what was omitted” (Open City, 9). Julius’s visit to the site of the World Trade Center is emblematic of the average American’s failure to see the nation’s history globally through deep time. Just naming the area “ground zero” exhibits a lost sense of historical perspective and memory by comparing the destruction of the twin towers to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused by the U.S. detonation of two atomic bombs during WWII. At the time of Open City’s writing and publication in 2011, the recovery of this global history in the cultural memory of Americans felt utterly necessary, as continued to be demonstrated by the legacy of wars in the Middle East—and the inability of most Americans to see the 9/11 attacks as one point on a longer historical timeline (from the Crusades to the ongoing war in Afghanistan). Americans’ cultural inability to historicize is part of the problem of presentism inherent in the postmodern (hence Jameson’s exhortation to “always historicize”). Perhaps this myopia is symptomatic not only of the postmodern, but also of the general position of the USA as a global superpower, as Jameson argues that such a position “is epistemologically crippling, and reduces its subjects to the illusions of a host of fragmented subjectivities… to dying individual bodies without collective pasts or futures bereft of any possibility of grasping the social totality. This placeless individuality… offers a welcome escape from the ‘nightmare of history’” (“Third-World Literature,” 85).

  • 10 Saint also discusses Julius’s tendency to “escape, elude, repress, or even ignore others’ suffering (...)

17The nightmare of history and its concomitant burden of responsibility can be evaded through the act of forgetting. Julius attempts to manage his own past just as he attempts to manage his emotions—as a construction. He attempts to construct an internal environment free from modulation, and to construct a past free from traumatic memories: “Nigeria was like that for me: mostly forgotten, except for… certain faces, certain conversations, which, taken as a group, represented a secure version of the past that I had been constructing since 1992” (156). Eventually readers discover that Julius has raped his childhood friend’s sister, Moji, but repressed the memory. He has rewritten his own past, but Moji, like the palimpsests of history scattered throughout Manhattan, irrupts into the present, troubling Julius’s self-image as the hero—or if not the hero, then certainly “not [as] the villain of [his] own stor[y]” (243). The United States behaves similarly, with a tendency toward the same erasure of past wrongs, most recently exemplified in state and local efforts to whitewash slavery in US history textbooks (Stewart, 2019; Klein, 2021) and attempts to restrict ethnic studies courses and critical race theory in public schools and AP courses (Rodriguez, 2013; Schwartz, 2023). Just as Julius avoids looking at dark periods of history and the suffering of others—especially suffering he has caused, in the case of Moji—so too does the nation avoid looking at its own dark periods of history and the suffering it has caused others.10 Therefore the erasure of the past is something that the city, the nation, and the individual have in common. Teju Cole explored this problem in his earlier novella about Nigeria, Every Day Is for the Thief, in which the narrator at one point asks: “What, I wonder, are the social consequences of life in a country that has no use for history?” (79). To which I would add: what is the ethical dimension of repressing one’s own history? Atrocities can be forgotten if nameless or anonymous. But Moji knew Julius’s name and could not forget; indeed, “she had tried to forgive, she said, and to forget, but neither had worked” (Open City, 245). Such is not the case for the perpetrator of the violence, who has “the luxury of denial”: Julius “had acted like [he] knew nothing about it, had even forgotten her, to the point of not recognizing her when we met again, and had never tried to acknowledge what [he] had done” (244). Moji naming Julius and identifying him as her rapist is a moment of reclaiming the past and making visible that which had been erased. Thus Julius’s failure both to remember and to be reflective is an ethical and moral failure.

18We can read Julius’s repression of his past crimes as allegorical of his adopted nation, the USA, which not only tends to “forget” its responsibilities for past crimes against Native Americans and African Americans, but continues to justify wars of aggression and neoliberal imperialist policies with the rhetoric of American exceptionalism (see, e.g., Pease). By selectively forgetting these injustices and traumas—even as they happen—the USA frequently behaves with the same dissociative amnesia as Julius. What we see is the psychopathology of the nation being reflected on the scale of the individual and the city. As V. tells Julius, “It’s a difficult thing to live in a city that has erased your past” (27). The same can be said of the nation or an individual. Within the palimpsests of history scattered materially throughout the city (and within the repressed memories of society and the individual) resides the location of national allegory in Open City.

19Through a political interpretation of the wanderings spurred by Julius’s dissociative amnesia, Open City reminds readers of the constitutive forces at work on older cultures by showing us their remains, their traces in the historical palimpsests across Manhattan. His archaeological mapping is like a reconstruction or a recovery of the memories of the past. The memories being recovered, however, are not of Julius’s direct past but those of an allegorical past, a national past. Julius’s wanderings are an archaeological uncovering of past crimes that strips away the illusion or myth of American exceptionalism hidden under what Jameson calls the “conventional illusions or rationalizations about daily life and existence” (“Third-World Literature,” 70). Like Open City’s presumably well-educated, white, Western, middle-class readers, Julius himself is compromised—as a member of the bourgeois cultural elite, he is implicated in the erasure of the past. Julius’s dissociative amnesia is at the same time attributed by extension to American culture and society. American cultural imperialism—and the benefits (luxuries) of the First World—are enabled by the dissociative amnesia of American consumers, who must forget the sweatshops that produce their Nike sneakers and Apple iPads. As Neil Lazarus reminds us, “[Jameson] insists that the repressed elements that a culture structured in dominance ‘forgets’, denies, or disregards are nevertheless unforgoably and inescapably constitutive of it. Thus, private consumption of luxury goods anywhere in the ‘First World’ turns out to rely upon the exploitation of ‘Third World’ labour” (108). The indirect violence of forgetting must everyday be reenacted to maintain comfort and convenience, while the past is never reconciled with the present (although in 2021 the US Congress actually took up the question of reparations for slavery). Thus Open City allows American readers to see their own nation’s pathology through the power of national allegory.

4. Conclusion

  • 11 For Jameson, the “third world” intellectual “is always in one way or another a political intellectu (...)

20Cosmopolitanism is described by Timothy Brennan as “broad fellow feeling, world travel, openness to cultural otherness [and] the political ethic of intellectuals… of the mobile and enlightened middle classes” (44). If Brennan is right in characterizing cosmopolitanism as a “political ethic of intellectuals,” then it should be capable of effecting social change through its potential to influence readers and thereby the larger culture. Open City’s aesthetic and political project seems designed to repair not other parts of the world but the USA itself, reminding its Western (especially white American) readers to look at the elisions and in-between spaces of their national histories—to acknowledge dark moments of the nation’s past and to reflect on their own potential complicity. This is a goal commensurate with Teju Cole’s ethos as a writer and public intellectual, and evident throughout his oeuvre, from Tweets to essays to books.11 Cole is highly conscious of his influence as a novelist and therefore his responsibility to be also a political intellectual, as he discusses with Christopher Bollen in Interview Magazine. Their exchange begins by Bollen observing that there are few writers in America who “inject [their] fiction with a very clear political message,” to which Cole replies:

[It is] our job, as thinkers and writers, to challenge that kind of division. Almost every novelist of note, in Mexico, in Spain, in France, in Italy, they all write politically, for newspapers. They all have columns. This is what you do in Africa, for sure, in Nigeria, in Kenya, in South Africa. The writers that I know are people who are called on to address the issues of the day. Someone like J.M. Coetzee might say he's reluctant to do it, he doesn’t think the writer should be called an oracle. Okay, I understand his hesitation, but he does it a lot more than most American novelists do it. I don't know what the problem is.

  • 12 Jameson reiterates this critique in his brief response to Aijaz Ahmad: “Intended as an intervention (...)
  • 13 See “Unmournable Bodies” in The New Yorker and “A Piece of the Wall” and “Seven Short Stories about (...)
  • 14 Cole’s political essay “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” has been cited by scholars in a wide r (...)

21Cole’s observation echoes Jameson’s criticism of the American situation: “No third-world lesson is more timely or more urgent for us today, among whom the very term ‘intellectual’ has withered away, as though it were the name for an extinct species” (“Third-World Literature,” 74).12 Jameson laments the absence in American society of “the cultural intellectual who is also a political militant, the intellectual who produces both poetry and praxis” (75). I would argue that while Teju Cole lives in the United States and commands cultural capital and influence, Cole can be said to occupy such a role in America today. He writes in response to current events, such as the Kony 2012 fiasco and the Charlie Hebdo massacre, as well as about other topical political issues such as immigration and drone strikes.13 His work is influential and is cited by others—particularly his essay on the “White-Savior Industrial Complex,” which calls for less evasive language in political speech.14 At the same time, his creative literary works non-didactically make political statements, as exemplified by his “Seven Short Stories about Drones.” As Cole notes in an interview with Miriam Pahl, “politics and philosophy have their place even in the places where we play,” such as in fiction, expressing his belief that “people can sometimes have stronger and more sympathetic feelings towards fictional characters than towards real human beings” (431). Keeping Julius’s interiority closed and his affect flat helps the novel somewhat resist becoming an instrument of postmodern globalization and “capitalist ideology” (c.f. Hale 357) by creating a barrier that complicates the reader’s identification with Julius.

22In denying this easy emotional identification with the protagonist, the novel engages in a political project designed to move readers, to prompt them into awakening, but does so by relying upon the effect of the novel’s fugue-like structure that forces the reader to work at making connections. If we agree with Jameson’s stance that “‘narrative’ is the term that best describes the ideological production of meaning” (Hale 352), and if Open City resists a totalizing narrative by strategic use of dissociative breaks, then it leaves the ideological production of meaning in the hands of the reader. Although Julius’s narrative description reads smoothly, it is fragmented in its structure such that the reader cannot be sure that they are reading it correctly. This narrative effect is theorized by Mieke Bal in terms of the way that description slows down time in service of exploring heterogeneity, which also has the effect of forcing the reader out of their complacency: “reading naturalizes descriptions. In rare but significant cases, the descriptions’ mismatch with the world they help shape teases the reader into an awareness of his inability to read” (572). In the moment of this awareness, Open City’s narrative disjunctures give readers a space in which to reflect and to make the connections that Julius does not. By making the connections themselves, the readers, perhaps still asleep within Lu Xun’s iron box, may awaken to the possibility of political action and social change.

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1 A fascinating article published in 1957 by Horne describes the changes that New York City will make in the wake of 1954’s Brown v. Board decision to solve problems stemming from “racial and economic stratification” (133).

2 See Casanova’s analysis in The World Republic of Letters (2004).

3 See Dalley; Vermeulen “Flights of Memory”; Hallemeier; Chude-Sokei; Epstein. Goyal includes Cole in a list of “[p]rominent African writers like Zakes Mda, Zoe Wicomb, Teju Cole, Aminatta Forna, Dinaw Mengestu, Chris Abani, Esi Edugyan, and NoViolet Bulawayo” (“Africa and the Black Atlantic” x). Jones discusses Cole as Afropolitan.

4 In this article, I follow Goyal and the editors of PMLA in capitalizing Third World and First World (see Goyal, “National Allegory”). I also use these terms as political descriptors not as categories of civilizational development.

5 Bady observes that many contemporary African writers are also American or have spent many years living in America; as examples, he cites Binyavanga Wainaina, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sefi Atta, Unoma Azuah, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chris Abani, Laila Lalami, Okey Ndibe, Taiye Selasi, and Chika Unigwe.

6 Julius’s wandering leads some scholars and critics to liken Julius to a cosmopolitan flaneur (e.g. Kakutani; Syjuco; Wood).

7 Neumann and Kappel also read the novel’s “excavation of repressed histories of violence” as exposing the “latent counter-histories” of “the grand narratives of nations” (43).

8 See, for example, Vermeulen (“Flights of Memory”; “Cosmopolitan Dissociation”); Faradji. An interesting departure from the flaneur/fugueur reading comes from Clark, who interprets Julius as a parasite.

9 The only experience that Julius has tried to forget is his Nigerian past by walking away from Nigeria and his former life—including his rape of Moji. But his wanderings in NYC do not exhibit these elisions of memory.

10 Saint also discusses Julius’s tendency to “escape, elude, repress, or even ignore others’ suffering” as part of his position as “global cosmopolite” and his need to distance himself from others (327) and notes that the novel, as world literature, implicates its readers in their consumption of stories about others’ suffering while being “unwilling to do anything about that suffering” (335).

11 For Jameson, the “third world” intellectual “is always in one way or another a political intellectual” (“Third-World Literature,” 74).

12 Jameson reiterates this critique in his brief response to Aijaz Ahmad: “Intended as an intervention into a ‘first-world’ literary and critical situation, in which it seemed important to me to stress the loss of certain literary functions and intellectual commitments in the contemporary American scene. It seemed useful to dramatize that loss by showing the constitutive presence of those things—what I called narrative allegory… and also the political role of the cultural intellectual—in other parts of the world.” (“Brief Response,” 26).

13 See “Unmournable Bodies” in The New Yorker and “A Piece of the Wall” and “Seven Short Stories about Drones” on Twitter.

14 Cole’s political essay “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” has been cited by scholars in a wide range of fields. Examples include Soep; Edmondson; Hicks 127-28; Snell while referencing Beryl Young’s young adult novel Follow the Elephant; Cohen in relation to the Somali pirate attacks (134). Cole’s political essay on James Baldwin is quoted in reference to the Ferguson, MO protests by Rogers. Finally, Cole’s series of Tweets documenting petit faits, or small fates, was poignant and inspired others across Twitter to publish other small fates (see, and in one case served to make public the names of those responsible for the murder of Chimezie Ononye.

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Electronic reference

Derek F. DiMatteo, National Allegory in Teju Cole’s Open CityEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-2 | 2024, Online since 07 June 2024, connection on 25 July 2024. URL:

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About the author

Derek F. DiMatteo

Derek F. DiMatteo is an assistant professor of English at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania and the associate executive director of the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA). Recent publications include an article on the DJ aesthetic in Paul Beatty’s novel Slumberland and a chapter on education and identity fashioning in the edited collection Greater Atlanta: Black Satire after Obama (UP Mississippi, 2024). He is currently writing a book about academic protest literature—novels, films, art, and life writing by academics that critique the corporatization of higher education.

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