Black Bodies in the Open City: Precarity and Belonging in the work of Teju Cole

Master Thesis


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This dissertation attempts to read Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole’s fiction and essays as sustained demonstrations of precarity, as theorised by Judith Butler in Precarious Life (2004). Though never directly cited by Cole, Butler’s articulation of a shared condition of bodily vulnerability and interdependency offers a generative critical framework through which to read Cole’s representations of black bodies as they move across space. By presenting the ‘black body’, rather than ‘black man’, as the preferred metonym for black people, Cole’s work, which I argue can be read as peculiar travel narratives, foregrounds the bodily dimension of black life, and develops an ambivalent storytelling mode to narrate the experiences of characters who encompass multiple spatialities and subjectivities. Through close analysis of the novels Open City (2011) and Every Day is for the Thief (2007), and essays from the collection Known and Strange Things (2016), principally “Black Body” and “Unmournable Bodies”, I argue that Cole’s work subverts certain tropes in the tradition of black literary cosmopolitanism, as exemplified by James Baldwin, at the same time as Cole self-consciously situates himself within that tradition. It is the insistence on the black body as site of publicity at once desirable and vulnerable, to paraphrase Butler, that allows Cole to make these interventions. A tentative critical consensus on Cole’s work has begun to emerge: his oeuvre is read alongside a cohort of contemporary African and black diasporic writers whose works navigate the tenuous boundary between Western centers and peripheral Africa. It is not my intention in this dissertation to argue against those readings, but rather to offer the concept of precarity as productive framework that allows for readings that other spatio-temporal frameworks may occlude.