Music and Latency in Teju Cole’s <i>Open City</i>: Presences of the Past

  • Birgit Neumann Heinrich Heine University of Duesseldorf
  • Yvonne Kappel Heinrich Heine University of Duesseldorf
Keywords: Teju Cole, Open City, Intermediality, Music, Latency, Memory


This article sets out to explore configurations of literary musicality in Teju Cole’s novel Open City (2011), seeking to show how intermedial relations between literature and music are linked to the novel’s exploration of colonial and postcolonial histories of violence and suffering. Although Open City contains a large number of intermedial references, their role thus far has only been given little attention. We argue that a close examination of intermediality is crucial to understanding the specific ways in which the novel engages with transcultural histories, global memory politics and cosmopolitanism. Both supporting and extending but also displacing and contradicting the larger verbal context, intermedial references in Open City produce a surplus of meaning that resists congealing into narrative structure and that gestures towards something else, something latent. The intermedial references to music evoke the ghostly presences of the past, of transcultural histories of violence and suffering which remain largely unacknowledged in dominant discourses. As intermedial references to music persistently hint at the latencies, disjunctions and elisions within established orders of knowledge, they invite a “contrapuntal reading” (Said 32) of the western archive. To come to a fuller understanding of the novel’s intermedial poetics, our essay will firstly provide a brief definition of the concept of intermediality, showing how references to music in particular are connected to concepts of latency and atmosphere (Part 2). In Part 3 and Part 4 we will investigate configurations of literary musicality in Open City, focusing in particular on the novel’s structural imitation of the fugue and its contrapuntal organisation.

Author Biographies

Birgit Neumann, Heinrich Heine University of Duesseldorf
Birgit Neumann is Chair of Anglophone Studies at the Heinrich-Heine-University of Düsseldorf. Trained at Cologne, Clermont-Ferrand (France), and Giessen in English Literature, French Literature and Philosophy, she previously held positions at the universities of Giessen, Münster and Passau and was Visiting Professor at the universities of Cornell and Madison-Wisconsin. She is an elected member of the Academy of Europe and Vice President of the German Society of 18th-Century Studies. Her research is dedicated to the study of the poetics and politics of Anglophone literatures with a focus on postcolonial and world literatures.
Yvonne Kappel, Heinrich Heine University of Duesseldorf

Yvonne Kappel is junior lecturer of Anglophone literatures and literary translation at the Heinrich-Heine-University of Düsseldorf. Her main research interests are narrative theory, intermediality, memory studies and postcolonial studies. She is currently working on a PhD project on memory and latency in Anglophone literature and has published a number of articles on postcolonial literature, memory and translation. 

Cluster on Black Diasporic Writing