Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American writer, photographer and art historian. He is the author of the 2012 PEN/Hemingway Award-winning Open City.
Blaise Pascal once wrote that writing succinctly can be hard. It's something many of us aim for, yet few of us master. But if you're writing on Twitter, you have to keep it short.
The Nigerian writer Teju Cole recently devoted himself to the goal of writing in brief. On his Twitter account, he crafts compact stories based on small news items, things you might overlook in the metro section of a newspaper. And with brevity, his stories gain deeper meaning.
In observance of National Poetry Month, Cole recently joined NPR's Steve Inskeep to discuss the Tweet-sized narratives he calls "Small Fates."
On the inspiration for Small Fates
"I had started doing research for a book that I'm writing, which is about Lagos, Nigeria — a narrative of contemporary life in the city. But as I was doing my research I found that there was certain material that I couldn't really put into the book. Odd stories, news of the weird — strange little things of the kind that would happen in any complicated modern society. And what was I going to do with this material? So I started writing short stories based on those narratives. I found that Twitter was a perfect place to post them."
On faits divers
"In doing this, I was leaning on the old French journalistic practice of the faits divers, which has not really caught on that much in the English-speaking world. But it's been around in France for hundreds of years. Basically what they are is small, uncredited news items that appear in a column in the newspaper. ... Around 1906, a writer — an anarchist and art historian, as it turns out — named Felix Feneon, for the newspaper Le Matin, for the course of 1906, was writing them. He somehow ended up elevating them to an art form. Where people were writing these news stories in a very plain and somewhat dull way before, he injected them with irony, with a dark humor, with a kind of epigrammatic compression."
On dark humor
"Wives are flammable, a police inspector, Wasiu, of Okokomaiko, has found."
"Many of these stories are about mayhem and disaster and grievous bodily harm. ... There's only so many ways you can tell that story. But as it turns out, there's an infinity of ways you can tell that story. And there's something bracing about what happens to other people. We're not laughing at them — far from it, actually. We're laughing to sort of release the tension that we feel about the fact that fate can be so capricious with us. I think what I'm usually going for is irony rather than laugh-out-loud funny, because many of these things are actually not funny at all."
On stripped-down narratives
"Not far from the Surulere workshop where spray-painter Alawiye worked, a policeman fired into the air. Gravity did the rest."
"I found that there was so much that you could take out of a story, a great deal more than you might imagine, and still have it be a coherent story. ... So, there's a spray-painter, there's a policeman somewhere near him who fires into the air, and gravity does the rest. I don't have to conclude the story, because it concludes itself in your head."
On everyday life in Nigeria
"I have a few people following me on Twitter who have been reading these who are not from Nigeria, who maybe know nothing about Nigeria. ... And yet, by virtue of following me, several times a day they were getting news stories about Nigeria that they would not seek out by themselves. ... I wanted people who were not Nigerian to know something about everyday life in Nigeria ... all the texture of everyday life that is basically missing from the news stories that we hear about Africa."
"I was most effectively able to advance this agenda — if you can call it an agenda — by telling absurd stories from Nigeria. But the reason those absurd stories work is because we are also used to absurd stories from Western countries. And the absurdity becomes, one, a trick to get the reader reading, and, two, a way of actually locating all the raw material and infrastructure around the story in a way that the reader doesn't notice that they're there."
On his new Small Fates project
"Recently I decided to switch up the project and do something a little bit different ... Now I'm writing Small Fates about New York City, which is where I live. But I'm writing Tweets based on newspapers of exactly 100 years ago — so, exactly on the anniversary of whenever it came out in the New York Sun, or the New York Tribune or Evening World News. I go to the Library of Congress newspaper archive, which is wonderful. I go to the relevant date, and I basically trawl through the newspaper looking for interesting stories."
On the news of 1912 resonating with the news of today
"Since Carter, the man he shot dead on 34th Street and 5th Avenue, was a negro, Plitt was at first not held. But he is now in custody."
"It was particularly striking, because this was something I read just on April 2nd, a few days ago. And all around me in my Twitter stream, what other people are talking about is a current event that is happening in April 2012 about somebody in the present who shot somebody who is black and has not been held for the crime. And I just thought, wow, there are these resonances. And our ancestors must be looking back at us and perhaps laughing grimly about how little progress we seem to have made."