RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
No matter how busy you are, you do have time to read Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole. Cole is a prolific writer, but his work comes in two-line bursts. He began noticing odd little news items in the papers of his hometown, Lagos. He decided to distill them into 140 characters and post them on Twitter.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
So for Poetry Month, we've invited Mr. Cole to share some of these "Small Fates," as he calls them. There's a beauty to these stories, even though as he says they often describe mayhem and disaster and grievous bodily harm.
TEJU COLE: 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.
INSKEEP: When you say capricious fate, my eyes are drawn to this tweet of yours that begins with the words: Not far.
COLE: Not far from the Surulere workshop where spray-painter Alawiye worked, a policeman fired into the air. Gravity did the rest.
COLE: And so, you know, in telling these stories 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. And 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.
INSKEEP: There's another story here that - or a tweet, I should say - that makes me want to know more. The housewives of Maiduguri are pleased with the current curfew.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COLE: Yes. You know, it's always a delight for me when I could write an especially compressed one that ended up sounding a bit like the first half of a riddle, or that seemed to hint at some inside knowledge. There's been a lot of violence and tension in the northern part of Nigeria. It's a kind of thing that's very hard to joke about. But in the northern city of Maiduguri, a curfew was announced and this news story came out that the housewives of Maiduguri are pleased with the curfew.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COLE: And the reason for this is because their husbands stay at home, spend less time going out to the pub, spend more time making love to their wives, and so on. But that's just implied in the fact that the housewives are pleased with the curfew.
INSKEEP: Well, now you have also gone back into the past of New York newspapers from a hundred years ago. What are you finding?
COLE: Yeah. So recently, I decided to sort of switch up the project. And what I've started doing now is I'm writing these tweets. I've always called these tweets "Small Fates." And then, 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 a hundred years ago. So, I go to the Library of Congress newspapers archive, which is wonderful.
I go to the relevant date and I basically crawl through the newspaper looking for interesting stories. And what I'm finding is that, well, I already knew that New York of today and Lagos, Nigeria of today are astonishingly similar. But what I find now is that New York of a hundred years ago and Nigeria of today, in certain ways, are even more similar.
INSKEEP: And the city is rapidly expanding. You've got immigrants coming from everywhere...
COLE: All kinds of immigrants. There's violence. There's a lot of mafia activity. There's an astonishing number of accidents. There's a lot of failure of equipment, both in Lagos and in New York of 1912. People are forever stepping into an elevator and finding there's no elevator there.
But the thing that's really drawn me to this project right now is that I live in New York. And these news stories always give you the address of where things happened. And there's something mysterious and spooky and kind of frightening, but also insoluble about the fact that these are things that happened exactly on this street corner where I'm standing, or in that house that I've been in, that happened to people who are now vanished from the face of the Earth.
INSKEEP: Well, you've got a tweet here - a tweet from 1912, as it were, about a news event that took place at the corner where the Empire State Building now stands. This is from 1912, though. What was the news story, as you write it?
COLE: (Reading) 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.
INSKEEP: Wow, that's a powerful little vignette.
COLE: Yeah, and 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, somebody in the present who shot somebody who was black and has not been held for the crime.
INSKEEP: You're talking about the Trayvon Martin case in Florida.
COLE: I am, yeah. And I just thought, wow. You know, 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.
INSKEEP: So many of these tweets feature bad news, that I'd like to end on one that is a little different.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: And it involves, from 1912, a news story about the great magician and escape artist Harry Houdini.
COLE: Yes. You know, one of the things I've really enjoyed about - so basically, I'm not reading the day's papers anymore, 'cause I don't have time for it. I just read newspapers from 1912 and I keep up with the shipping lines and the presidential election from a hundred years ago. And it's just great to be reading these and suddenly see another familiar name, such as this one.
(Reading) Yesterday, weighted down with 30 pounds of handcuffs and chains, Houdini jumped into the Harlem River and lived, as usual.
INSKEEP: Well, Teju Cole, I look forward to seeing how you report the sinking of the Titanic which is coming up in a few days.
COLE: We're hoping it can be avoided. But I'm not very optimistic.
INSKEEP: Well, they're saying it's an unsinkable ship.
COLE: That's what they're saying. It's set to sail from South Hampton on April 10, and I'm going to tweet about that.
INSKEEP: Thanks very much for joining us.
COLE: Thanks very much, Steve. This was a pleasure.
INSKEEP: Teju Cole's project is called "Small Fates." And his latest book, by the way, is "Open City."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: Yeah, you can follow him @tejucole, T-E-J-U C-O-L-E.
You can also follow this program on Facebook and on Twitter. Our Twitter handles include these: @morningedition and @nprinskeep.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.