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."
Follow Teju Cole on Twitter: @tejucole
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 home town, 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: 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. (Reading) 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 stayed 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 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 drawing 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.