Small Fates: Teju Cole and Sam Twyford-Moore at MWF 2013 1 Comment

Small Fates: Teju Cole and Sam Twyford-Moore at MWF 2013

One of the more compelling authors imported for the Melbourne Writers Festival this year is Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American novelist, photographer and art historian. Born in the US and raised in Nigeria, Cole now lives in New York, a city to which his subtle and meditative fiction is indebted. Like some of the most iconic New York novels and narratives, his debut book Open City hinges upon a solitary figure wandering through the towering metropolis. Julius, a half-Nigerian, half-German medical student who has recently broken things off with his girlfriend, spends much of his time walking the rain-slicked streets, recording his observations and recalling his past. It’s a beautiful book, lyrical and curious, and functions as a valuable record of human experience among the last vestiges of colonialism.

Contrary to the deeply contemplative nature of his novel, however, is Cole’s Twitter project. Lasting from 2011 to early 2013, the project consisted of a series of aphoristic and darkly funny tweets called “small fates” that retold aberrant stories from Nigerian newspapers in a way that foregrounded their absurdity, irony, and strange beauty. While being one of the first projects to recognise the potential of Twitter as a creative medium, these small fates—a variation on the French fait diver—also highlighted the peculiarities and strange intensities that can underpin everyday life even in often unacknowledged regions of the world.

Earlier this year, Australian writer Sam Twyford-Moore published an article in Meanjin that used Cole’s project as a jumping-off point for a broader discussion of Twitter as a viable platform for artistic expression. Not only did the essay capture Cole’s attention, but it brought him to the Melbourne Writers festival to give a public discussion with Sam on the project and the possibilities of Twitter more generally.

The theatre setting was intimate, with people seated close to the hosts who already seemed relaxed and well acquainted. They sat at ease around a coffee table, and began the discussion with what caught Cole’s eye about Sam’s essay. “He left my novel under the bed, but he loved what I was doing on Twitter,” he joked. Cole went on to read a few selections of small fates  (available here) aloud, and describe his routine of trawling through Nigerian daily newspapers to find material he could mould into tweets.

A recurring idea throughout the interview was that of precision. Cole spoke frequently about his love of and near obsession with language, and how as a consequence Twitter’s formal constraints appealed to him. A tweet forces you to work at the micro level to say what you want to say in the most refined form possible. For Cole, there might be twenty different ways to construct a phrase, but at least seventeen of those will narrowly miss the mark and won’t quite capture the “fatefulness” that inheres in the story. In describing his compositional process, he said he would sometimes take entire days to perfect a single small fate, to get the weight and rhythm of the sentences to the point where they would reveal a certain intensity about the world. Quoting Paul Eluard, Cole said that “there is another world, but it is inside this one”, and that we are able to glimpse it through a perfectly rendered phrase or photograph, if only for a moment.

But Cole also recognises Twitter as a panoply of voices. It isn’t all precision and poetry; in fact most of the time tweets are the result of knee-jerk reactions to daily occurences and cultural phonomena. At one point Sam likened Twitter to a truly universal novel like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a text that attempts to captures the voices of everyone and everything. Cole agreed, and said that he enjoyed the idea of Twitter as a utilitarian text, but that when you follow too many people or too many different kinds of people, that it can become a overwhelming case of “whoa, here is fucking everybody”. However, he also expressed misgivings at the application of a term like “novel” or “poem” to Twitter, claiming that doing so was an attempt to force an old criteria on something that is fundamentally new and unprecedented.

As things began to wrap up, Cole gave detailed answers to a few audience questions before leaving to sign copies of Open City in the atrium of Federation Square. As the audience prepared to shuffle over to the next event of the festival, he summarised eloquently by saying that “when you tweet, it’s a wish to witness and be witnessed”.

— Sean Watson

Teju Cole can be found here and at @tejucole.

Sam Twyford-Moore is a writer and director of the Emerging Writers Festival. He can be found here and at @samtwyfordmoore.

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