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Teju Cole Visits Teachers College, Talks Small Fates

Teju Cole Visits Teachers College, Talks Small Fates

Teju Cole speaking at Teachers College, Columbia University 12/5/12 (photo by Tara L. Conley)

Last night, I had the pleasure of sitting in on an informal class talk with novelist, Teju Cole. Among the many topics Cole discussed was his latest project Small Fates. For those who are unfamiliar, Small Fates (see also here and here) is a project Cole has been working on while writing a narrative based on everyday life in Lagos, Nigeria. Cole explains, "I found myself drawn to the 'small' news. I began to read the metro sections of newspapers." Cole notes that he needed an outlet to further explore these odd momentary happenings around the city. That outlet, Cole explains, is short form writing better articulated through the French expression fait divers. Cole explains fait divers:

[Fait divers] is a French expression, in common use for centurieis, for a certain kind of newspaper piece: a compressed report of an unusual happening. What fait divers means literally is 'incidents,' or 'various things.' The nearest English equivalent is 'news briefs' or, more recently, 'news of the wierd.' The fait divers has a long and important history in French literature."

Cole has since transformed his Twitter account (@tejucole) into an asynchronous mirco medium through which he shares and explores fait divers. He told us last night that "the real agenda of these stories is to open up to the reader an entire world of human experience of which a majority of people are just not aware."

For someone unfamiliar with Cole's Small Fates project, his Twitter feed might appear strangely out of context. I shared with Cole that it's fascinating to read the @ replies to his 'out-of-context' tweets. I mentioned to him that I would read his feed for several minutes focusing specifically on people's usually frustrated responses to, for example, tweets such as the following:

@tejucole, Aug. 19: The Nigerian police motto is “the police is your friend,” but Taiwo, 25, beaten in Alapere for not paying a bribe, has his doubts.

The incessant need for context  and answers underpins Small Fates. I'd watch people tweet Cole asking him what is he talking about, and from where is he getting his information? Cole mentioned to the class that many of his followers on Twitter are from Nigeria. Some of his followers understand what he's doing, others do not. Followers and lurkers who might not fully grasp what he's doing via Twitter contribute to this fascinating groundswell of vexed, yet astoundingly engaged, viewership. That context is absence and must be patiently explored is perhaps what makes Cole's Small Fates project most profound.

Cole empathizes with this need for explaination and understanding, particularly in a digital context. He too is drawn to the irony of wanting to be understood, as he told the class, "there's always a temptation to want to have everyone understand you. That's where the madness lies. [Smiling]."

Cole gifted the class with several other small insights during the discussion, most of which were tweeted and storified.

After the discussion, I was left hyper-energized and full of questions about the media with which we choose to story our narratives. I'm not so much concerned about the big stuff that frames our lives, but rather I'm interested in those small moments that, as Cole, poetically notes, "will eventually be forgotten . . . headed for oblivion" even when, or if, the media remains.




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