I first read Teju Cole’s Open City on a boat somewhere in Kerala. It was a pretty chill place to read a super intense novel about cities (Brussels and New York) and especially to be chucked into the mind of the protagonist Julius, a Nigerian doctor who pretty much just walks around and tells us his thoughts on race, politics, music, and life while showing us the way the world comes together.
Since the book’s publication in 2011, Teju has gained notoriety as a champion of the artistic merits of Twitter. He has three series of tweets that are about as vital as any I’ve encountered: Small Fates, Seven Short Stories About Drones, and White Savior Industrial Complex. He has also spoken regularly about the impact Twitter will have on the novel.
I spoke to him at his hotel about his writing, Twitter and what he thinks guides him as an artist.
Vice: You sick of talking about Twitter yet?
Teju Cole: No, no, no, it’s interesting.
You’ve been talking about it a lot.
You’ve been talking a lot about the structural and formal possibilities of Twitter and writing. Where did that come from?
I think one big influence on this was the fact that I started as an academic. My training as an art historian means I’m asking why this particular form for this particular activity. It’s just something that satisfies me as a reader when someone is trying to break open a form.
How does that relate to Twitter? You’ve said you like it because of all the different voices in one feed. A novel is obviously different.
Kirsty Gunn said something really interesting with regards to that idea, which was about the plural first person voice of Twitter as narrative. Almost everyone who’s writing on it is saying I like it’s a chorus of I’s. That notion is truly experimental. This idea that there is a kind of coherent sort of narrative that’s going on whenever you look at your time line.
It really has a strong narrative bent. Right now they’re all live tweeting the Video Music Awards. On the day when Michael Jackson died, everyone was talking about one thing. And there are other days when the unity falls out again and I’m following maybe 700 people and 200 are tweeting at any particular time, any particular hour. There might be a 100 different topics—I’m interested in technology and what it can do for experimental creativity.
Is that what draws you to Twitter?
I think so. I am interested in the juxtaposition between extreme seriousness—like the basic things we all have to deal with in our lives, like loss and grief and mourning and memory and all that; and the fact that the world itself is fundamentally not all that serious. Even within my own timeline I want to tell stupid jokes about Beyoncé.
Do you compose a tweet differently from an essay? Was that Junot Diaz tweet just off the cuff?
That was real.
I imagined that was real. Have you ever seen the TV show Lost?
There’s an Iraqi guy named Sayid—
And that’s you.
People come up to me all the time and tell me I look like him. I’m like, no. We’ve both got beards and we’re brown, but that’s it.
That’s about it.
Would that be more of an off the cuff tweet?
I hate to admit it but the reality is I really don’t want to send anything out there without making sure I’m saying it exactly the way I want to say it. This has more to do with my feelings about language and rhythm. The Junot Diaz thing—it came out pretty fast. I think maybe three drafts.
What’s the most important thing in a tweet?
I don’t think of it as 140 characters. I think of it more like you have something you can say in one or two sentences. How do you parcel out the flow of information? There are some things you want to deliver like a shot: it goes straight to the brain, so you don’t even want them to catch their breath between the first word of the tweet and the last one. Then there are other things where you actually want to slow it down. You might use almost all 140 characters. You might use commas. You might use a certain rhythm of short and long words—common and rare words. The way you modulate that is very much the way you get your affect in a haiku or one liner, or a pickup line. Not just the content, but also the way in which you deliver the rhythm.
Do you think it’s weird that Twitter could go out of business?
I think probably the weirdest thing about Twitter is the fact that it’s a corporation. It’s surprising that there isn’t a serious alternative right now. Considering how—people talk about freedom now, people power and all of this stuff. A government just has to shut down 5 service providers in any given country and the conversation stops… that’s almost the default mode of the world right now, which is that governments control what you have access to.
What is your particular interest in drones?
I know someone whose brother was a drone pilot and it didn’t kill him—but it messed up his mind completely. You’re killing people. And you’re seeing them. We do something called double tap—we go back and kill the rescuers. That’s policy. The drone thing—what happened with that was, realising that I have an audience. I want to push myself out of my comfort zone and then out of theirs as well.
You’ve said that you don’t have a lot of hope for the world, mostly because you haven’t been given a lot of signs for hope. So what keeps you invested in writing?
I think what keeps me stuck there is my own privilege. Even though I have to sort of negotiate America and the world as a young black man, a fairly endangered species, I do come to it from a place of great privilege. People put me on planes and fly me to places and tell me to come talk about ideas and I teach at a nice school. I publish to the audience I want to publish to. I have access. I’m not going hungry. Things are going pretty well.
Do you feel responsibility?
Responsibility might sound a bit heavy. I think it’s more like I don’t want my personal situation to fool me into ignoring the reality, which is that life is a pretty shoddy business for the majority of people here on earth.
I have a tiny opportunity to speak out in spaces where I could have the ear of people who make policy. Somebody might read something. Somebody who gets to sit around that table might have something in their thinking altered a little bit. I know, for sure that the critical outrage of the drone thing—especially the critical outrage, not the human toll—has affected the way the President is designing policy now. The further I get from those danger zones, the more I feel like I have to remember I have common cause with people who are still in those zones.
Who’s going to speak out for it? Am I going to wait for some white lady to speak out on our behalf?
Is it weird that a lot of white Americans don’t write about race?
They’re afraid to. That’s part of the thing about the white savior industrial complex. It’s easier to go to Africa and save helpless Africans from evil Africans. Instead of staying in the US and saving victimized blacks from evil whites. They don’t phrase it in that way. I think that race is so complicated in the US that it’s made cowards of all of us.
Just to take us back to that word responsibility—there was that sense of, are you just going to say bullshit all day long that does not add anything? I do like to talk a fair amount of bullshit like anyone else, I want to have fun and have a good time, but then we have to keep each other on our toes.
Follow Adnan on Twitter: @whotookadnan
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