Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Geographic Implications of Teju Cole's "Small Fates"

Like quite a few folks, I follow Teju Cole, a novelist and photographer who's also known for his series of tweets referred to as "small fates." The write-ups are short summaries of troubling and often deathly incidents. Cole describes the "small fates" as "an event, usually of a grim nature, animated sometimes, but not always, by a certain irony."

A few examples of Cole's "small fates":
Dec 31: The day before his wedding Anas Nasiha, of Sokoto, went to bed nervous and excited. A 3 am fire burned him to a crisp.
Jan. 4: Salmat, 27, of Abuja, returned with four of her pals and gave a serious beating to her ex-husband Olatunde, who had underestimated her.
Jan. 12: To get a pay raise, Al-Kazeem, a gateman in Effurun, set himself alight and embraced his boss, Justice Keujubola. But she wriggled free.
Cole began composing and tweeting the "small fates" while working on a book about Lagos, Nigeria, where he was raised. Several of the short narratives, Cole has acknowledged, are especially designed with Nigerian audiences in mind who are quite familiar with the names, locales, and cultural references embedded in the writings.

I've only traveled to Nigeria on two separate occasions for a month or so at a time, not long enough to develop a full understanding of such a complex nation. Still, when I began reading Cole's tweets, his mention of different names and places in the country evoked a familiar chord with me. Beyond the circumstances described in the narratives, I was drawn to exactly where in Nigeria the incidents occurred. Cole's "small fates" prompted me to glance at different maps of Nigeria.

In recent months, Cole has made it easy on me and other geographically challenged Americans by concentrating on "small fates" in the Northeast and especially New York City, where he resides. Cole's NYC series sends my mind to different U.S. locales. For instance:  
May 11: At East 116th Street, Mary Ritter, 13, who frightened her mother with a fake suicide, received an authentic beating.
May 8: Perfectly sane except for persistent paranoia about being sent to an asylum, Miron, 20, of Elizabeth, N.J., was sent to an asylum.
May 8: P. Macken, of Brooklyn, visiting Boston, was disrespected by a speeding train.
Cole's novel Open City recently made the shortlist for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize, which recognizes  a work that highlights "the spirit of a place." If such an award were established for twitter activity, Teju Cole would likely make the shortlist for that prize as well, given the spirits of places that emerge in his representations of Nigeria and the U.S. Northeast.  

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