Teju Cole on the "Empathy Gap" and Tweeting Drone Strikes

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“Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.” Thus begins a series of tweets from the writer Teju Cole, each one a famous novel’s opening line rudely interrupted by drones. He calls them “drone short stories.”

Discursive, allusive, and always thought-provoking, @tejucole stands out in a Twitterverse crowded by hashtags and throw-away jokes. The Nigerian-American writer published his debut novel, Open City, to great acclaim in 2011, but Cole may be best known (online, at least) for his “small fates” tweets about Lagos. Small Fates is inspired by the French journalistic tradition of fait divers, roughly equivalent to “news briefs.” Perfunctory accounts of crime from Nigerian newspapers are transformed with a literary, humanizing twist: “Love is so restless. When T. Dafe’s girlfriend dumped him in Surulere, he went at her with a pen knife until she was no more.â&#128;&#139;”

His drone vignettes also breathe empathy into anonymous killings that happen far away. And Cole, also an occasional Twitter essayist, previously posted a a series of tweets linking drones, Downton Abbey, the IMF, and Virgin America. It’s easy to ignore drone strikes quietly happening halfway across the world; it’s harder to ignore them when they invade our familiar cultural turf.

1. Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.

2. Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable.

3. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather. A bomb whistled in. Blood on the walls. Fire from heaven.

4. I am an invisible man. My name is unknown. My loves are a mystery. But an unmanned aerial vehicle from a secret location has come for me.

5. Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was killed by a Predator drone.

6. Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His torso was found, not his head.

7. Mother died today. The program saves American lives.

Intrigued by all of the above, I telephoned Cole to ask him what it means to be a writer in the 140-character era.

Mother Jones: What was the inspiration for your drone stories?

Teju Cole: I had been thinking so intensely so much about the global war on terror, especially the heavy silence that has surrounded the use of drones to assassinate people outside this country. I just realized that we’re facing here is an empathy gap. And this was just another way to generate conversation about something that nobody wanted to look at. The weird way that things come together is that when I wrote those drone tweets, the subject was not on the front page of papers. Two, three weeks later, it’s on the front page of the New York Times and everybody is talking in a very direct way because the release of this white paper.

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Teju Cole on the "Empathy Gap" and Tweeting Drone Strikes

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