On Wednesday we shared a few snippets of Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole’s latest series of tweeted stories about drones.
This is an off-shoot of his Small Fates project in which he started tweeting short stories based off of forgotten news items.
But these most recent tweets take a literary view of aerial assaults.
They are an assault, of sorts, in what Cole terms the “empathy gap.”
“First and foremost it’s about identifying,” he says. “We come to hold the characters as in some way like us. Meanwhile if we hear that a drone strike killed three people in Yemen as happened on Inauguration Day that is so abstract, it almost means nothing and therefore we feel almost nothing.”
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Marco Werman: Today we heard Nigerian American writer, Teju Cole, read some short, short stories that he’s tweeted about drones. Cole gained notoriety a few years ago for his first novel, Open City. Tweeting about drones might seem like an add, abbreviated follow-up, but to Cole, Twitter is a perfect platform to instantly reach his followers, more than 70,000 of them, and spark a conversation; and his tweets, focusing on civilians who died as a result of drone strikes, have a literary twist as well.
Teju Cole: Call me Ishmael, I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding; my parents are inconsolable; Mother died today, the program saves American lives.
Werman: That’s got such an eerie effect, taking these great novels and their first lines and then morphing them with headlines from drone strikes. Some are recognizable; I think our listeners will recognize Moby Dick by Melville, and [inaudible]. What was the idea and why these particular novels?
Cole: I started thinking about something which, in my mind, I call the empathy gap between what was happening militarily with global war and terror, and the attitude, or in fact, lack of attitude that many people had towards what was going on. You know, my background is literature. I’m a writer and so my intervention tends to be literary. There is something about reading great books of literature that first and foremost is about identifying. We come to hold the characters as in some way, like us. Meanwhile, if we hear that a drone strike killed three people in Yemen, as happened by the way, on Inauguration day, that is so abstract it almost means nothing, and therefore, we feel almost nothing.
Werman: Teju Cole, when did you first become aware of drones?
Cole: I think I started to think about them towards the end of the Bush years and then in the past few years. They’ve really gotten ramped up. We have this strange situation now where so much of the killing is being done by people who are very, very far away from the battlefield and this puts us into a real ethical conundrum. What does it mean when we’re causing directly the deaths of civilians at basically zero risk to ourselves, to our soldiers? How does that affect the ethics of war?
Werman: You know, if I can be so bold as to put on my comparative literature hat for a moment; I could see some symbolism here that by that by taking these novels that many of us know so well and truncating them to a single line with this explosive afterthought about drones, you’re kind of doing to great books what drones often do to people, and via remote control.
Cole: Writing these things, thinking about these things, is a cause of great sorrow. This is not a clever Twitter intervention. I think the word â€œTwitterâ€ might even put some people off because they think it’s just about writing about what you had for breakfast or something. No, this is a way of expressing some of the confusion and grief that we feel when we think about the very profuse state of what our leaders mean when they talk about keeping us safe.
Werman: You suggested that Twitter may strike some as a kind of banal platform to undertake this project, but this isn’t the first time you’re tweeting short stories. You’ve got this small [inaudible] project which are compact stories taken from overlooked news stories – why Twitter?
Cole: Well, that’s a good question in two ways. I think one is, “Why Twitter,” and the other is, “Why Not Twitter?” I have a desensitized followship on it and I have the opportunity to put into the minds of people who are reading the sentences of my own devising. This is a strange kind of power. I generally try not to do too much preaching on my Twitter account, but rather to tell stories to try to close that empathy gap between us and those people that we think of as “them.”
Werman: So do you think that by taking this literary view of drone strikes, if you will, it’s going to close that empathy gap?
Cole: I base it on maybe a handful of people, if you will, provoke a second thought.
Werman: Teju Cole, thank you so much.
Cole: Thank you very much. It was nice to talk to you, thank you.
Werman: As you heard, literary figures feature prominently in writer, Teju Cole’s drone tweeting. Cole also told us what Virginia Wolfe’s, Mrs. Dalloway, symbolizes in his project, and that’s at TheWorld.org.
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