small fates

(written March 2011)

As I began work on my new book, a non-fictional narrative of Lagos, and was paying more and more attention to daily life in the city, a peculiar thing happened. I found myself drawn to the “small” news. I began to read the metro sections of newspapers, and the crime sections. When I was in Lagos itself, where there is a thriving newspaper culture, I bought several papers and went through them each day. In Brooklyn, I rely on the internet, through which I have access to some dozen Nigerian papers each day: Daily Times, NEXT, Vanguard, Punch, This Day, National Mirror, Tribune, PM News, Guardian, and so on. What I found in the metro and crime sections of these papers was a different quality of everyday life. It was life in the raw, as one might find in the Daily News or the New York Post, but not so much in the New York Times.

A lot of this material does not have direct bearing on the book I am working on. It is too brief, too odd, and certainly too sensational for the kind of writing the book requires. The material needed another outlet. That outlet turned out to be a form of writing for which there is no exact English term: fait divers. This is a French expression, in common use for centuries, 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 weird.” The fait divers has a long and important history in French literature. Sensationalistic though it is, it has influenced the writing of Flaubert, Gide, Camus, Le Clézio and Barthes. In Francophone literature, it crossed the line from low to high culture. But though a version of it was present in American newspapers, it never quite caught on in the English language as a literary form.

This is what a fait divers looks like:

Raoul G., of Ivry, an untactful husband, came home unexpectedly and stuck his blade in his wife, who was frolicking in the arms of a friend.

Here is another:

A dishwasher from Nancy, Vital Frérotte, who had just come back from Lourdes cured forever of tuberculosis, died Sunday by mistake.

These examples show what the fait divers is about: an event, usually of a grim nature, animated sometimes, but not always, by a certain irony. A fait divers is not simply bad news. It is bad news of a certain kind, written in a certain way. The two examples above were written around 1906 by the French journalist Félix Fénéon, for Le Matin.

Fénéon, who wrote his pieces anonymously, was probably the greatest practitioner of the form. He gave it more wit and bite, more emotional unease and formal perfection, than it had had before. In his hands, it became a modernist form. His collected fait divers, published in English as Novels in Three Lines (a beautiful translation and introduction by Luc Sante on the NYRB Classics imprint), inspired me to try to do the same for the current news from Nigeria. I felt the form would migrate well from one language to another, and from one social context to another. In order to acquire an audience for this daily practice, I began to post the pieces on my Twitter account.

In Ikotun, Mrs Ojo, who was terrified of armed robbers, died in her barricaded home, of smoke inhalation.

“Nobody shot anybody,” the Abuja police spokesman confirmed, after the driver Stephen, 35, shot by Abuja police, almost died.

Knowledge is power. He graduated in business administration in Calabar,and Charles Okon has since administered sixteen armed robberies.

To signal certain differences between my writing and that of the French journalists, I call my take on this form “small fates.” I like the near-rhyme of fates and fait, though they have nothing to do with each other. Since it is a French form, and the French love theory, there is a theory of the fait divers. In a 1962 essay, for example, Roland Barthes cites the following:

A train is derailed in Alaska: a stag had tripped the switch.

And:

An Englishman enlists in the Foreign Legion: to avoid spending Christmas with his mother-in-law.

Barthes goes on to say that the rule is “minor causes, great effects” and that the fait divers is about instances where the causes of things are “deranged.” In other words, what happens usually doesn’t happen due to this particular cause.

But, following the example of Fénéon, I try not to define my small fates so narrowly. Although in most of them there is some form of irony at work, there isn’t always a punchline or “aha” moment. The stories I tell in the small fates are more tightly compressed than most fait divers(thanks to the limitation of length Twitter imposes) and often more laconic. I like to flirt with straight reportage, or the appearance of straight reportage. Each tells a truth, a whole truth, but never the whole truth (but this is true of all storytelling). Details are suppressed, secondary characters vanish, sometimes the “important” aspect of the story is sidestepped in order to highlight a poignant detail.

Children these days. Frank Oriabure, son of the deputy superintendent of police in Onitsha, would rather be a robber.

In something like this, the joke is obvious. Same with:

As the deeds of the former Speaker of the House were being brought to light at the Federal High Court, there was a power outage.

Or:

Joining the fight against AIDS, armed men in Edo carted away a shipment of anti-retroviral drugs.

It is beautifully absurd, charged with a nice and meaningless symmetry. A news report collapses into syllogism. In some others, the inflection is more subdued.

A satellite built by Nigerian engineers, the first such, will be launched into space in July.

Which, koan-like, feels like the first-half of a joke. Or:

The three bodies found after the Ibadan floods, a woman and two girls, had traveled far from home and couldn’t be identified.

These small fates, even though they are not witty or especially ironic, they draw on a similar sort of response. There is the satisfaction of the epigram, and the ambiguity about why what happened should have happened at all.

Two women threshing corn. Two babies strapped to their backs. Lightning descended in Bauchi, and took all four.

I think what all of these have in common, whether they are funny or not, is the closed circle of the story. Each small fate is complete in itself. It needs neither elaboration nor sequel. The small fates, I feel, bring news of a Nigerian modernity, full of conflict, tragedies, and narrow escapes. Similar to the French papers’ fait divers, they work in part because whatever that strange thing was, it didn’t happen to us. They are the destiny that befell some other poor soul, which we experience from a grateful distance.

The responses of the people who read these each day (a few hundred, at this point) have been instructive for me. “Why is he writing bad news?,” someone would say. Or, “God, this is so depressing.” But, strangely enough, they keep reading, and in time, something of the dark humor catches them. They then retweet to their friends and say, “You have to follow this guy. He makes me laugh at the most awful things.” Most of my readers are Nigerian. They see the darker things of their society reflected in a sly way that they might not be used to, but which they instinctively recognize from the impish aspects of Nigerian performative cultures. For these Nigerian readers, I sometimes embed local references.

For instance, in:

Pomp, pageantry, and tears of joy. A ceremony was held for graduates of the entrepreneurial training program at Kirikiri Prison.

—a Nigerian reader would know that Kirikiri is Nigeria’s most notorious prison.

Pastor Ogbeke, preaching fervently during a storm in Obrura, received fire from heaven, in the form of lightning, and died.

The irony here is enriched by the knowledge that in the Nigerian version of Pentecostal Christianity, there’s an emphasis on calling down Holy Ghost fire.

When police interrupted a meeting of the Eiye Confraternity in Alakuko, the cultists flew the coop. But one wingless bird was caught.

This one depends on some knowledge of the Yoruba language. “Eiye,” the totem of the fearsome cult in question, means “bird.” Coincidentally, the neighborhood in which the meeting took place, “Alakuko,” translates as “owner of the rooster.” I took that as an opportunity to extend the avian imagery.

But, for non-Nigerian readers, the vast majority of these are perfectly legible. I indulge in some wordplay, some alliteration, and other strategies that are dependent on the English language. Some of the stories depend on an adverb that arrives in last place. Others are about making a list of barely-related items, to create an absurd effect:

Cholera, a bus crash, and terrorists, have killed 30, 21, and 10, in Adamawa, Ondo, and Borno, respectively.

But the key aspect of the experience for the non-Nigerian is the cascade of names and places, both the names in traditional Nigerian languages, or the unexpected incursion of English-language names. Some of these “English” names would not be borne by anyone in England: Miracle, Precious, Gift, Sunday. The non-English names, on the other hand, place you deep inside a world that might, at first, feel hard to understand, or even to pronounce. But even for those who can’t tell an Igbo name from a Yoruba one, or what makes the culture of Bauchi state different from that of Edo, the stories remain poignant. They are human stories. There are crimes of passion, inexplicable murders, courtroom outbursts, and moments of greed.

In a 1993 interview in the Paris Review, Toni Morrison talks about the beginnings of jazz, and how unhappy the material of that music is. Someone’s always leaving, someone’s always losing something. But, she says, there’s a grandeur and satisfaction in that, because these are people who, until recently, were in a constricting and limiting situation. Then freedom came. “The whole tragedy of choosing somebody, risking love, risking emotion, risking sensuality, and losing it all, didn’t matter, since it was their choice. Exercising choice in who you love was a major, major thing.”

Fifty years after British colonialism, ten years after military rule, Nigerians are free. Not economically free, not yet–and we see the effect of that lack of economic freedom in the kinds of crimes that are committed–but they are free in important ways. You can live where you want, associate with whom you want. You can sue people in court, gather to practice your religion, under the leadership of whichever holy man or charlatan you prefer, and you can marry and divorce as you please. This is a major thing. This is modernity, and to tell these stories, to give the protagonists of these losses even that little bit of attention, is to honor the fact that they are there, that their life goes on. It’s not depressing at all, just as reading the Brooklyn Eagle and New York Herald from a hundred years ago is not depressing, though just about the only mention of blacks was as protagonists in crime reports. The fact is: they were there. And fate arranged a small form of immortality for them in that crime report.

These pieces are generally not events of the kind that alter a nation’s course. They are not about movie stars or, with exceptions, famous politicians. They are about the small fates of ordinary people. The idea is not to show that Lagos, or Abuja, or Owerri, are worse than New York, or worse than Paris. Rather, it’s a modest goal: to show that what happens in the rest of the world happens in Nigeria too, with a little craziness all our own mixed in. In this odd sort of way, bad news is good news because these instances of bad news reveal a whole world of ongoing human experience that is often ignored or oversimplified.

[Links: small fates on National Public Radio, the New Yorker, and the New Inquiry. The small fates project came to an end in January 2013.]