Author Teju Cole Talks His New Essay On Immigration, Twitter, And Censorship

    Teju Cole has a history of innovative story telling on Twitter and has now released a lengthy, straight-to-Twitter essay. BuzzFeed spoke with Cole about his new essay, the benefits of Twitter as a platform, and the injustices of the current immigration system.

    On March 13, author Teju Cole published "A Piece Of The Wall" entirely on Twitter, a first-of-its-kind essay on Arizona and immigration comprised of approximately 250 tweets that were tweeted out over the span of seven hours.

    Cole is no stranger to writing on Twitter, having published fiction on the platform before, but this essay is something new entirely. The essay was told in an innovative way, tailored specifically for platform. Each person in the nonfiction essay had their own Twitter account and their quotes were retweeted into the the timeline of the essay.

    BuzzFeed reached out to Cole to speak with him about the essay:

    What made you decide that this specific essay would be best presented in this medium?

    Teju Cole: I'll answer that by saying I didn't think this essay could be "best" presented in this medium, but I asked the opposite question: Why does a serious longform investigative piece have to be in print in a major magazine? In various parts of West Africa, there are different iterations of the idea that "white people like paper so much that they even wipe their butts with it." You know, you spend your life staring at paper, you spend paper money, proof of ownership of everything is on paper, you fill your house with paper, and when you die, the announcement is in the paper.

    I love paper too. I love print. But maybe not everything has to be on it. And in the case of Twitter (and, before that, blogging), I just feel so strongly that there's an audience here, and audience that deserves to be treated with the same seriousness as the paper crowd.

    Did the constraints of the medium change the way you structured and presented the essay, as opposed to if you published it in a print or on a website?

    TC: It was surprisingly similar. I had spent about a week writing up the piece in the conventional way. In fact, I had brought it up to a level close to publishable. It could have gone to any number of magazines at that point. But once I decided to do it on Twitter, I just had to tweak some sentences — break some of the longer ones, firm up some of the more fragmentary ones. But, linguistically, I wanted to do something that was solid. Definitely not a throwaway sort of thing. I worked as hard on this as on any 4,000 words I've ever written.

    Once that was sorted, the next challenge was technical: opening 12 email accounts to allow me to open 12 Twitter accounts, and then converting the direct speech in the essay into this form — removing "he says," "she says" — and massaging the text to make those conversational flows work. And then finding appropriate avatars for all the speakers, either photographs of them I took, or symbols, logos, or official crests connected to their work. It took time. It was a bit of world-building, in a way, though I do want to emphasize that this piece is fact-checked and nonfiction. If I were writing this for the New Yorker or the Times, I wouldn't ever put into anyone's mouth something they didn't say. And I didn't do it here either.

    Did your decision to publish this essay on Twitter have anything to do with the desire to publish the essay unedited or uncensored?

    TC: Always a consideration. I don't think anyone would attempt to censor me politically, but it's quite possible a responsible editor might have said, "Do we really need the poetic flights of fancy?" Or, "Two photographs are enough."

    Your essay represents a lot of different views on immigration, its challenges, and its solutions. What are your personal thoughts as far as a comprehensive immigration solution goes?

    TC: I side with Kat and Isabel and the folks at Derechos Humanos. We need comprehensive immigration reform that takes into account three things: documentation for people who are already here, economic justice for our neighbors in Central and South America, and demilitarization of the border. A little uncanny in its timing from my point of view (the AP broke the news about 15 minutes after I finished posting my piece), but Obama yesterday announced a review of deportation procedures.

    I'm not getting my hopes up, but the point of writing about these things, and hoping they reach a big audience, has nothing to do with "innovation" or with "writing." It's about the hope that more and more people will have their conscience moved about the plight of other human beings. In the case of drones, for example, I think that all the writing and sorrow about it has led to a scaling back of operations: It continues, it's still awful, but the rate has been scaled back, and this has been in specific response to public criticism. I continue to believe the emperor has a soul.

    The day following the publication of the essay, quotes in the story from a Border Patrol officer disappeared.

    Uh oh. Gearing up for a censorship fight. One of the Border Patrol officers has "magically" vanished from my piece:

    Quotation is not impersonation. If the officer I talked to at the Sasabe border on September 13 2011 wishes to allege libel, let's hear it.

    Update 4:37 pm: Twitter removed the tweets in an automated suspension looking for spam and the removal was apparently innocuous.

    @tejucole Twitter sez: "Automated suspension looking for spam and getting it wrong. The tweets have been restored." *lowers samurai sword*

    Here's an excerpt from the essay showing the quotes that had been formerly removed:

    The tag of the man who takes my passport says "Officer Baxter." I ask him about the work of the Border Patrol. He has a ready answer.

    @potw_Teju The Mexican government doesn't care.

    @potw_Teju They are not doing their share of enforcement.

    @potw_Teju They need to make their country good so that people don't need to come over here.

    The majority of migrant deaths happen in the Tucson sector, around two hundred each year.

    Arizona's legislature and its law-enforcement are notorious—or, to some, admirable𠅏or their aggression towards recent immigrants.

    Racial-profiling is legal, and there are initiatives to expunge Mexican American studies from public high schools.

    This aggression is also there on the federal level. President Obama has deported people at a greater rate than any of his predecessors.

    The deportation rate has been kept up, even after the president offered amnesty to undocumented residents who came to the U.S. as children.

    The horror of sudden familial division is something experienced by thousands of people in the United States every month.

    You can read more writing on Twitter here and "A Piece of the Wall" in its entirety here.