Writing along the margins: literacy and agency in a West African city (completed)

Karel Arnaut

This project is a sociolinguistic, ethnographical and historical study of an autobiographical text entitled: ‘The companion: chronicle of a Nouchi at war’ (Le compagnon: journal d'un noussi en guerre). The text is written by Digbo Foua Mathias aka ‘Marcus Mausiah Garvey’ and covers more than one decade of his life (2002-2011). The general context of this literacy-focused and Abidjan-based project is the Language Factories: Cape Town, Kinshasa, Abidjan, Brussels project.

The research project deals with several critical aspects of the manuscript, grouped together under two main headings. Firstly, the project analyses how the manuscript is embedded in the sphere of Nouchi street talk/culture and more broadly in contemporary Abidjanese popular culture, politics, informal economic transactions, and everyday violence. While engaging with recent studies of Nouchi as the enregisterment of modernity (Sasha Newell), the project also looks at Garvey’s mixture of Ivorian French, Nouchi, and a series of other ‘lects’, as enregistering West African urban conditions of vernacular cosmopolitanism. As such they articulate aspired social and physical mobility. This interpretation will be largely based on recent sociolinguistic studies of heteroglossia, styling, and, super-diversity. Secondly, the project focuses on literacy and ethnography, on writing praxis and, most importantly, the literary ideologies of the autobiographer and his social environment. While taking its lead from two major studies of grassroots literacy, the project examines not only the text’s embeddedness in orality (Fabian 1990) or in unequal globalization (Blommaert 2008) but also takes into account the writer’s authorial, performative and aesthetic operations/aspirations. This collaborative ethnographic-artistic project wants to make the most of the opportunity of having the author participating in the ethnography of the writing, editing, and publication process, in order to address key issues of local literary ideologies, textual mobility, and translocal valuation.

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