Professor Ato Quayson


Ato Quayson is The Jean G. and Morris M. Doyle Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Stanford University, where he has been since 2019.    Prior to that he taught at the University of Cambridge, the University of Toronto, and at NYU and held research fellowships at Oxford, Harvard, and Australian National University, among various others.  He is an alumnus of the University of Ghana where he took a First Class (Hons) in English and Arabic before proceeding to the University of Cambridge to complete his doctorate. He has published 6 monographs and 9 edited collections and is an elected Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Society of Canada, and of the British Academy.  He is an immediate Past President of the African Studies Association (ASA) and is also general editor of the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry. He curates Critic. Reading. Writing on YouTube.  His most recent book is Tragedy and Postcolonial Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2021). He is incoming Chair of the Department of English at Stanford University starting September of 2021.



Trotro Multilingualism: Orality and Polysemy in Accra’s Urban Context


 The approach to city streets that appeals to me the most is the one that holds that they can be interpreted as archives of social imaginaries.  In the case of Accra this implies in part a focus on vehicle slogans, sign writings, and various other expressions written, sprayed, or simply scrawled on various surfaces.  A sample of these I have gathered over the years: “Fear Woman and Take Snake”; “It Pains You, Why?”; “You Too Can Try,”; “Shoes are Repairing Here”; “Sentino”.  My interest, however, is not simply to generate a typology of such slogans but to try and eke out a model for understanding features of their expressiveness within a multilingual context.  My main thesis will be that there is always a jostling for linguistic dominance across multilingual sites of expression, and that they thus give us a lively sense of  what I will elaborate drawing from the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari as “deterritorialization,” namely, the ways in which minority languages interrupt and surreptitiously emplace their own subversive meanings inside of the dominant languages with which they are obliged to interact.  The original elaboration of the two philosophers’ concept had to do with the literature written by minority writers inside of some of Europe’s major languages (for example, the Jewish Kafka in German and the Irish Joyce in English).  But the concept requires some radical qualifications, given that the philosophers were narrowly European in all their examples. The other keywords in my lecture will be those of orality and polysemy, both of which I will be exploring from the perspective of studies of African literature, music, dance, and popular culture.  In this way I hope to provide a fresh way of thinking of Accra’s urban context from a humanistic perspective.  The talk will be drawing on the award-winning Oxford Street Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism (Duke University Press, 2014).