Oxford Street, Accra by Ato Quayson takes top Urban History Association Prize
Ato Quayson, U of T professor of English and director of the Centre for Diaspora & Transnational Studies, spent his formative years in Accra, Ghana. While he loves living in Canada, Ghana will always be his first home: a place that “had a major impact on my formation and sensibility. I only understood it piecemeal until I began researching for the book; then, different aspects became more and more visible to me.”
His book, Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism (2014, Duke University Press), is co-winner of the Urban History Association’s top award in the international category for books published in 2013-2014.
“Most cities of the world are best known through their writers,” said Quayson, a voracious reader. “Paris is Balzac and Zola, Dublin is Joyce and London is Dickens and Zadie Smith. I wanted to write about my city that way.”
With his book, Quayson invites readers to “tour Accra through my eyes. I wanted to be the scribe of my city.” In this Q&A, he shares some of the insights discovered as he researched and wrote his award-winning work.
This book underscores the fact that Canadians generally know very little about African life and culture. Why is it important to broaden our knowledge?
It is important, because Africa is the next frontier. The international geo-political landscape is changing fast, and Africa presents new markets and ways of being. This is apparent, given the amount of interest and investment China is making there.
The Americans are way ahead of Canadians here. Most of their universities, such as Harvard, Michigan, NYU, and Berkeley which are comparable to U of T, have introduced an important international component into undergraduate education over the past 20 years. They routinely send entire cohorts of students to Ghana and to Africa. These universities are building important bridges of understanding between Westerners and Africans. It is conceivable that these people will be the important policy-makers in the next 15 years, and they will know about Africa in a way that would be richer than the knowledge of those who have never been there before.
In addition, Statistics Canada states that by 2030, 50 per cent of Canada’s population will be immigrants, and it’s important to know how these immigrants feel about their homelands and what parts of their pasts they bring along with them.”
You make a clear distinction between multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism. Please explain the difference and talk about why one is preferable.
Multi-ethnic societies simply have many ethnicities residing there. Multiculturalism is a feature of liberal democracies, a strategic aspect of state-building in countries that have accepted that homogeneity is not the most useful way of building a society. Multiculturalism involves accepting that ethnicity is a viable way of identifying oneself within the polity.
However, multiculturalism and xenophobia are mutually exclusive. South Africa aspires to multiculturalism, but there is too much xenophobia there. Canada, Australia and the United States have multicultural policies, while Russia, despite having many ethnic groups, does not.
Does your book have another purpose, in addition to providing a window onto Ghanaian culture?
In addition to exploring Accra, this book provides a method for reading African cities and the preliminary questions that can be asked about them. For example, what is the history of Africa’s mixed-race populations? What is their history and their contributions to the African’s cosmopolitanism? How did commercial districts arise? What are the leisure pursuits of youth in African cities? What are the inscriptions (e.g., signage, advertising) that you find in African cities?
The book thus offers a method for understanding cities that can be extrapolated to other places.