A Breathing Space Project
In 2020 we saw many of our assumptions about society, culture and economy upturned or broken. We saw in equal measure the emergence of possibilities for rapid and transformative change, and the deepening of existing fractures and injustices. It is clear we are inside a period of disruption that neither began nor will end with the COVID-19 pandemic, and in which the larger social-economic-ecological crises of our time become vivid and present. Against this backdrop, the Breathing Space grant programme of Pro Helvetia’s Johannesburg office looked to enable modest relief, or ‘breathing space’, for arts practitioners, organisations and networks across the subcontinent to rethink ways of working, to experiment with new formats of production, exchange and collaboration and reimagine the shape and position of cultural and creative work.
In Côte d’Ivoire, “titrologie” is the local “artform” of gathering in front of newspaper stands, usually in the mornings, to read and comment on the headlines (titres). If a headline is particularly grabbing, the paper is bought or rented.
Titrologie littéraire is a project by Edwige Renée Dro that transposes this street reading tradition at 1949: The Library of Women’s Writings from Africa and the Black world located in Yopougon, the most populated neighbourhood in Abidjan with some 1.2 million people. Edwige is writer and a literary translator, and founded 1949 in March 2020.
Edwige explains that “One of the refrains that we often hear in Côte d’Ivoire is that Ivorians don’t read; in Yopougon, there are, at the moment, four libraries, three of which are private initiatives. Another reflective process we’ve been engaged in at 1949 is whether Ivorians don’t read or if in the focus on reading as it is practised in the West, we have not taken into account our literary sociology.”
This question inspired the conceptualisation of Titrologie littéraire. Edwige selected book extracts from some of the well-known classics – Une si longue lettre by Mariama Bâ – to newer works like Les jours viennent et passent by Hemley Boum to works in translation like No Home by Yaa Gyasi translated into French by Anne Damour. These extracts were showcased on coloured paper hung on a clothes line outside the library for passers-by to read, and on placemats in the library restaurant for people to read while waiting for their meal. With 10 writers showcased per week, the project will feature in total 160 black and African women writers. During April and May 2021 there will be lunchtime performance readings of some of the books because at 1949, literature is not only written but is also oral.
Edwige says “our goal has been to showcase the breath of literature written by African and black women on all kinds of topics but to also educate. So on the extracts, we mention the writers but also the publishing houses that own the copyright to the translators. What has been great is how passers-by have walked inside the library to read and users have borrowed or read authors that they have never read before.”