Reframing Literacy on the Periphery

This month we published Grassroots Literacy and the Written Record by John Trimbur. In this post the author explains how the book came about.

Grassroots Literacy and the Written Record tells the story of the Asbestos Interest Group (AIG), a village-based network of asbestos activists in post-apartheid South Africa. The book is set in the Kuruman district, a former mining center on the Cape Asbestos Belt, a landscape of retrenched mines and mills and derelict tailing dumps, where the ubiquitous presence of asbestos causes deadly asbestos-related diseases. The storyline runs from the AIG’s founding in 2001 to 2015, tracing the AIG’s participation in grassroots research, in a mass drive to register claimants in a legal case against the Gencor mining company, and in its work helping ex-mineworkers and surviving family members negotiate the paperwork of the state compensation system and the trust fund that resulted from an out-of-court settlement with Gencor.

The book is a personal one in the sense that it grew out of my involvement with the AIG for over ten years as an academic activist. During that time, I drew on my academic background in rhetoric and writing studies but not from a scholarly angle. Rather I did things like working on a pamphlet about asbestos and asbestos-related diseases for villagers, led grassroots research workshops for AIG activists, and helped the AIG office create the paper trails of organizational record keeping.

The impetus for the book came, perhaps ironically, when I was engaged in this type of activist work, putting together a timeline of the AIG’s first decade as a basic document to include in grant applications and use for publicity purposes.  In retrospect, it now seems obvious that the central motive of the book – of not wanting the AIG’s work to be forgotten – was already present. A logical step from the timeline was to make sure the AIG’s grassroots activism entered the historical record, where its meanings and legacy could be examined.

This shift from activism to a scholarly research project converged with a conceptual shift in writing studies that gives Grassroots Literacy and the Written Record its interpretive framework. The rejection of monolithic theories of literacy and the pluralization of literate practices were already well-established ideas in writing studies. More recently, however, there has been a reframing of literacy based on the further recognition that literacies are not just different: they are also arranged hierarchically, in relations of inequality, by the uneven dissemination of semiotic resources, the stratified acknowledgement of the right to be heard, and the differential capacity across social locations to participate in public forums of deliberation and decision-making.

In the case of the AIG, this asymmetry expressed the fraught relations between periphery and center, the geohistorical fate of villagers living in what the anthropologist Charles Piot calls “remotely global” locations in the far south, where non-elite literacies are partially plugged into and partially by-passed by the modalities of mainstream literacies. Grassroots Literacy and the Written Record is an attempt to understand how this semiotic distance between the periphery and the center was produced in the Kuruman district and how the AIG was able (or not) to deploy the paperwork of the center to move the interests of villagers translocally, from the grassroots level to institutions of power and influence in the metropolis.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Scripts of Servitude by Beatriz P. Lorente.

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