Joachim, Paulin 1931–
Paulin Joachim 1931–
What is an African? And what does it mean to be an African writer? The questions are difficult ones, for contemporary Africans often refuse to classify themselves according to the national divisions under which they live, much less to adopt the pan-continental identity that has been the dream of black reformers from around the diaspora of African peoples. Yet, in the decades after much of black Africa attained political independence from Europe, the question of an African voice in the literary arts acquired new urgency. Africa, many felt, presented herself to the world through her novels, plays, short stories, and poems; indeed, many students in the United States have gained their clearest impressions of African life not from newspaper and magazine articles but from novels such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Cámara Laye’s The Dark Child. The French-speaking poet and literary critic Paulin Joachim, with an international perspective forged in the countries of Benin, Senegal, and France, has been among the primary contributors to the ongoing dialogue over the direction of African writing.
Joachim is one of those rare figures who is equally celebrated as a creative artist and as a critic, and he can perhaps derive a certain amusement from the fact that his own work has sometimes been attacked on the same grounds that he has used in questioning the work of other writers. He was born in the city of Cotonou, Benin, on September 20, 1931; Benin at that time was called Dahomey, adopting its current name in 1975. A small country with its population concentrated along West Africa’s south-facing coastline, Benin benefited from relatively generous educational resources the French devoted to it, compared with other parts of France’s African empire, Joachim attended schools in Benin and in neighboring Gabon, and did well enough to win acceptance in 1950 to law school at the Catholic University of Lyon, in France’s second-largest city.
Getting into law school was one thing, but finding the means to complete it was another. At the end of his financial rope, Joachim was forced to drop out of school. He bounced around France for two years before landing a job as personal secretary to the French surrealist poet Philippe Soupault, one of the founders of the surrealist movement in the arts. Joachim recalled their relationship with amusement in an interview quoted in the series Littératures nationales d’écriture françaises (National Literatures of French Writing): “I was his Negro,” Joachim said. Yet Soupault would exert a certain degree of influence on Joachim’s own poetry, setting it apart from that of his African contemporaries.
As a teenager Joachim had come under the influence of the Senegalese poet and political leader Leopold Senghor, a hero of African independence movements widely admired by black Africans and even by African Americans. At the time, Joachim wrote in 1961 (as quoted in Rand Bishop’s African Literature, African Critics), ” I was looking feverishly to disintoxicate myself and eliminate from my heart and spirit all the theories that had caused me to hate being Negro … I could not believe that there existed, in the white
At a Glance…
Born September 20, 1931, in Cotonou, Dahomey (now Benin). Education: Attended schools in Benin and Gabon; attended Catholic University Law School, Lyon, France, 1950; earned journalism degree, Paris, France, late 1950s.
Career: Began writing criticism in French journals Tam-tam and Présence africaine, early 1950s; published first book of poetry, Un nègre raconte, 1954; became political editor, France-Soir newspaper, late 1950s; founded journal Bingo, Dakar, Senegal, 1960; published book of poems Anti-grace, 1967; founded journal Décennie 2, 1971; published book of poems, Oraison pour un Re-naissance, 1984.
man’s—my master’s—countries men of my race who were strong and powerful with no inferiority complex and capable of expressing themselves freely and with eloquence in the language of the Europeans. Senghor was the very first to give me pride of my race and showed me the spiritual powers in my blood.”
Inspired by Senghor’s example and by Africa’s ongoing independence struggles during the 1950s, Joachim began to write seriously on his own during his period of employment with Soupault, contributing articles to Tam-tam, a French Catholic student journal, and to a French journal of African arts, Présence africaine. Joachim’s first book of poetry, Un nègre raconte (A Black Man Tells Stories), was published in Paris in 1954. In the late 1950s he found the wherewithal to return to school, this time completing a journalism degree at an institute in Paris. His career on the rise, he took a job as a political editor at the influential French daily newspaper France-Soir.
In 1960, however, Joachim’s ties to Africa reasserted themselves. Leaving his newspaper job he founded a journal of his own in Dakar, Senegal, then and now considered the intellectual center of French-speaking black Africa. Named Bingo, Joachim’s journal provided a forum for lively debates over trends in African literature, which in the 1960s was enjoying its first flush of worldwide fame. Dividing his time between France and Senegal, Joachim served as editor of Bingo for 11 years.
One of the prominent critical voices in the journal’s pages was Joachim’s own. He praised writers whose works conveyed detailed, realistic impressions of African life and who, in his estimation, made solid contributions to the emerging cultures of Africa’s new nations. “Let us do as President Senghor and write for our people and not for the approval of a foreign public,” Joachim argued (all quotations of Joachim’s critical writings are from Rand Bishop’s study). He expanded on this idea in another article: “In writing for our people we are certain to assure them an internal equilibrium and to start them marching again, to interrupt the dead period of colonialism.” Though not a deeply politically oriented critic, Joachim praised several writers whose works took up anti-colonial themes. Much of his critical writing was identified with Senghor’s widely discussed idea of Négritude, of a distinctive black voice in the arts.
One issue that concerned critics at the time (and continues to do so) was that of the proper attitude toward Africa’s traditional cultures and precolonial past. Joachim warned African writers against a “Paradise Lost complex,” contending that “one must evolve in order to assure his place in the new world and that to choose a contrary course is to condemn oneself to stagnation and to allow oneself to be swallowed up by others.”
Ironically, however, the Senegalese poet David Diop detected the same strain in Joachim’s own Un nègre raconte, writing of that collection (according to Bishop) that “I regret the overly idyllic description of our Africa of early ages opposed to a technologized Europe.” The issue was a live one, with African writers both attracted to and wishing to distance themselves from contemporary European developments.
The same tension is visible in much of Joachim’s own poetry, of which he published three volumes in total; although he was not prolific as a creative writer, Joachim was quite influential. His second book, Anti-Grâce (Anti-Grace), appeared in 1967, and his last, Oraison pour un Re-naissance (Oration for a Re-Birth), was published in 1984. In the interim, he returned to Paris and assumed the editorship of another new African-centered journal, Décennie 2. Like that of nearly all his African contemporaries, Joachim’s poetry often reflected upon the brutality of colonial occupation. But he did so in a dense, evocative lan-gauge clearly influenced by European modernism. In the 1967 poem “Burial,” one of the few poems by Joachim to be widely distributed in English translation, he wrote: “I want to forget… the time when we were affiliated to poverty as one is connected to the gas or electricity supply/the time when eternity was turned inside out and the spectre of death no longer even gnawed at our minds.”
But he then sounds a note of hope: “But because time heals these wounds and softens angles/I wish to rear up a monolith to time/Rejected by time and exiled by former ages/now reintegrate time/and become its sacred aorta.” Images such as these, poised between African and European realities, reflected a lifetime of thought about the relationship between the two—and Paulin Joachim was one of Africa’s deepest thinkers on that subject.
Un nègre raconte, 1954.
Oraison pour un Renaissance, 1984.
Numerous critical essays, many published in own journal, Bingo.
Bishop, Rand, African Literature, African Critics, Greenwood, 1988.
Herdeck, Donald E., African Authors: A Companion to Black African Writing, Volume I: 1300-1973, Black Orpheus Press, 1973.
Jahn, Jahnheinz, et al., Who’s Who in African Literature, Horst Erdman Verlag, 1972.
Klein, Leonard S., general ed., African Literatures in the 20th Century: A Guide, Ungar, 1986.
Mphahlele, Ezekiel, ed., African Writing Today, Penguin, 1967.
University of Florida Library Africana section, http://web.uflib.ufl.edu/cm/africana/joachim.htm
—James M. Manheim
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