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L’Harmattan – Storm or Shelter?

By Katrina Goldstone


A few months ago, I was rummaging in what I laughingly call ‘the storage room’ and happened on a stiff-backed piece of card. I knew exactly what it was, and where it came from. It was inscribed with looping scrolls and repeat doodles, plus some isolated islands of text. I was – and still am – obsessed with stationery and old fountain pens with marbled swirls of colour, or the finest of fine liners which make marks as thin as thread on paper. Paris, where I lived in the early 1980s, is stationery heaven, with odd specialist shops crammed with notebooks, writing implements and fancy paper. The thick as vellum card bore staccato lines by the African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks, stacked like the building blocks of a mini skyscraper, in the top corner: 



I have lived in three countries and moved several times within each of them over the course of forty years, but miraculously that bit of card with Brooks’ poem – and what she represented for me in terms of a huge intellectual and cultural leap – has travelled from address to address and stayed with me. Committing Brooks’ lines to the card was pre-internet – long before I could have found ‘We Real Cool’ in the flash of a Google search with flickering images of Brooks reading it, along with acres of commentary on the poem’s significance. Brooks admitted she’d seen the group of boys immortalised by the poem when walking by a poolhall in Chicago. Her instinct was not to tut and condemn but try to really get inside the boys’ heads. Between her writing the poem in 1959, my copying it down in 1980/81 and now as I write about it, We Real Cool has been anthologised hundreds of times, and was always the poem folk demanded to hear at her readings. It didn’t touch an emotional resonance as such, but it did hypnotise me, being so different from the poetry in the school curriculum which had Emily Dickinson or maybe Christina Rosetti. But not Gwendolyn Brooks. 

Which brings me to the fact that I could only have encountered Brooks through L’Harmattan, a bookshop that I haunted on a regular basis. To say a bookshop changed the course of my life is one way of saying that after returning from that year abroad in Paris, I did a complete U-turn in what I was going to study for my Final Year in college. Rejecting French 18th century philosophy, I opted instead for the study of Francophone African literature, culminating in a final thesis on women in the films of Senegalese writer and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène – a shift from foundational Eurocentric ideology to African film. That would never have happened had I not chanced to step across the threshold of L’Harmattan, on Rue des Écoles, in what was once known as the Latin Quarter of Paris and scene of the 1968 student uprising. (As I write, Paris is once again aflame with outrage – at yet another police killing of a young man of African origin.) 

On another trip to Paris some years ago, I sought out L’Harmattan again. Miraculously, in this time of destruction of independent bookshops, there it still was – much smaller and more chaotic than I had remembered, but still with its shutters painted a distinctive shade of deep green. I wondered at the door it opened in me. To say that L’Harmattan prefigured my later commitment to the rights of refugees and to anti racism, is to telescope and oversimplify the arc of life, the twists and turns in ‘The Road Not Taken’ – the title of one of my mother’s favourite poems.

All we knew of black creativity back in North Belfast in the 70s, crept in surreptitiously via records of Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald lying about – the jazz greats both my mother and her brother idolised. My father’s quiet form of ‘race pride’ was expressed in his record collection – Arthur Rubinstein, Dame Myra Hess, Vladimir Ashkenazy, all the soulful interpreters of European classical music. Otherwise, we were brainwashed by a noxious cultural diet of The Black and White Minstrel Show on telly, fleeting glimpses of a vaudeville African American called Stepin Fetchit in old Hollywood movies, or a few bars hummed of ‘Mama’s Little Baby Love Shortnin’ Bread’, oblivious to the racist words of the original song. My friend Rosana and I repeated the line ‘Call me Mr Tibbs’ like a mantra, too young to understand the significance of the film it came from, In the Heat of the Night (1967), unaware it was made just three years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We just had schoolgirl crushes on Sidney Poitier. And, of course, lurking at the back of the pantry there was the Robertson’s marmalade jar – part of a broader ignominious pantheon of racialised domestic objects, together with a relentless propaganda of collection boxes for the ‘starving children in Africa’, with images of the missionary priests and nuns, literally, at the centre of the picture. So, that day when I stumbled on L’Harmattan – my chance encounter with an entire cultural universe, focusing on the richness and sheer diversity of black creativity – it was beyond mind blowing. 

Beside the dizzying choice of literary greats from Francophone Africa, the French Caribbean, Asia and Oceania, there was a small section on African American writers. Moody black and white photos of writers I didn’t recognise or had never heard of were tacked up on the walls. As well as poetry and novels, L’Harmattan put me on the path to other books – Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968) and Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (1970). I was particularly taken with Angela Davis’ My Autobiography (1974). As a naïve dreamy romantic, I mooned over the sadness of Angela and George’s doomed relationship, not entirely appreciating their political context. But somehow as a child of the Northern Ireland troubles, I could detect a lethal similarity in British army and police harassment and American police brutality, internment without trial and the prison-industrial complex with its attendant evils. (The methods of interrogation and counter terrorism in Northern Ireland were in turn taken from a colonial counter-insurgency playbook.) 

When you google L’Harmattan today, the search results scatter and the bookshop and not-for-profit publishing history sit side by side with books on wind and storms. Which is what L’Harmattan means of course – the trade wind that blows out of the West African Sahara. It is also the name of a book by Ousmane Sembène. Francophone writing inspired by the ‘Négritude’ movement was well represented on L’Harmattan’s shelves with its key exponents, Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire. I knew nothing of that (now contested) movement for the celebration of a romantic, emotional black identity and culture when I poked my head round the door of the bookshop and very, very tentatively walked in. An entire literary world opened up, though as I think back, there weren’t very many women in it. Neither did I know the publishing house associated with L’Harmattan was actually founded in 1975 by ex-Catholic priests, missionaries to boot, and not black radicals. It was Présence Africaine across the road that was African founded and run, the world’s oldest independent black publishing house. 

At a recent talk, ‘The Poet and his Books’, given by Irish poet Gerald Dawe who mentored me and my reading, he traced the cultural and emotional trajectory from his Protestant youth in 1960s North Belfast to becoming a poet, a professor at Trinity College Dublin and co-founder of the Oscar Wilde centre for Creative Writing. Under the influence of books, his imagination had taken flight beyond his North Belfast attic bedroom to eventually fasten on the desire – eccentric in his milieu – to become a poet. In a different way, that random foray into the cloisters of L’Harmattan, with its posters of black cultural titans, listings under ‘les Antilles’, Cuba, l’Afrique Francophone and beyond, took a young woman – I want to say girl – out of the oppressive confines of a province riven with sectarian violence to a broader world view. It was like opening the shutters in an abandoned house and letting the piercing light in, to illuminate continuities and similarities, and put Northern Ireland in a global context. The writers became like those steadfast companions or fleeting friends that accompany you aways, along the crooked path. I couldn’t take a misogynist like Eldridge Cleaver today, but those writers gave me insight I could never have gained reading Jane Eyre. The books that change hearts and minds, grant us a clear piercing beam of recognition, even if our life circumstances are separated by age, class, gender, or battlefield. We were joined in a green-shuttered bookshop in Paris. 

Katrina Goldstone’s book on anti–fascist and Jewish writers of the 1930s, Irish Writers and the Thirties (2020), is out now in paperback, published by Routledge.