[18 February 2009]
For a writer who believed that “language is the only homeland”, one would expect James Baldwin to have a difficult time settling into any physical space. He felt ostracized from his New York City homeland; he would argue that one cannot actually leave America—psychologically, culturally—no matter how much one tries. His extended stays in Turkey and France provided temporary and necessary balms to the wound of (self-imposed) exile, though those locations too would fail to offer Baldwin peace of mind. As he said, his home was in words; today he remains one of his country’s finest 20th century figures of that trade.
In her study of Baldwin’s career, Magdalena J. Zaborowska hones in on two particular and, she believes, interlocking pieces of the author’s puzzle: his second home in Turkey, as the title suggests, and as the subtitle hints, his sexuality. The first aspect offers readers an intriguing and underrepresented aspect of Baldwin, one rarely mentioned or brushed over in surveys of his life. The latter is also intriguing—Baldwin had a rare distinction of being a civil rights voice during a time of racial tension in America, and being openly gay, which often resulted in readers clinging to one while denying or denouncing the other side of him—although her speculations sometimes run a bit too wild and gossipy.
When Zaborowska lets Baldwin’s history, and the history of those around him during his stays in Turkey speak, the book is informative and enlightening. Not only did Baldwin escape there to finish one of his classics, Another Country, he quite literally lived through it. There was too much tension in New York, doubled by Baldwin’s own paranoid states (he was in constant fear of losing his passport for political reasons, being oppressed and outcasted, and so on).
Yet at times Zaborowska steps inside the work too much—do we really need to know that she’s a scholar and writing an academic book six times in the first third of the reading? That tendency does tone down (although, unsurprisingly, the very last line of the book returns to her proclaiming herself a scholar, again).
In general, academic writing gets bogged down in its own hubris. The formula—declare your intentions, state your thesis, and restate your intentions after your thesis—reminds one of collegiate level reading (and writing). It’s fine for certain subjects, I suppose; when discussing a man like James Baldwin, whose novels and essays are so full of life, so saturated with prose and heartfelt imagery, reading him from this perspective seems silly, untouchable. Couple this with personal interjections of certain interviewees’ opinions—most notably, the actress Gülriz Sururi, wife of Baldwin’s close friend and actor, Engin Cezzar—and sections read like a Village Voice column: he said, she said, but she really meant, it was in the tone of her voice, she was wearing (can you believe it!) etc.
While Zaborowska’s focus on Baldwin’s sexuality may be a bit invasive and at times forced, it does clue readers in on one important aspect of his life. Obviously, sexuality did play a huge role in his day-to-day, even though, as his Turkish friends admitted, they rarely noticed his sexual habits—dating, flirting, and so on—during his time there. It seems he maintained a private social life, at least in regards to partners, even if he railed against his American compatriots, who simultaneously elevated his activist status while treating his sexual politics as a nuisance or as being misguided. Baldwin felt that sexuality and politics, especially racial politics, were intertwined, as his novels not only show but shove in your face.
Americans may have evolved their racial consciousness in these Obama-filled days, but as a culture we seem to be moving backwards regarding sexual freedom. In the same span of months, Milk was considered a sureshot for the Oscars while California residents reversed their decision to sanction gay marriage. Baldwin knew this kind of flip-flopping well. The man only fit part of the civil rights persona; what didn’t would be rejected. That habit has not abated.
Take, for example, Leonardo Dicaprio, who became the teenage girl poster boy in 1996-97 with his roles as Romeo and Jack Dawson. Without irony, few people have seen his lead role the exceptional 1995 retelling of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, Total Eclipse, in which Dicaprio has an intense sexual encounter with fellow poet Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis). You just don’t find that tacked on dorm room walls.
Zaborowska turns on a telescope onto famous Baldwin projects, such as his novel Another Country, to lesser known works, such as the novel No Name in the Street and his plays, Fortune and Men’s Eyes, which he directed to much acclaim in Turkey, and The Welcome Table. While he was and still is an important cultural name in Turkey, she writes “in the United States, Baldwin was buried by many of his compatriots well before his death.”
Why the media embraced him abroad and ignored him at home only added to his despair regarding nationality. In 1970 he stated, “I don’t believe in nations anymore. Those passports, those borders are as outworn and useless as war.” Baldwin was, to borrow a phrase from V.S. Naipaul’s novels A Bend in the River and The Mimic Men, a man apart: he was apart from his fellow countrymen in sex, in beliefs of race, in the projection of art—as he stated, “The very people who clamor for new forms are also people who do not recognize them when they come.”
Baldwin was recognized for a lot of things, and remains an important figure in the history of American letters. His books will only become more relevant to a country as it expands its horizons to include all sexual shades in its socio-racial configuration. Zaborowska’s work will appeal to fans of Baldwin looking for an interesting take on the man’s life, though with little of the poetry and understanding of metaphor that the novelist exhibited. Her dedication and passion does shine through in the time and effort she placed in writing this book; if only the dry touch of academia were far lighter, we’d have a fine piece of writing (instead of a commendable stab of scholarship) in our hands.