Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Homemaking is not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about James Baldwin. Cafés, voluminous cigarette smoke, cocktail parties, literary debates, handsome young men, civil rights passion, yes. But domestication has not been on the long list of ideas that Baldwin’s name evokes for me.
After I devoured “The Well of Loneliness” when I was about 14, I discovered “Waiting for Giovanni” and was relieved to know that there were more than just white ‘homosexuals’ in Victorian garb; we could also be a black and from Harlem. It was important (back in the day) to know we came in all colors; although happy endings were still far in the future. The world of Baldwin seemed to me one of danger, emotional endurance and melancholy; there was not a whiff of home baked cookies.
But two things added more texture to the picture I had of Baldwin. “James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade” by M.J. Zaboroska, is a very readable exploration of his life and writing between 1961 and1971. That was, coincidentally, the beginning of my devotion to his work…from my first desperate search for like beings to a mature appreciation of his creative skills and political astuteness.
One of the many wonderful revelations Ms. Zaboroska explores is how the theme of home and homemaking “weighed increasingly on Baldwin throughout his Turkish period.” She also reveals how, in letters over the years, Baldwin discussed his appreciation of the cozy, home qualities of his apartment in Turkey as well as some writing colonies he worked in.
This view helped me form an idea about the interior life of my main character, Jimmy, and what are some of the needs that drive him. On the exterior he is erudite, sharp tongued, exquisitely perceptive, all qualities which place him apart from others. Internally he yearns for the closeness of relationships and homecomings the way that most of us do.
The second thing which helped confirm the direction I was going in was meeting James Baldwin’s “sister-out-law,” Carole. (We say “sister-out-law” since she and JB’s brother, David, never legally married.) This was an amazing experience, partly because Carole is great fun and we could reminisce about the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s as if we’d known each other then. And her life with David and close relationship with JB gave her a unique perspective. She, David and their son sometimes spent summers with JB in Turkey and France providing some of that ‘home’ JB yearned for. A young, artist herself, living on the vibrant art scene, Carole saw up close the Jimmy that I was creating on the page.
During our meal together at one point she mentioned JB’s ‘fragility’ and my heart leapt. That was exactly the quality I’ve been trying to define but I hadn’t gotten to that word yet. How could I portray a hugely successful intellectual activist from the inside out so the audience can feel the fragile place where he yearns for ‘home?’
The lovers, the books, the cafés were all pointing him in that direction; that place—either physically or emotionally—where he could feel at home with himself and with the world.
In April “Waiting for Giovanni” will have a reading in Minneapolis at Macalister College where my collaborator, Harry Waters Jr. teaches. Carole, who’ll be in town for a conference, will have a chance to hear if I’ve captured the Jimmy she knew and loved. Her stories of those times do make his domestic aspect seem more recognizable and make Baldwin feel more familiar. It is, after all, from that core fragile place of need that all his passion flowed. Which may be true for many of us.