The Unsparing Confessions of an Outsider: James Baldwin & Istanbul

All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique.

All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story;

 to vomit the anguish up.

—James Baldwin

Courtesy of Fatih Yürür

When my lit professor asked: “Who has heard of Yaşar Kemal?” – the room immediately filled up with raised hands. And “Engin Cezzar?” – she asked over the excited buzz in the room. As an exchange student in Turkey, those names didn’t evoke any emotions in me. Nor did the next name: James Baldwin. Upon mentioning Baldwin’s name, the class fell silent. We didn’t know who he was.

His name would remain with us over the next two weeks as we studied the novel Giovanni’s Room. The story centres on David—an American in France. Separated from his girlfriend Hella, who has gone to Spain to find herself, he meets an Italian, Giovanni. The two men begin an affair and they spend their time together in a room that Giovanni rents from a maid. When Hella returns, David decides to marry her and submit himself to mid-century American norms and expectations. In turn, the already penniless Giovanni succumbs to poverty and desperation, [spoiler alert] until he commits a murder and is then sentenced to death.

The novel offers an internal portrait of David’s sexual awakening, and the frustrations that prevent him from achieving a stable romantic and sexual relationship with another man. It’s in David’s homosexuality—his identity and internal struggle as an ‘outsider’—that Baldwin empathised with. As an African-American living in Paris and as a gay man himself, Baldwin knew what it was like to be the ‘other.’

Masculinity and manhood are integral concepts that shape and form the narrative in Giovanni’s Room. Most of David’s frustrations stem from the fact that he tries to live up to an image of impeccable and flawless masculinity that he can’t possibly uphold. Thus, males are not masculine; they are forever trying to become masculine, which is a pursuit of a futile ideal. Both feminine and non-European influences connect together and result in the rejection of the ideal of masculinity. Perhaps this was the ultimate goal of Baldwin, to change the hackneyed views of masculinity by showing how absurd that distinction is, and why human beings need to accept the way they are without the obligation of categorizing themselves into binary oppositions.

The novel offers unlimited subjects to talk about, such as the symbolism of Giovanni’s room: Is it a private space that allows David and Giovanni to live a life that would be impossible outside of the room’s confines? Is it a space of domesticity and partnership where the unwritten social rules of gender and masculinity are unable to regulate what the two men can or can’t do? Much is left to the reader’s interpretation. But it’s not the main theme in the novel, it’s the unspoken complexities of the human heart. The author himself stated that his book was “not so much about homosexuality, it is what happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody.”

And when our professor asked: What about black homosexuals? Or Hispanic? It triggered the underlying questions lurking between the lines of the book. In Giovanni’s Room, the characters are exclusively white, a surprise even to Baldwin’s editors, to which Baldwin said:

“I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.”. The issue remains and is unanswered. It was the first time in my life I found myself thinking that black people can be homosexual, too.  Perhaps it’s due to media underrepresentation that I’ve never allowed myself this thought previously.

I was further surprised to learn that James Baldwin lived in Turkey throughout the 1960s. Turkey, nearly destroyed by World War I, was then a poor, underdeveloped republic with a confused secular yet Islamic identity. It was a place that seemed to have little to do with Baldwin’s main preoccupations, or with America at all. This was exactly what he needed to feel free. With his friends, Yaşar Kemal and Engin Cezzar, he spent his days in and around the Turkish cafés, surrounded by the sounds of jazz. Baldwin loved the city. He strolled through the second-hand bookshops around the Grand Bazaar. He sat by the New Mosque, drinking tea and watching the fishermen’s boats launch into the foul waters of the Golden Horn. Baldwin was delighted by the Turkish custom of holding hands—even men were allowed to be openly affectionate. It was easier to be gay in Istanbul than in America. Despite Turkey’s history of prejudice, divisions there didn’t have an automatic black or white racial cast. “He was noticed because he was the only black,” my teacher said, “but he was left alone because he was American.” This is perhaps what most artists want: to be noticed and left alone, the best of both worlds.

Istanbul now sprawls as far as the eye can see – I often felt lost amidst its streets. The city has become a cacophonous metropolis of 15 million people. War, terrorism, and migration upend its fragile sense of order. But it was Baldwin who showed me that Istanbul could be a refuge. He was a reminder of a time when the country was left alone by both East and West when it was a place anyone could go to live and feel free.

I may not have been as impressed with this book were it not for the setting. Baldwin’s writing reminded me of Hemingway’s—simple words and hypnotic repetitions that evoke a time of easy and carefree pleasures. Another comparison was the shift in tone from recalling pleasure to regret, weariness, and ruefulness. However, the overuse of simple words in the first half of the book did bore me. Later on, perhaps due to character development, the writing was more immersive and much more enjoyable to read.

I studied this book in a country where teachers are now being prosecuted for teaching about gender and sexuality. In that sense, my professor was a criminal and we were her accomplices. Often, she would warn us not to write certain words since we were at risk of being imprisoned. It was the melancholia in the room I felt when she was telling us stories of another Turkey—one not divided by race, sexuality or class. It was Baldwin’s Istanbul that my peers were missing and looking for in his book. The freedom to love is the novel’s ethic, and what Baldwin condemns is the way a repressive mainstream society refuses to grant individuals the ability to conceptualize who they are—to build a narrative of their identity.

***

Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University.  She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria.  Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands.  Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015.  When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.

 

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