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.’ Read More

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The Beach Cafe & The Voice by Mohammed Mrabet

The Beach CafeMy first foray into Moroccan literature, incidentally quite by accident, and I’m treated to a wonderful book containing two stories by Mohammed Mrabet. What fascinated me most was that the stories were not written by Mrabet but told by him; in other words the good old tradition of oral narration. Paul Bowles, an acclaimed writer in his own right, translated the taped recordings of Mrabet from Moghrebi (an Arabic dialect) into English.

How much of the exquisite literature is Mrabet’s and how much is Bowles’ is unknown to me. What I do know is that theirs is a dance of eloquence merging story-telling and prose that puts the stories in this book The Beach Café & The Voice on a shelf amongst my high ranking literary delights. Read More