- The Comfort of the Stranger: James Baldwin’s Exile Redux
There can be no denying that Magdalena Zaborowska’s James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile is meticulously researched. Indeed, it is fairly bursting with details in its finally conservative approach to Baldwin’s so-called Turkish decade. In the end, the book is a biography, though it doesn’t announce itself as such. The heart of Zaborowska’s argument is that critics have largely underestimated or completely overlooked the significance of the various sojourns that Baldwin made to Turkey from approximately 1961 through 1971. She shows how this period “enriches our understanding of how . . . he functioned as a transatlantic black intellectual” (xxii). Overall, Zaborowska succeeds in demonstrating this point in prose both earnest and unfailingly sincere. That said, however, there are some problems with the approach and the argument that I’m unable to overlook.
As a black, gay male, American-born and raised, I find Zaborowska’s preface particularly jarring. She informs us, for example, that she had never heard of James Baldwin until she was a student at Warsaw University. This is understandable. But this opening move makes it clear that the book is rooted in her epiphany. The erotics of exile animating the Baldwin oeuvre becomes an unsettling—and, I think, unintended—eroticization of Baldwin, [End Page 636] who becomes for Zaborowska a classic example of the black exotic, as opposed to the steadfast politico that he was:
Ever since teaching Giovanni’s Room in the American South, I have been on the road with Baldwin, whom I saw more and more as putting a completely new spin on being an immigrant writer. . . . This book is a product of my international peregrinations in the Old Country, to whom I owe my first understanding of what Baldwin said so well in The Fire Next Time: “If you know when you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.”(xvii–xviii)
For those who know Baldwin well, Zaborowska’s main focus on Another Country (1962) makes sense, as most of it was written in Istanbul. Regrettably, however, there is very little analysis of this crucial novel operating at a sophisticated theoretical level. What Zaborowska essentially argues is that specific characters in the novel serve as stand-ins for Baldwin’s actual and various Turkish contacts—intellectual and/or sexual. And so her chapter on Another Country privileges the life: “Baldwin’s most immediate autobiographical link to Istanbul in the novel is the racially motivated beating that Rufus and Vivaldo experience in an Irish bar early on, following an angry outburst by Vivaldo’s prejudiced girlfriend Jane” (118).
But the sociocultural crux of the matter—namely, that Vivaldo is straight and Rufus is bisexual—does not attract Zaborowska’s attention in any significant way. And it should. What we end up with instead is a reading of a key novel that fails to acknowledge meaningfully the gay transgressive underground, the multifaceted gay subculture of the fifties. Zaborowska also fails to grapple with what is perhaps today a cliché—the notion of the “romantic friendship,” in which sex, in the novels to which Baldwin was attuned, almost never happens. And if it does, it is only in the most furtive of ways. I would venture to say, for example, that in Another Country, the struggle with sexual identity/orientation owes its power to Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948). Zaborowska knows about this landmark book, but it’s simply a grace note in her account. What isn’t clear in James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade is that Baldwin’s problem, both as a writer and as a man, is this: how do you valorize the male same-sex [End Page 637] encounter while affirming at the same time both your commitment to literary realism and your recognition of certain bleak political realities?
This problem has yet to be solved. Indeed, Henry James—who for Baldwin was iconic—faced the same difficulty, again both as...