‘James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade’ by Magdalena J. Zaborowska

Magdalena J. Zaborowska’s scholarly yet personal new book fills in details of an important but little explored period in the life of James Baldwin. The author first visited Istanbul in 1961 at the invitation of Turkish actor Engin Cezzar, who had starred as the title character in the 1957 stage adaptation of Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room. He arrived at Cezzar’s door depressed, exhausted, broke, and suffering from a case of writer’s block which was making it impossible for him to complete his next novel Another Country.

During this first visit, Baldwin managed to finish both the novel and his most famous essay collection,The Fire Next Time. He returned to the United States for the publication of Another Country, which was a best-selling success, scandalizing readers with both the interracial and same-sex couplings of its characters. A vivid and ultimately prophetic exploration of civil rights and the emerging Black Power movement, The Fire Next Time turned Baldwin into a household name. He kept returning to Istanbul for much of the 1960’s to escape his fame in the United States and to work, completing another book of essays (No Name in the Street, 1972) and the bulk of another novel (Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, 1969), before leaving Turkey for good in 1971, settling into his final home, the villa in St Paul de Vence, France, where he died in 1987.

I’ll tell you this, though, if you don’t feel at home at home, you never really feel at home… you don’t live where you’re happy or, for that matter, unhappy: you do your best to live where you can work.

– James Baldwin

Although covered in varying degrees of detail by his biographers (most fully by David Leeming, who became Baldwin’s assistant after meeting the author in Istanbul, walking in on him as he was literally writing the final words of Another Country), Zaborowska’s study is the first to focus completely on Turkey and the impact that living in a country “not east or west” had on the author’s work. Zaborowska envisions Istanbul as a “nurturing authoritorial lair where Baldwin could exorcise and embrace his traumatizing material from a safe distance.” As she writes, exploring Baldwin’s “Turkish sojourn helps us to embrace more fully the transnational dimension of mid-twentieth century black literary culture.” There may also have been other, more personal reasons for his extended stays as well: “Baldwin’s sense of the positive ‘energy’ of Turkey….also had something to do with the personal freedom he experienced there as a man who loved other men. In a culture that drew the lines of gender and sexuality strikingly differently, he did not stand out; he was not vilified; he was not questioned about his boyfriends; he was left alone.”

In her introduction and opening chapter, Zaborowska, an associate professor in American and African-American studies at the University of Michigan, literally follows in Baldwin’s footsteps, visiting the places he lived in Istanbul and interviewing those who knew him there. These personal remembrances, coupled with descriptions of the documentary James Baldwin: From Another Place made by Turkish filmmaker Sedat Pakay during these years, make these opening sections of Baldwin’s Turkish Decade some of the richest and most illuminating writing on the author. Indeed, throughout the book, it is when friends such as Cezzar, his wife Gülriz Sururi, or others are talking about “our Jimmy” that the work comes most alive. To her credit, however, Zaborowska also does not let comments like those of friend and actress Zeynap Oral that because race and sexuality were ‘not talked about, therefore it did not matter,’ pass lightly. When Zaborowska tries to press for details of gay life in Turkey, Baldwin’s possible relationships there, and societal attitudes toward this dark black man in the country, his friends remain evasive: “When words like ‘Arap’ (Arab) or ‘Yamyam’ (Turkish for cannibal) or even the n-word rolled off tongues easily, I was told, they were used warmly and jokingly as ‘terms of endearment.’” Both Zaborowska and the reader wonder about the truth behind such statements.

Another fascinating chapter details Baldwin’s direction of John Herbert’s play, Fortune and Men’s Eyes, describing the author’s intense preparation from assisting in translating  its gay and prison slang into Turkish with Oral, working with actors, designing the set, and commissioning the music. Despite, or perhaps because of, the play’s controversial language, subject matter, and depiction of homosexuality and gender bending behind bars, coupled with the director’s famous name, the play was a smash hit in Istanbul.

Other chapters of Baldwin’s Turkish Decade are less successful however. Although he discussed it with Engin Cezzar, Baldwin never explicitly wrote about his time in Istanbul or set one of his works there. Zaborowska attempts to show the ‘hidden’ Turkish influence in the books he worked on while there, Another Country and the essay collection No Name in the Street. Her close reading of these texts make perhaps too much of a stretch in an attempt to demonstrate how the freedom and ‘exotic’ influence of Turkey enabled Baldwin to ‘queer’ his work, through thematic and formal experimentation. Occasional editorial slips and repetitions indicate that these chapters were likely written separately for scholarly publications. Also, although mentioned in passing, Zaborowska does little with Baldwin’s least successful novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, also written in part in Turkey. Insights by its main character, actor Leo Proudhammer, must have been gained by Baldwin from his work on Fortune and Men’s Eyes, and one of the relationships in the book has clear echoes of the friendship between Baldwin, Cezzar and Sururi. Proudhammer’s arrival at a party, late in the novel, is a virtual retelling of Baldwin’s own arrival on Cezzar’s doorstep for his first visit to Istanbul in 1961.

Overall, with its wealth of  personal insights, and highlighted by evocative photographs, extensive notes, and a wide ranging bibliography, Magdalena Zaborowska’s work  gives us an ultimately valuable addition to our understanding of the life and work of James Baldwin.  “Jimmy always had a welcome table in Turkey,” Engin Cezzar comments toward the end of Baldwin’s Turkish Decade, referencing the title of the author’s final, as yet unpublished, play. Zaborowska shows us how truly important and nurturing that table was for one of the 20th Century’s most important authors.

Erotics of Exile
by Magdalena J. Zaborowska
Duke University Press
ISBN: 9780822341673
Paperback, 416 pp, $24.95