Thursday, June 26, 2008

Contemplating Baldwin Again

When I first read Giovanni's Room years ago, I was young and couldn't quite understand the homoerotic implications. But, I really enjoyed this beautifully tragic story by James Baldwin, and I was really excited to revist it in a graduate class I'm taking this summer on Gender and Sexuality in Literature...(a class I lovingly refer to as Gen & Sex). In class, my professor and I became engaged in a somewhat heated debate about the degree to which David, the protagonist being, and in my opinion not being, responsible for the death of his lover, Giovanni. I still feel now,just as I did all those years ago, that Giovanni, as sweet as he may have been, was too needy. He entered a relationship with the understanding that it would end, and when it ended he shattered like fine china. I agree, David was a jackass; mostly because of his own self-hatred. But, they were both technically adults in a homosexual relationship in Paris in 1956; what did he expect?

This was Baldwin's second book, and it wasn't well received. Critics were put off by the homosexual content and I suppose black people were put off because well, there were no black people in the book. I love that Baldwin was courageous enough to write the book he wanted to write, in spite of the criticism from Eldridge Cleaver about "homosexuals" and "baby-rapist," and from Richard Wright about insisting that black authors should only write about "the Negro problem". As a writer, I may want or need to write about something other than what others can see. And what others can't see, may be issues that we all struggle with, regardless of what you see on the outside. Giovanni's Room deals with classic issues of identity, self-denial, a loss of innocence (no matter how artificial it may be), and what I call, auto-expatriation (one's attempt to be someone else). And Baldwin makes these struggles clear, in spite of his characters packaging.

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