James Baldwin is one of the most influential literary figures that touched my life and thought on transnational literary activism. I admire Baldwin for his commitment as a public intellectual and thinker, who matched his writing with decisive political action. Even as a fugitive figure who is estranged from a country he hates to love and rejected by the people he labored to free, Baldwin was resolute in his crusade for social change. It is this factor of homelessness that makes Europe an interesting space in his work and life. Turkey is particularly significant in the production of some of his most prolific fictional and critical texts. Magdalena Zaborowska’s Turkish Decade gives the reader an intimate insight into Baldwin’s life and career at his most vulnerable moment.
Turkish Decade is a masterpiece that connects Baldwin’s life with his works. It focuses on the private and personal “Jimmy” situated in the transnational and cultural space of Turkey between 1961 and 1971. It traces the prominence of the oriental space to the development of Baldwin from the poor, aspiring young Jimmy to the celebrated public figure, James Baldwin. The book is a collection of critical analyses, interviews with Baldwin’s friends, personal correspondences, newspaper and magazine clippings, and video and photographic documentary of James Baldwin as Jimmy in Turkey. The overarching polemic of Turkish Decade is encapsulated in the critical discourse on the stereotypical erotic essentialism of Turkey in the West, the profound impact of this perceived oriental space on Baldwin’s life and career in a self-imposed exile while exploring the interconnectedness of race, sexuality, gender and location in his works. Turkish Decade for all its merit presents a more academic project than a biography. The nuanced rhetorical framing of the book makes it more suitable for scholarship rather than curious, pleasurable readership of a life that is so full of light and life!
Zaborowski presents a kaleidoscopic view through which the reader can access the private and the public selves of James Baldwin. According to her, Baldwin’s exilic consciousness of an outsider provided him with a self-reflective vision and influence on his critique of the homeland (America), his message of love and his position on sexuality and social relations. Baldwin is situated in the transatlantic context in the author’s engagement of the erotic and race. Zaborowska maintains that, central to the Baldwinian ideology is the fact that racial and sexual issues are not mutually exclusive. Therefore, she addresses both in her engagement with Baldwin’s life and writing.
Zaborowska’s book is divided into four chapters and each chapter presents different yet connected prisms by which “his biographical and authorial journeys”(27) are examined. Connecting these two aspects of his life, Zaborowska maintains that “Baldwin’s search for dwelling places and his desire for a permanent domestic space in Turkey paralleled his search for new literary expressions—a transformation that we can follow between the publications of Another Country and No Name in the Street, which bracket his Turkish Decade (43). She links Baldwin’s perpetual motion to his frustration from been rejected on both sides of the racial divide in America due to his race and sexuality. The homophobia of the mainstream America and specifically, the black community makes him an object of ridicule in spite of his activism and contribution to the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power movement. His race as an African American is also an integral part of his struggle from his days as a storefront child preacher, to his youth in Greenwich Village even as a celebrity James Baldwin, the public figure. Hence, Turkey, being a “queer creature,” that is neither a radicalized Islamic state nor a completely secularized European country, becomes a haven for authorial and personal recovery.
Zaborowska details Baldwin’s long time friendships with Engin Cessar and his wife Gulriz, Sedat Pakay, Zeynep Oral and others. Through her interviews with these people, she is able to access Baldwin’s past as a belated guest at his “Welcome Table.” She reports how Baldwin’s Turkish friend later turned blood brother from his Greenwich Village days, Engin, provided him with food, accommodation and most of all, love. Although she is very cynical at how each of these people tries to fit “Jimmy” into their personal stories, she nevertheless, presents Baldwin’s recovery from emotional burn-out and writer’s block through their stories. They reveal how he is able to complete some of his most prolific works, Another Country, The Fire Next Time, and other fictional narratives and essays. The spatial and the psychological imprint of Turkey are written all over the text even though he never really used Turkey as a setting for any of his novels. Based on the status of these individuals as accomplished actors and artists, Baldwin would become involved in the Turkish theatre scene. Directing the Turkish translation of John Herbert’s play Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Dusenin Dostu) would change the face of theatre and attitude towards the silence on queer subjects in Turkey. Zaborowska chronicles how series of events in the production of the play further bolstered Baldwin’s international acclaim and imprint on Turkey’s social, intellectual and political scene.
On the home front, Baldwin’s continuous outrage and portrayal of Americanness as an intrinsically sexualized and racialized phenomenon continuously pitched him against the general feeling in the United States. She identifies his paranoia that his passport could be seized in America because he is painting the country in a negative light in the international scene. He understands the privilege of being a citizen of the world’s superpower even though he frowns at the ills of his society back then. The no love lost, no love found relationship with the homeland diminishes his popularity as writer at some point. Hence, the regular misinterpretation of No Name on the Street and the poor reception of his later works show a prophet who is not respected in his own home. Turkish Decade captures Baldwin’s frustration and his mixed feeling as an American as well as an outsider in his homeland due to his long sojourn in foreign spaces. This is dealt with in much depth in chapter four of the book titled: “East to South: Homosexual Panic, the Old Country, and No Name in the Street.”
Even though the focus is on Baldwin’s sojourn in Turkey, Zaborowska devotes significant parts of the book to critical analysis of Baldwin’s novels and essays. She also provides theoretical juxtapositions to unpack the concepts of the Orient, the exotic and exilic consciousness of the expatriate writer. In chapter two, the textual analysis of Another Country is done with references to Baldwin’s life as a back-story for explaining queer orientalism. The extensive reading of the novel and several parts of his essays serves to corroborate her discourse on sexuality, race and location.
However, this critical discourse is likely to be regarded as a form of academic masturbation to a reader who is not nuanced in this form of engagement. The writer’s theoretical exegesis and the language of such discourse show a well-researched book but it could come across to a lay reader as a peacockish display of literary jargon thereby displacing her/him from the central narrative. Throughout the text, there are so many references to secondary materials. In fact, the book has thirty-two pages of endnotes. The implication of this is that if the reader is required to look up references at every turn, she/he would probably spend a long time trying to contextualize the frame of reference to get a clear insight into the book. Thus, Turkish Decade is more of a literary biography of Baldwin’s life than a simple biography.
Be that as it may, the book’s use of photographs and description of video strips are vivid and interesting. There seems to be an invasion of Baldwin’s personal space in this book. I find the picture of him in his bed with his back turned to the camera (90) unnecessary even though she seems to be using it to signify his “queerness” and erotic appeal. I wonder if he would permit the picture to be included in an academic writing such as this. This notwithstanding, other pictures in book are highly evocative. They reveal not only the larger than life image of Baldwin but also his humanity. The ordinariness of daily routine and habits are mixed with social engagements with the diasporic space in Turkey and France. The book is well written and the transition of one chapter to the other is well knit.
Magdalena Zaborowska’s James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile presents a critical reading of Balwin’s life as a transnational intellectual whose oeuvre is a fragment and a reflection of a decade spent in exile for artistic renaissance as well as self-definition. The universality and timelessness of Baldwin’s writing could be linked to the status of an itinerary writer who has made himself a citizen of the world with a message of love in America’s racial and sexual discursive space