James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade

9 03 2009

James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile
by Magdalena Zaborowska
Duke University Press
January 2009, 416 pages, $24.95

Review by Derek Beres

For a writer who believed that “language is the only homeland”, one would expect James Baldwin to have a difficult time settling into any physical space. He felt ostracized from his New York City homeland; he would argue that one cannot actually leave America—psychologically, culturally—no matter how much one tries. His extended stays in Turkey and France provided temporary and necessary balms to the wound of (self-imposed) exile, though those locations too would fail to offer Baldwin peace of mind. As he said, his home was in words; today he remains one of his country’s finest 20th century figures of that trade.

In her study of Baldwin’s career, Magdalena J. Zaborowska hones in on two particular and, she believes, interlocking pieces of the author’s puzzle: his second home in Turkey, as the title suggests, and as the subtitle hints, his sexuality. The first aspect offers readers an intriguing and underrepresented aspect of Baldwin, one rarely mentioned or brushed over in surveys of his life. The latter is also intriguing—Baldwin had a rare distinction of being a civil rights voice during a time of racial tension in America, and being openly gay, which often resulted in readers clinging to one while denying or denouncing the other side of him—although her speculations sometimes run a bit too wild and gossipy.

When Zaborowska lets Baldwin’s history, and the history of those around him during his stays in Turkey speak, the book is informative and enlightening. Not only did Baldwin escape there to finish one of his classics, Another Country, he quite literally lived through it. There was too much tension in New York, doubled by Baldwin’s own paranoid states (he was in constant fear of losing his passport for political reasons, being oppressed and outcasted, and so on).

Yet at times Zaborowska steps inside the work too much—do we really need to know that she’s a scholar and writing an academic book six times in the first third of the reading? That tendency does tone down (although, unsurprisingly, the very last line of the book returns to her proclaiming herself a scholar, again).

To read the full review on PopMatters click here.

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