Lit­er­ary exile’ were the words used in James Bald­win’s case. This must have referred to his depar­ture from New York for an end­less voy­age that took him from France to Turkey. 

Français | English

A voy­age in search of a place where he would feel free.1This no doubt explains my desire to write about him. But it is not the same sto­ry, it is nev­er the same sto­ry. Had I been a young blonde in Green­wich Vil­lage, 2no doubt. Although, for her also it would have been anoth­er sto­ry, undoubt­ed­ly. My start­ing point is his rejec­tion of the space where he grew up: Harlem, New York, the suf­fo­ca­tion, the con­stant dan­ger of death and, bot­tom line, the dif­fi­cul­ty of writ­ing and address­ing him­self to the New York crowd. The attrac­tion of Paris and it cre­ative ebul­lience. Here, a collision:

 - Paris is ancient, it’s sev­er­al cen­turies old. You feel the past in Paris, all the time. That’s not what you feel in New York.” That’s what I said. He smiled. I stopped talking.

- What do you feel in New York? He asked.

 — Maybe you feel what is to come all the time,” I answered. “Things are so pow­er­ful over there, always mov­ing. You can’t help won­der­ing how it will be like in sev­er­al more years.3

I won­der what arriv­ing in Paris could have meant in 1948. In that same peri­od, sev­er­al branch­es of my fam­i­ly were head­ing for exile in the Unit­ed States. Some thought they would escape judg­ment over there, some thought they would avoid get­ting killed. Per­haps there was some of that in his case, with the weight of cre­ativ­i­ty thrown in. The hero of Gio­van­ni’s Room leaves me think­ing that all exiles involve the expe­ri­ence of His­to­ry – some in search of a new begin­ning and oth­ers look­ing for a con­fronta­tion. Feel­ing His­to­ry tying us in knots, fill­ing us, belong­ing to us while we can’t hold on to it.  Expe­ri­enc­ing this from some oth­er place.

Lat­er, in the 60s, some­one asked James Bald­win, “Why Istan­bul?“He said: “It’s a place where I can redis­cov­er who I am and what I must do. A place where I can stop and do noth­ing so as to begin again.”

As artists, we rec­og­nize our­selves in the voic­es and the itin­er­aries of oth­ers. Oth­er sto­ries, oth­er times that res­onate all the same. And since our envi­ron­ment shapes our lan­guage, our self-con­scious­ness, our social life, many of us have the urge to blast it open.

In Istan­bul, James Bald­win blasts open his nar­ra­tive space, he re-cre­ates it. This is where he com­pletes three works:  The Fire Next Time, Anoth­er Coun­try, and No Name in the Street, as if Istan­bul had allowed the nec­es­sary dis­tance for the space of completion.

As indi­vid­u­als – moral­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, polit­i­cal­ly – we detach our­selves from the voic­es that tidy us, cat­e­go­rize us, dis­crim­i­nate against us. Did James Bald­win’s free­dom in Paris and Istan­bul also express itself in the rede­f­i­n­i­tion of his friend­ships? “I’m ter­ri­fied by moral apa­thy – the death of the heart – I see in my coun­try“4he con­fid­ed in an inter­view. When I see pho­tos of him, hand in hand with Engin Cez­zar and Gül­riz Sururi, I can’t keep from nar­rat­ing their friend­ship to myself, of imag­in­ing it as what allowed him to write over there, to rede­fine his free­dom in shared projects, in the space of the city, in chance encoun­ters, in the strug­gle, lit­tle by lit­tle, against that ter­ri­fy­ing apathy.

In Istan­bul and in Paris, James Bald­win recon­fig­ures his strug­gles. New York heros – whether real or fic­ti­tious – writ­ten from oth­er coun­tries. I’m unable to con­vey the pow­er of those texts, the life force they emit, the urgency of the writ­ing, the pulse of hope and of courage, the con­scious­ness of His­to­ry. They must be read.

Yes, if we ques­tion artists’ capac­i­ty to be polit­i­cal, to tear them­selves away from their mate­r­i­al con­cerns, to give voice to the strug­gles or, sim­ply, to be in sol­i­dar­i­ty with them, they must be read. In order to remem­ber what  lit­er­ary exile can signify.

Jaz Ezra Kleo

To be continued…

Featuring image by Jaz Ezra Kleo
Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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