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Giovanni's RoomGiovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Americans should never come to Europe,’ she said, and tried to laugh and began to cry, ‘it means they never can be happy again. What’s the good of an American who isn’t happy? Happiness was all we had.”

Wow, just… wow. Sorry, I’m still reeling after the amazing wordplay that is ‘Giovanni’s Room’. Reading this slim book has set me straight about a lot of things regarding good writing. And I don’t mean that in a ‘readerly’ sense. Oh no. James Baldwins’ novel is much more than a modern classic of gay literature; it is also one of the strongest statements about the definition of ‘author’ and the perceived limitations of a writer that I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

In this review I will try to cover what those are, and through them hopefully convey some sense of what makes this such an important novel for anyone interested in reading beyond mere words. Therefore you have due warning; this won’t be your average review where I analyse characters, settings, plot twists etc. It’s more like me banging on about my thoughts and feelings on the author.

Being Baldwin’s second novel, ‘Giovanni’s Room’ wasn’t received very well when it was published in 1957, because people did not like the idea of a black author writing about gay white men. As far as the public was concerned white people were none of his business, and the book was considered by his publisher as career suicide. By writing a novel about a sensitive subject like white sexuality Baldwin was going where no other black author had gone before. The novel represented a transgression, an outright challenge to the time-honored norm that like white writers, black authors were expected to stay within a certain spectrum of acceptable themes. Baldwin totally blew that away, as he was one of the first black authors to write about homosexuality using caucasian characters.

“People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception.”

And as a reader I found that (ashamedly) I was quite shocked too. I mean, why should I be shocked? Can’t different races write about each other? Of course they can. Can’t a black author write about the cultural, social and sexual taboos surrounding his white peers? Absolutely. So why the shock? Why the ‘wowness’ of it all? I suppose it all comes down to a certain type of conditioning, of reading material like Alice Walkers ‘The Color Purple’ and Toni Morrisons’ ‘The Beloved’ and the naïve preconception that black people would naturally stick to and write about their own histories, that they are (and should be) playing catch-up with other races in forging their own racial mythologies and what have you.

Well, ‘Giovanni’s Room’ was like a wake up call. It’s as if Baldwin is saying ‘Look, we are much more than just a colour. Enough with the slave stories.’ Well, that is not what he said actually, what he REALLY said was that sexuality IS a race issue and it always will be, because of the mutual social alienation and stigmas attached to them both. Through his writing (the very cadence of which is carefully stripped of anything remotely resembling the earthy, mystical, otherly tones commonly related with African culture), he taught me a long eye-opening lesson about what a real writer is: a pen that is raceless and therefore free to write about anyone, anywhere and about anything it wants. In this sense I have often considered authors to be the most complete ‘method actors’ around, in that it is their job to be all characters at once. Authors are what a steel rod is to lightning: a conductor channeling raw energy from the ether of the imagination.

‘Giovanni’s Room’ is all of this and more, as we not only witness France in all its’ degenerate glory or the nauseous guilt and fear that accompanies sexual confusion and vice; we witness it free from the literary trappings of race and colour.

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