Baldwin’s Istanbul

James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade
by Magdalena J Zaborowska
Duke University Press


As James Baldwin regains his rightful place among the giants of American literature, a new eye is being cast upon the importance of his often ignored later works. A Pentecostal preacher turned writer turned civil-rights activist, James Baldwin loudly challenged (and still challenges) established notions of race and sexuality.

Unable to live in a country where he was ostracised for these positions, Baldwin would spend the majority of his life in self-imposed exile in France, Switzerland and Turkey.

Magdalena Zaborowska’s Erotics of Exile offers a meticulous account and analysis of Baldwin’s years in Turkey and their previously unexplored effects on his work. Combining personal anecdotes and excerpts from Baldwin’s work, Zaborowska deftly captures the essence of the man, and its inextricable link to the characters and themes in his writings.

The narrative begins with Baldwin’s acceptance of the invitation of his close friend, the Turkish actor Engin Cezzar, to stay and write, undisturbed, in Istanbul. Though he had laboured over Another Country, his third novel, for almost 10 years, upon arrival in Istanbul Baldwin was able to complete it in a mere two months. Surrounded by a colourful cast of Istanbullus, we travel alongside his emotionally tumultuous life as he directs Herbert’s Fortune and Men’s Eyes for the Turkish stage, completes the essay collection No Name in the Street and begins his final work, The Welcome Table. Despite his lack of Turkish and frequent references to him as the Arap, Baldwin felt comfortable in the simultaneous celebrity and anonymity Istanbul allowed him, while the clarity afforded by distance allowed him to gain insight into his homeland.

Although attention to detail is one of the text’s strengths, Zaborowska’s tendency to overanalyse the comments of her interviewees can become tiring. Nevertheless, this detracts little from an otherwise successful book, delightfully peppered with previously unpublished photographs, which, like the anecdotes to which they correspond, act as a spyglass through which to observe Baldwin.

The text’s importance to both Baldwin studies and American literature notwithstanding, its greater significance lies in its exploration of national and supranational identity. In his own words, exile “saved my life… [by making me] able and willing to accept [my] own vision of the world, no matter how radically this vision departs from that of others.” Words that should resonate with all expatriates, regardless of origin or destination.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 45
  • Drawing from Life

    John Frederick Lewis (1804–76), was the supreme orientalist, fêted for his sumptuous Ottoman scenes. The secret of his success, says Briony Llewellyn, lies in the vivid sketches he made during his time in the East

  • Oil’s Boom and Bust

    Intrigued by the fate of the glorious houses built by Azerbaijan’s first oil barons at the turn of the 20th century, Brigid Keenan and photographer Tim Beddow track down all that remains of those glory days


  • Kastamonu: The Ottoman Farmhouse

    The İzbeli family have owned a country konak south of Kastamonu since the 17th century. Today the house, with its magnificent barns, is one of the best-preserved Ottoman country houses in Turkey


  • Kastamonu: The Painted Mosque

    The jewel in Kastamonu’s crown is a mosque in Kasaba, a tiny village with a flock or two of sheep, guarded by shepherdesses, in a sea of wheat fields. Built in 1366, the Mosque of Mahmut Bey is a brilliant relic of the golden age of the Anatolian beyliks, the warring principalities that flourished when the great Byzantine and Seljuk empires were in decline


  • Turkey’s Happy Hour

    At London’s inaugural Wines of Turkey jamboree, Kevin Gould hears how the country’s winemakers are cultivating a taste for their distinctive products

  • Wild at Heart

    Strawberries growing in the wild are gems of mouth-watering delight that bear little relation to the showy, insipid-tasting fruit on supermarket shelves. But there are still good garden strawberries to be found. Berrin Torolsan encourages us to seek out locally grown, seasonal fruit bursting with fragrance. Her simple recipes celebrate the best of berries



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Issue 45, 2011 Painting the Orient
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