My favourite novel by an African American probably shifts around from year to year depending on what I'm writing or what's in the headlines or what's in my head. Right now GIOVANNI'S ROOM by James Baldwin has totally taken over my brain, in part because I'm writing a play about Baldwin and the moments in his head as he decides about publishing the controversial novel in 1957.
I loved the book when I first read it at the age of 16, just after I read Baldwin's ANOTHER COUNTRY. I was so excited to find a second book by Baldwin (or any Black author in those days) in the second hand book store. Then I was devastated by the the idea that one person could love another with such complete trust and immutability and still that might not change the beloved's response.
My own sense of the tragedy of the story was not altered by the fact that the lovers were white and male and in Paris. In my little cold water, Boston tenement I cried at the end. The book was such a confirmation of the universality of literature that I've never forgotten my initial response to it; and always want my own writing to elicit that deep response no matter who's reading it.
I was still young enough to want love to conquer all...and it didn't. The tragic consequences made the novel all the more profound because of Baldwin's gift of language and because of (what felt to me) his own sense of 'romance.' In doing this play I wanted to convey Baldwin's need for love and the difficulty in finding love as a famous, gay, Black man in the 1950s.
I also wanted to explore the dust up caused by the book's homosexuality. After all Black people were facing tragedies like the murcer of Emmett Till so, to some, the book was trivial as well as a danger to Black manhood. I understand (but disagree with) that response. More than 30 years after GIOVANNI's ROOM was published some people (many of them African American) gave me grief when I started writing THE GILDA STORIES, my Black vampire novel. Why, some demanded, would I connect vampirism with Black people? So I know that what's considered 'appropriate' Black art can widely vary depending on who thinks they're the colored standard bearer. And Standard Bearers usually have no difficulty telling you what’s ‘appropriate.’
Ntozake Shange and Alice Walker were vilified by Black male critics for their amazing and groundbreaking writing in the 1980s and their work remains iconic. But what does that kind of attack do to the artist?
My play, WAITNG FOR GIOVANNI, will open in the fall at The New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco and is not meant to be historical or biographical but is written to explore that question. We've done a number of readings (with cast) for invited audiences so I could get feedback. One of the many interesting questions I've gotten in the Q & A was: "How did he withstand the pressure?"
My response: WRITING! That valve, that mode of expression can save a writer's life. He believed in the audience's ability to empathize with the struggle we all go through to live and create honestly and openly and to understand the damage that narrow minded censure can do, especially when it comes from your own family.
I’ve probably re-read GIOVANNI’S ROOM 20 times in the past two years. It remains for me a stunning evocation of desire and irrevocable love. Something we all want in our lives.