July is usually a continuation of film festival season for me...the Frameline LGBT festival finishes off June, then the Jewish Film Festival kicks in. I sometimes suffer from undefined side effects of sitting in darkened theatres watching movies for 3-6 hours a day. But I suffer willingly, to get the deep infusion of culture and activism those two festivals bring. Then the Arab and the Native American Film Festivals comes later in the fall after I've had time to recover!
But this year I was obsessed with "Giovanni's Room," the groundbreaking novel by James Baldwin and the play I'm writing about him. My collaborator, Harry Waters, Jr. and I did our first public reading from the play in Yellow Springs, Ohio in the middle of July. The actors were amazing and the audience had illuminating comments and questions.
What I learned that was most important was: the dilemma Baldwin faced as an activist and a writer is still relevant to all of us who write today. How do we keep our craft at the center and at the same time remain faithful to our commitment to social change. It's doubly difficult if you are marginalized because of ethinicy or sexuality or gender. Baldwin pushed through with sheer force of will when others told him his novel, "Giovanni's Room," would ruin his writing and his activism career. A Black man writing about a white man in love with another man in 1956---scandalous! How dare Baldwin write 'off topic'! Most of us won't have to confront anything near as traumatic or dramatic in our writing careers.
But it does bring to mind the question of how our work reflects our personal & social conscience. When I started writing a vampire novel, about half way through the process I had to decide if I could support creating a character who was (peripherally) a serial killer. I'm not dissing anyone who wants to write about a serial killer but my book wasn't about that. I didn't want to casually kill off victims just so my hero could live forever. Murder as a simple plot device felt wrong.
But that revelation meant I had to re-vision the story and I think it turned out better because I thought through the premise fully enough to totally recast vampire mythology. I love that kind of challenge as a writer. Writing helps me poke and probe at what I really believe. Because I do believe that books matter I don't want to say things by accident or callously. Like writing a poem, I want the weight of each word, each idea to have been considered fully. Thinking about my concerns for social change isn't an impediment, it's a challenge. The flight of fancy that is fiction writing is held aloft by our inspiration, our craft and our integrity.
James Baldwin was one of the first political writers I ever read. I love putting words in his mouth (as scary as that is!) and trying to convey what he might have felt as he slogged through the controversies of writing words people didn't want him to write. And knowing he did it anyway sends me back to my own writing with joy in my heart.
The dilemma Baldwin faced is one all of us, writer or not, people of color or not, must face: How true to our deepest inner selves will we be? Will we allow the culture to fracture and compartmentalize us so we are not generous and open about our feelings with ourselves and with others?
I plan to do a series of readings in the Bay area and around the country as the play develops over the next year. I'm hoping to get further confirmation that audiences are still interested ethical questions and that Baldwin's genius has not been forgotten.