The best books on James Baldwin as a Black queer exile

Magdalena J. Zaborowska Author Of James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile
By Magdalena J. Zaborowska

Who am I?

Born and raised in Poland during the Cold War, I learned that writers and intellectuals could be jailed, exiled, or even killed for their ideas. I came to James Baldwin over two decades ago in search of literature that told of freedom and humanism beyond national borders and simplistic binaries. As a Black queer man driven away from his homeland, Baldwin linked his personal pain, heartbreak, and torment to his public life, authorship, and activism. His art and life story have both inspired my labors as a bilingual and bicultural literary critic and biographer and provided a template for my own journey as an immigrant, mother of a Black child, teacher, writer, and scholar.

I wrote...

James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile

By Magdalena J. Zaborowska,

Book cover of James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile

What is my book about?

Between 1961 and 1971 James Baldwin spent extended periods of time in Turkey, where he worked on some of his most important books. In this first in-depth exploration of Baldwin’s “Turkish decade,” Magdalena J. Zaborowska reveals the significant role that Turkish locales, cultures, and friends played in Baldwin’s life and thought. Turkey was a nurturing space for the author, who by 1961 had spent nearly ten years in France and Western Europe and failed to reestablish permanent residency in the United States. Zaborowska demonstrates how Baldwin’s Turkish sojourns enabled him to re-imagine himself as a black queer writer and to revise his views on American identity and U.S. race relations as the 1960s drew to a close.

The books I picked & why

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James Baldwin: A Biography

By David Leeming,

Book cover of James Baldwin: A Biography

Why this book?

This is still the most comprehensive and detailed account of the writer’s life and works. Leeming worked closely with Baldwin as an assistant and secretary after first meeting him in Istanbul. 

I love this book, for it was my introduction to Baldwin and his life as an exile and one of the most powerful social and cultural critics of twentieth-century America. It’s written accessibly—the life-story narrative flows easily and one feels the author’s compassion for and understanding of the writer’s evolution, process, as well as his specific works. 

It has taught me that the best biographies both reveal and conceal their authors’ personal investment in their subject and their own life stories. And that the best biographers must skillfully and passionately play with both.

Years ago when I first read it, it was helpful in overcoming my initial terror as an immigrant from the Other Europe, the terror that I could never write well about an author whose nationality, mother tongue, race, gender, and class I didn’t share. My award-winning books have proven me wrong!

James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

By James Baldwin,

Book cover of James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

Why this book?

Unlike the well-known The Fire Next Time, this fourth essay collection published in 1972 received relatively little attention, despite being a turning point in Baldwin’s career. I love it because it is nakedly personal and shows Baldwin’s vulnerability as he traveled in the American South in the 1950s and as he grappled with being perceived as a “freak” by the heterosexist members of the Black Power movement while working on that book. Its homage to the power of memory and truth entwines with the homage to the writer's mother, Berdis, and highlights Baldwin’s deepening, and still underappreciated, commitment to feminist and womanist politics and poetics in his later life and works.

Nothing Personal

By Richard Avedon, James Baldwin,

Book cover of Nothing Personal

Why this book?

This book should be much better known outside of academic circles! It grows out of a friendship between the famous photographer, Richard Avedon, and James Baldwin, who both attended the famous DeWitt Clinton high school in the Bronx. Avedon’s gorgeous photographs are accompanied by Baldwin's experimental, impressionistic prose, combining into what some scholars have characterized as a “photo - text.” Decades before we began drowning in the onslaught of Internet-provided visual media, it bound the pleasures of reading and seeing great art in one elegantly edited volume; I recommend reading it out loud. For those of us endowed with sight it is a veritable feast!

The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin

By Michele Elam (editor),

Book cover of The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin

Why this book?

This book grew out of the labor of love both scholarly and personal. It brings together three generations of scholars and diverse, interdisciplinary approaches to this complex and still largely misunderstood and underappreciated Black queer writer and theorist of 20th-century US identity. Michele Elam’s introduction deftly reevaluates and situates Baldwin as a 20th-century master for contemporary readers here and now, while the essays collected here provide cutting-edge scholarship and much nuance and fresh insight. Theoretically rich and with several exquisitely written essays, it touches upon all of the major aspects of the writer’s fascinating life and works.

Conversations with James Baldwin

By James Baldwin,

Book cover of Conversations with James Baldwin

Why this book?

I discovered this compilation of many well- and lesser-known interviews when I began working on Baldwin in the year 2000. I love it as it gives us the writer in his own words, tracing his artistic development and views on his craft, exile, race, gender, and sexuality, as well as US politics, culture, and national identity. We follow Baldwin’s journey from 1961, with the famous Studs Terkel interview introducing “the young Negro writer,” to the “Last Interview” with Quincy Troupe, conducted in 1987, just days before Baldwin’s death in his beloved house in southern France. In between, we get a kaleidoscope of moments from his life and career and fascinating insights into his literary imaginary and humanistic philosophy. 

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