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.
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of James Baldwin: A Biography

Why did I love 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!

By David Leeming,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked James Baldwin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The most revealing and subjectively penetrating assessment of Baldwin's life yet published." -The New York Times Book Review. "The first Baldwin biography in which one can recognize the human features of this brilliant, troubled, principled, supremely courageous man." -Boston Globe

James Baldwin was one of the great writers of the last century. In works that have become part of the American canon-Go Tell It on a Mountain, Giovanni's Room, Another Country, The Fire Next Time, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen-he explored issues of race and racism in America, class distinction, and sexual difference.

A gay, African American writer…

No Name in the Street

By James Baldwin,

Book cover of No Name in the Street

Why did I love 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.

By James Baldwin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked No Name in the Street as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An extraordinary history of the turbulent sixties and early seventies that displays James Baldwin's fury and despair more deeply than any of his other works, and powerfully speaks to contemporary conversations around racism.

"It contains truth that cannot be denied.” — The Atlantic Monthly

In this stunningly personal document, James Baldwin remembers in vivid details the Harlem childhood that shaped his early conciousness and the later events that scored his heart with pain—the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, his sojourns in Europe and in Hollywood, and his retum to the American South to confront a violent America…

Nothing Personal

By Richard Avedon, James Baldwin,

Book cover of Nothing Personal

Why did I love 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!

By Richard Avedon, James Baldwin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nothing Personal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Avedon and Baldwin's American Journey

Richard Avedon and James Baldwin's landmark 1964 book finally back in print

This meticulous reprint of Richard Avedon and James Baldwin's Nothing Personal explores the complexities and contradictions still at the center of the American experience - especially timely in the age of Donald Trump. Deploying both image and text, Avedon and Baldwin examine the formation of identity, and the bonds that both underlie and undermine human connection. An accompanying 72-page booklet features a fresh essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Hilton Als, and many of Avedon's unpublished outtakes, correspondence, preliminary layouts and ephemera.

In 1963-64,…

Book cover of The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin

Why did I love 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.

By Michele Elam (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This Companion offers fresh insight into the art and politics of James Baldwin, one of the most important writers and provocative cultural critics of the twentieth century. Black, gay, and gifted, he was hailed as a 'spokesman for the race', although he personally, and controversially, eschewed titles and classifications of all kinds. Individual essays examine his classic novels and nonfiction as well as his work across lesser-examined domains: poetry, music, theatre, sermon, photo-text, children's literature, public media, comedy, and artistic collaboration. In doing so, The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin captures the power and influence of his work during the…

Book cover of Conversations with James Baldwin

Why did I love 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. 

By James Baldwin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Conversations with James Baldwin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This collection of interviews with James Baldwin covers the period 1961-1987, from the year of the publication of Nobody Knows My Names, his fourth book, to just a few weeks before his death. It includes the last formal conversation with him.

Twenty-seven interviews reprinted here come from a variety of sources--newspapers, radio, journals, and review--and show this celebrated author in all his eloquence, anger, and perception of racial, social, and literary situations in America.

Over the years Baldwin proved to be an easily accessible and cooperative subject for interviews, both in the United States and abroad. He frequently referred to…

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