Lecture on author James Baldwin caps “Year of Turkey”

A revealing look into a little-known period in the life of American author James Baldwin — a decade the writer spent in Turkey from 1961-1971 — and a final look at an exhibit featuring rare photos of his time in Istanbul marked the end of the “Year of Turkey” at KSU.

Magdalena Zaborowska, associate professor in the Program in American Culture and the Center for African-American Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, read excerpts and shared insights from her recently published book, “James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile.” Baldwin is the author of more than 20 published volumes, including novels, plays and essays.

The lecture, which drew about 200 students and faculty to the Student Center’s University Rooms on June 8, was followed by a final viewing of Turkish filmmaker/photographer Sadat Pakay’s intimate snapshots of Baldwin, one of which hangs in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

The Baldwin events topped off the “Year of Turkey,” KSU’s year-long country study that featured lectures, cultural performances, exhibits and an international conference since it was launched last August.

“We thought this would be a wonderful culmination to the incredible ‘Year of Turkey,’”said Valerie Whittlesey, associate vice president for academic affairs and coordinator of academic programs for the International James Baldwin Society at KSU, one of the event sponsors.

Zaborowska, who spent two weeks in Turkey interviewing Baldwin’s closest friends and collecting new material from Turkish archives, said the country had a profound impact on Baldwin because of its cultural climate, the very close friendships he developed with artists and intellectuals, and the “rock star” status he enjoyed there. Baldwin lived in Istanbul and spent time in Ankara and Bodrum.

During the turbulent decade of the sixties, Baldwin escaped the ambiguities he experienced in the U.S. as an African-American, homosexual and artist, according to Zaborowska.

“Turkey was both heaven and a haven for Baldwin,” she said. “He often said Turkey saved his life after the violent deaths of Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcom X, which were very devastating to him. Turkey helped him rearticulate his views on gender, race, sexuality and class, which were central to many of his works.”

While in Turkey, Baldwin completed one of his most popular novels, “Another Country,” and staged his controversial play, “Fortune in Men’s Eyes,” about prison violence and the exploitation of children. The play ran for 110 performances, receiving critical acclaim and wide media attention, and toured throughout Turkey. “No Name in the Streets,” an insightful essay offering Baldwin’s assessment on the death of the Civil Rights movement, was also penned there.

Zaborowska noted that Baldwin, whose race and sexuality were not noticed as much in Turkey, was not without critics among the Turkish media and more conservative observers, who were “not ready” for the controversial themes in Baldwin’s work. His 1953 novel, “Giovanni’s Room,” depicting a homosexual liaison, was translated into Turkish and read widely there. At one point, “Fortune in Men’s Eyes” was shut down as a result of press criticism of the foul language in the play.

Rosa Bobia, director of KSU’s Center for African and African Diaspora Studies, co-sponsors of the lecture, and a published Baldwin scholar, said Zaborowska’s book on Baldwin was so effective because “she shares an immigrant sensibility” with the writer. A native of Poland, Zaborowska was intrigued about what it was like being an artist in a foreign land, and began researching the writer during her graduate studies at Warsaw University.

As the title of his popular novel suggests, Baldwin needed a distant vantage point from which to reconsider what it meant to be an American, especially a black American.

“I think Jimmy concluded, as he often said, ‘only someone that is outside the States realizes that one can’t get out,’ but he sees it better from another place,” Zaborowska said, thus his famous title written while in Turkey — “Another Country.”