Black Writers Corner | Another Country - James Baldwin

"Black Writers Corner"

When James Baldwin turned up on his dear friend, Engin Cezzar’s, doorstep in the middle of a party exhausted, disillusioned and in poor health having bared the brunt of a tumultuous life, clutching a suitcase encased with a manuscript he’d been working for years, he’d been on the brink of suicide. The foundations of Another Country.

First I’d like to express my deep regret and shock at my prolonged neglect of such an important author and also my absolute delight at having finally reconciled that with such a fantastic first dive into Baldwin’s extensive catalogue of work. Another Country was a harrowing and at times an oddly beautiful portrait of race divided New York. It follows an ensemble of Liberal artists searching for love and meaning in a world that really wasn’t offering them much.

The first 80 pages of this book are golden. They completely floored me. They could easily make a powerful novella in itself.

First, I must talk about Rufus. Rarely do I see a black man portrayed with such delicacy, complexity and understanding. Throughout the course of the novel, Rufus felt extremely present and extremely real. I could hear him breathing next to me. Although he did some terrible things, I never once hated him for it. I just wanted to give him a hug and let him cry on my shoulder.

Elements of Rufus’ miserable and tortuous plight can be recognised by any black person. His 93 pages bring forward many questions. What does it mean to be a man of colour? To hate yourself for it? To hate and love your oppressor simultaneously? To hate yourself for loving your oppressor? How these questions can chip away at you and wear you down.

Perhaps the biggest question Another Country asks is about hate. Baldwin shows the lasting effects of having lived life black in the late 50s. Through Rufus, he shows us how the wounds left by racial prejudice are similar to the effects of a poison. How it can drive you insane. How it can build up a simmering hate that eats away at you until your heart is calloused. He shows what it’s like to absorb so much racism you turn on yourself. To be constantly aware of your blackness. To be constantly aware of how others see your blackness and to hate yourself for it. The paranoia involved, how every stare is a double-edged sword. How every closed door, every time someone crosses the street grinding on you, how you constantly ask yourself whether it’s real or if it’s all in your head. How every interaction is a constant battle.

“You got to fight with the landlord because the landlord's white! You got to fight with the elevator boy because he's white. Any bum on the Bowery can shit all over you because maybe be can’t hear, can't see, can't walk, can’t fuck but he’s white.”

These characters all felt so real, and perhaps that was because I could recognise parts of myself in all of them. In our little drummer boy, Rufus, who grew angry and insane having lived life as a black man in New York and his best friend Vivaldo, a struggling writer trying hard to shake off the poverty that latched onto him so tightly, grapple with his bisexuality and reconcile the mistakes he could no longer smooth over. In Ida, a dark-skinned beauty hardened by years of being told exactly what a beautiful dark girl was good for, having little prospects in the word and learning how beauty could be both a weapon that she could not only use but that could be used against her. In Cass, a vivacious woman struggling to be seen in souring marriage and finally Eric, a rising star in the acting world, navigating with the muddy waters of sexuality and race.

Never had I seen such a raw and beautiful look at male friendship, a friendship that crossed the barriers of race and sexuality, where the line that is so carefully in place today is pushed and pulled. The relationship between Rufus and Vivaldo was particularly stunning. I’d never seen men express such tenderness and love towards each other so freely. This was even more powerful given the racial pressure at the time.

And the prose. Oh, the prose. You know when you read a book you wished with all your heart you’d written? Baldwin manages to illustrate all the feelings I thought only existed in my thoughts. He has such rhythm to his writing and a beautiful lyricism. His ability to get to the core of a character, bring to life their deepest fears and shames, contradictions and prejudices laying them bare for all to see. His ability to craft such flawed yet stunningly beautiful relationships. To understand many different kinds of pain, and give each kind its own stage, care and consideration.

The novel is filled with illuminating lines,

“The trouble with a secret life is that it is frequently a secret from the person who lives it, and never from people the person encounters."

This is a book that will undoubtedly stay with me for the rest of my self. I think about it every day. It’s characters still wander in my mind.

S T A R S :


P U B L I S H E D : 1962

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