Magdalena J. Zaborowska is Professor of Afroamerican and American Studies and the John Rich Faculty Fellow at the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan, and the author and coeditor of several books, including James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile, also published by Duke University Press, and How We Found America: Reading Gender through East European Immigrant Narratives.
Her latest book, Me and My House: James Baldwin’s Last Decade in France, uses James Baldwin’s house in the south of France as a lens through which to reconstruct his biography and to explore the politics and poetics of blackness, queerness, and domesticity in his complex and underappreciated later works.
What initially drew you to James Baldwin’s house in the South of France? What was it like the first time you visited?
I first visited that house, known locally as “Chez Baldwin,” in the Provençal village of St. Paul-de-Vence in June 2000. I was fascinated with the writer’s international peregrinations and admired his cosmopolitan, decades-ahead-of-our-time approach to how one’s composite self, inflected by race, gender, sexuality, and class, was key to understanding one’s national identity within and without one’s home country. I also wanted to get a sense of the domestic environment in which he wrote his later works, and where he thrived as a black queer American artist, who was reviled both by US black nationalists and white liberals at the time.
Like most readers, I had first read the best known early Baldwiniana of 1953-63, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, and The Fire Next Time. The works written at Chez Baldwin, during 1971-87, were another matter. They revealed an author transformed, testing new ideas and approaches to identity, trying his hand at new forms. I wanted to look for material and tangible reasons for that transformation. I was teaching in Denmark until 2000, and thanks to Aarhus University’s support made my trip to Provençe, where I first encountered Baldwin’s most enduring home. Another draw was my interest in the interpenetration of literary and literal social spaces, or how material environments become metaphoric representations by means of evocative language and imagery on the pages of books. Perhaps, because I was an immigrant, I was curious as well about how the writer lived his life in French and in such a remote location, especially given his earlier fondness for metropolitan locations like Istanbul, New York, London or Paris. In the early 1970’s, when Baldwin moved there, St. Paul-de-Vence was a sleepy, slow-paced Provençal village, rather than the densely commercialized tourist destination it is today.
My first visit to the house and surrounding gardens in June of 2000 was a revelation on several levels. First, because of how unlike the place that Baldwin had come from it was, and second, because it made him into a homeowner and someone who lived, so to speak, on and off the land. Third, as he explains it in the little-known Architectural Digest piece on his house published just a few months before his death in 1987, as he grew older and frailer, he loved the light, peace, and quiet that filled the old structure. He had first rented rooms, and then bought, piece by piece as money from his books came in, the property from an eccentric old lady. In his last interview, literally on his deathbed, he explains that the place had led him to discover and embrace a rather mythic “peasant” mindset that he traced back to his parents, who migrated to New York from Maryland and Louisiana. He loved the ancient olive, orange, and almond trees, and enjoyed flowers and herbs that enveloped the house in a lush embrace. He was beloved by the town, and wished to be buried there after his death, which we know did not happen. The more I looked, the more I found and realized, too, that Chez Baldwin had to be a character of sorts in the book along with the writer.
How did seeing the space where Baldwin lived and worked change your own perceptions of him and how did it inspire your research?
At first, I was overawed at being inside the parts of the house that were not rented out at the time (the most important space, Baldwin’s study and quarters downstairs, and in the back, were off limits, alas). Imagine, sitting on the living room couch where Baldwin once sat, or at the so-called Welcome Table in the gardens, while wearing one of his straw hats (which actually did happen, courtesy of Jill Hutchinson, who took care of the house and invited me in to see it). When I went through the interiors, I was shocked that no one wanted to salvage the material riches it still contained—books, journals, furniture, and artwork—that witnessed Baldwin’s daily life, and must have provided inspiration and tactile framework for his daily labor of writing. It struck me, too, that Baldwin must have had lots of work-related clutter, like so many of us, that he liked mantelpiece decorations arranged in symbolic manners, that he was playful; I was told of his favorite records and pillows; I looked through the possessions he left behind.
The house helped me appreciate how his acts of dwelling were inextricably intertwined with acts of literary creativity, how the rooms and gardens provided a stage on which he placed his characters (The Welcome Table) or how architectural elements of the interior and its decor appeared on the pages of his novels (Just Above My Head), not to mention his local friends’ influence on all of his works that he would read to and discuss with them regularly. The house embodied and exuded but also enabled and nurtured his fascinating, complex personality. The late Baldwin insisted on his uniqueness precisely because his blackness and queerness, his effeminate, “sissy” mannerisms made him an outcast in his home country and elsewhere. That house was a domestic and authorial haven where he could be fully himself.
I was also astonished while at Chez Baldwin that there were no sites in the United States where I could glimpse his domestic legacy; that school kids could not access the private life of one of the greatest twentieth-century American writers. On the other hand, that fact was not at all surprising, for until recently, the matter of African diasporic artistic legacies has not been preserved, cherished, and memorialized. Quite the opposite, material remnants of black lives have been systematically erased, demolished, and ignored.
My immigrant origins and early work on immigrant women writers provided another inspiration. Years before I arrived in St.Paul-de-Vence, I had visited Maria Kuncewiczowa’s house, known as “Kuncewiczowka,” in the town of Kazimierz on the Vistula in Poland. In fact, I ended up spending a night there, and while on subsequent visits noticed how fast it was becoming a cultural epicenter for the region, drawing authors, visual artists, and actors. That nothing similar was happening with Baldwin’s legacy either in France or in the United States was painful to behold. That early experience, my first visit to Chez Baldwin in 2000, and then a conference in Istanbul a year later, led me to Baldwin’s story in Turkey. From there, where I first glimpsed the tremendous vitality of transient domestic spaces to Baldwin’s artistic vision, no matter how remote from his birthplace of Harlem, it only made sense to return to St. Paul-de-Vence and pick up where I had started something that made sense only a decade later.
Baldwin’s works from this period (1971-1987) are underappreciated, both by readers and scholars, compared to his earlier works. Why do you think this is? What can readers and scholars learn about Baldwin from his later works?
These works are bold and complex, and much ahead of their time, as their largely superficial and negative reviews, or homophobic responses to them by the likes of Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice (1968), demonstrate all too clearly. No Name in the Street (1972), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), The Devil Finds Work (1976), Just Above My Head (1979), The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), and the unpublished play The Welcome Table (1987) ushered in a new Baldwin, more complex and mature as an author, one who became disillusioned growing older as a black queer American, who had no choice but to live abroad to get his work done and to feel safe. The latter issue is often overlooked, especially by those who think it somehow uncool that, in his later life, the activist Baldwin, who came from dire poverty in Harlem, was a bourgie owner of a fancy property in France, where he entertained lavishly, and kept lovers and an entourage of hangers-on. This attitude may have something to do with the kind of politics of respectability on both sides of the proverbial US color line then. Along with the stifling, binary, hetero-patriarchal, misogynist, mainstream social norms that often masqueraded as patriotism, nationalism, or ethnocentrism, that attitude made him an outcast and rendered him, in a sense, homeless in the US. And Baldwin, of course, being who he was, wrote vehemently against all these oppressive politics in his later works.
I think that today we should be happy for his rags-to-riches story, and celebrate the fact that he had found a haven where he was cherished and nurtured and was able to write some of his most interesting works. As many of his letters to friends and family evidence, he was acutely aware that his portrayal of queer and interracial love and sex in Another Country and Just Above My Head not only angered but also threatened both black nationalists, who despised his sexuality and integrationist views, and the so-called white liberals, who objected to his candor concerning their complicity in national race relations and what they perceived as his “black anger.” These later works are daring both in terms of content and narrative structure, characterization, and imagery. They reveal a writer who wants to grow and experiment, and who is not afraid to test new waters. Baldwin considered his last novel his best, for example. I agree, for the more one reads Just Above My Head, the more its formal and thematic radicalism becomes clear and compelling (move over postmodernism…). Another matter is that reading late Baldwin requires work and intellectual willingness to be challenged, if not changed. You cannot encapsulate any of his ideas in 140 characters; you have to fight for who you can become thanks to his literary witnessing. That’s what great literature has always done, and that’s why we find his writings so relevant to our racially and politically troubled moment today.
You suggest that because of his gender and sexuality, not many scholars have written about the role of domesticity in Baldwin’s writing. How does a familiarity with Baldwin’s house in France help us understand more about the domestic themes (?) in his later works?
Queer domestic life, not to mention doubly-marginalized black queer or queer of color home-making, has been a taboo in US culture. As Baldwin writes in many of his essays, there are racial and sexual secrets and myths undergirding American cultural and social history that sharply cut across racial and class lines. He shows us how the official, traditional representations of how black and white Americans have envisaged domesticity since the mid-twentieth century have been superficial, small-minded, and provincial at best. Crafted to uphold the myth of the ideal national house, they may let us, for example, learn about Alice B. Toklas and Gertude Stein. But since these eccentric women lived as lesbians in Paris and not in Pittsburgh, we are supposed to chalk their lives up to having been inflected, if not tainted, by foreign, indeed, perverse “European” freakishness. Such expulsions of gender and sexual identity beyond the borders of the national house in the portrayals of cultural icons like Baldwin strip them of their complexity and adulterate their art. For example, even in the recently popular Raul Peck’s art film, “I Am Not Your Negro,” we encounter the so-called “Baldwin brand,” or the desexualized race man, rather than the intersectionality-promoting radical, who exploded binaries of identity, and by 1985-87 advocated for domesticating androgyny and black queer sex both in his works and on the pages of Playboy magazine. To those who would not accept him even today, and there are many, the radical better remain hidden at Chez Baldwin.
James Baldwin’s house in France was recently destroyed to make room for luxury condos. What do you think has been lost with that destruction?
The demolition of Chez Baldwin demonstrates yet again the power of capital over human need. The brutal erasure of that house strives to make our collective desire to connect with each other by means of affect and by preserving material places and remnants of lives that matter to us, that we love and want to keep tangible, insignificant. (Think of Rosa Parks’s house in Detroit, which was recently slated for demolition, and was saved only by having been moved to Berlin, where it now thrives as a popular museum.) It also means that there will be no brick-and-mortar museum for this writer, for there are no comparable sites in the US; the demolition makes France look bad, too, given that Baldwin was a recipient of its highest distinction, the Legion of Honor. Baldwin’s wish for his house was that it become a retreat for writers; there were plans and parties, and money, ready to implement his vision. That this did not happen demonstrates astonishing lack of imagination, as well as the sad reality of unequal valuation of legacies that still propels racialized politics of archiving, preservation, and memorialization. Among over seventy writers’ houses open to the public in the US today, there are only two devoted to African Americans. For all the sweat and blood its gestation and birth have taken, I am thrilled that some of Baldwin’s domesticity survives on the pages of my book.
What will happen to Baldwin’s “material archive”—all his belongings from the now-destroyed house? What can we learn from his day-to-day possessions? Is there a particular object that is most special to you?
Thanks to the aforementioned late David Baldwin’s partner, Jill Hutchinson, to whom he entrusted the care of the house he had inherited from James in 1987, most of the contents have been rescued from ending up in the trash when the property was lost. My own painstaking efforts to preserve the Chez Baldwin archive in digital form since 2000 have also opened a way for it to be considered for acquisition by a notable US institution. (I am unable to disclose the details at the moment.) I am returning to St. Paul-de-Vence next July to document a few more artifacts that were given by Baldwin to members of the Roux family; I am also in contact with a new entity there, Les Amis de la Maison-Baldwin, who has been fundraising to host exhibits and maintain a cultural center devoted to the writer.
My favorite artifact is the welcome table from Baldwin’s last room that Hutchinson has preserved at her own house, its surface imprinted with rings left by drinking glasses, scratches, and indentations marking various moments in Baldwin’s life that we will never know. Positively obsessed with making the only material remnants of Baldwin’s domesticity available to a wider audience, I am currently working on a companion project to Me and My House. It will yield a digital exhibit that will serve as a virtual writer’s house-museum for Baldwin in the absence of a brick-and-mortar one. I envisage it as open-access and showcasing the house and its grounds, as much as its contents. Down the road, it will be accompanied by an e-book and include other archival materials that I have amassed over the years; I am looking forward to involving graduate and undergraduate students and enlisting the wisdom of my University of Michigan colleagues in this project. I am currently mired in writing grant proposals and securing funding for it and for my upcoming research trip to Chez Baldwin. Grateful for being cheered on in these efforts by the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and by my units at the University of Michigan, Institute for the Humanities, and the Departments of Afroamerican and African Studies and American Culture, I am also looking forward to writing more on Baldwin and collaborating again, I hope, with the marvelous folks at Duke University Press, who have helped me bring Me and My House into the worl