James Baldwin, one of the most renowned twentieth century American writers, spent much of the 1960s in Istanbul. He produced some of his finest work while living in the city.
By Yao Hsiao
In 1961, American writer James Baldwin arrived in Istanbul for the first time and turned up at the door of Turkish actor Engin Cezzar, a friend he had met in New York three years earlier. In an interview with Magdalena Zaborowska, the author of James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile, Cezzar described Baldwin’s arrival: “[there] comes this little, bedraggled…hungry, reeking [Jimmy] …a battered suitcase in his hand—into the middle of this party with the whole of the Istanbul intelligentsia—artist, activists, writers […] He was popular and the soul of the party.”
Baldwin’s relationship with Istanbul had begun. He had planned to travel to Africa but, lacking the energy to continue his journey, he stopped in Istanbul instead. The city became his on-and-off home throughout much of the 1960s.
Baldwin was very productive during his time in Istanbul, finishing the novel Another Country—which became a bestseller—and the non-fiction book The Fire Next Time, before writing the novel Tell Me how Long the Train’s Been Gone, and directing his play Fortune and Men’s Eyes. “I find it easier to work here than I do anywhere else,” Baldwin once said. “I am left alone here.”
Compared to his experience as a black man back in the US during that period, Istanbul was much more welcoming. On the one hand, he enjoyed the hospitality and admiration bestowed on him by Istanbul’s intellectual and artistic community. “Everyone loves Jimmy. One must always have friends and a place to trust […] I suppose it’s that kind of first impression, a first rebirth that brought him back [to Istanbul],” surmised Cezzar.
On the other hand, Baldwin also enjoyed the solitude and freedom he had in Istanbul, which made it an ideal place for him to write. Life was safer and easier: unlike in the US, he didn’t have to worry about being harassed by the police or being refused service at restaurants. “I feel free in Turkey,” Baldwin once told his friend, the Turkish writer Yaşar Kemal.
For some, Baldwin was not even considered black in Turkey. “We don’t have that category,” said Kemal, quoted in Importance of Elsewhere, an article for The National newspaper, by Suzy Hansen. “There are only people with darker skins,” added Kemal. In Istanbul, Baldwin’s moniker was “Arap [Arab] Jimmy.”
While free from the threats and limitations his race caused him in the US, Baldwin believed that Turkish society was ignorant of the repression and violence against people of color in his homeland. “The people of Istanbul knows nothing about what the black man has gone through in America,” Baldwin once told the writer Ida Lewis in an interview.
But Baldwin was not very interested in Turkish politics or society. Even while living and writing abroad—his mind was always on America. As Baldwin says, in the short film From Another Place by Sedat Pakay: “One sees it better from a distance.”
Follow the footsteps of James Baldwin in Istanbul
Go to the seaside of Sarıyer like Baldwin did. He used to dine with American actor Marlon Brando in Urcan Balık Lokantası, a renowned fish restaurant in Kireçburnu which is now closed. He also had a cabin at Kilyos beach.
- James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade by Magdalena Zaborowska and American Writers in Istanbul by Kim Fortuny examining Baldwin’s relationship with Istanbul. www.pandora.com.tr
- Dost Mektupları consists of letters between Baldwin and Engin Cezzar, one of his closest friends in Turkey. www.kitap.ykykultur.com.tr
- To catch a glimpse of his daily life in Istanbul, check out Baldwin’s images and portraits taken by Turkish photographer Sedat Pakay. The photo book James Baldwin in Turkey: Bearing Witness from Another Place is available from www.pandora.com.tr