James Baldwin spent the last 16 years of his life in a small village in the South of France, “Chez Baldwin” as it came to be known. Me and My House offers a detailed analysis of his time in France. The sophisticated details of the book read like a novel and the author takes you on a journey in which Baldwin’s home is used as a lens to explore his politics, writing and sexuality. In Zaborowska’s view, “Baldwin must be approached as a writer whose works engage with both genre and gender experimentation, and Me and My House explores this theme in relationship to the modes of domesticity that enabled and nurtured his art”.
It is obvious that the author is a great admirer of Baldwin. In describing her visit to his house, she states, “All of us – scholars, intellectuals, writers, readers and simply those who love Baldwin – not only searched for a physical keepsake but also yearned to fulfil a dream of somehow connecting to the writer in ways that go beyond the literary magic that takes place on the pages of his texts”. From then on, Zaborowska takes you on an intricate journey in which she explores the central theme of home and what this means in terms of identity and belonging. She examines how this notion of belonging can change at different times and the trajectories through which “the realms of the house and home – conceived both as material structures located geographically and as a metaphorically personalised set of meanings and sense of place – have had a significant bearing on large narratives of 20th century US (national and imperial, as well as private and intimate) notions of identity”.
Within this central theme, Zaborowska analyses how Baldwin’s writings are based on his understandings and interrogations of identity – race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality and religion – and how these contribute to his sense of “otherness”. She reminds us that Baldwin’s work is central in paving the way for discussions of various forms of oppression, which academics continue to address, disrupt and dismantle today. Consequently, Baldwin’s work is more relevant than it ever has been, given a political climate in the US in which the non-acceptance of outsiders and “others” is used to marginalise and oppress them.
This book contains vast details of Baldwin’s life in France – full of stunning photographs and beautifully illustrated, it draws on interviews with those closest to him and unpublished letters and works. It dissects, analyses and tries to understand the life lived by Baldwin, particularly how the relationship between social space and architecture is linked to race. It enables readers to reassess the richness and complexity of his writing and gives them an opportunity to understand the man behind the work, “whose vision and passion for social justice filtered through all kinds of intellectual and imaginary spaces – from nation, to city streets, to the privacy of his bedroom”.
Kalwant Bhopal is professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham. Her new book, White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society, has just been published by Policy Press. Home Education and Home Schooling: Race, Class and Inequality (with Martin Myers) will appear later in the year.
Me and My House: James Baldwin’s Last Decade in France
By Magdalena J. Zaborowska
Duke University Press
408pp, £80.00 and £21.99
ISBN 9780822369240 and 369837
Published 6 April 2018