How James Baldwin’s Identities Inform Giovanni’s Room: the Separation of Race and Sexuality

As a bisexual black man, James Baldwin had rather unique experiences in 1950s America and Paris. Many of these experiences informed the writing of Giovanni’s Room and his other works.

Parallels can be drawn between Baldwin’s life and the plot of Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin moved to Paris when he was 24 and fell in love with a man named Lucien Happersberger–similar to the story of David and Giovanni. Because of speculation surrounding these similarities, Baldwin has denied that Giovanni’s Room is an autobiography. Rather, Baldwin preferred to think of it as writing about what he saw. In a 1980 interview Baldwin stated, “I don’t try to be prophetic, as I don’t sit down to write literature. It is simply this: a writer has to take all the risks of putting down what he sees. No one can tell him about that. No one can control that reality.”

Although Baldwin’s identities and experiences characterize much of his writing, he was adamant that he not be defined by them. After publishing his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, about the African-American experience in Harlem, Baldwin’s publisher told him told that the all-white characters in Giovanni’s Room wouldn’t appeal to his audience. However, Baldwin did not feel he could write about race in this novel. In the same 1980 interview, Baldwin asserted, “I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it” when asked about Giovanni’s Room

While he does not write about his own experiences, he is able to resonate with his audience by writing about what he observes. This adds a unique air of authenticity to the novel.

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