Visual Art

James Baldwin in Istanbul

Photographer Sedat Pakay's Images of a Writer in Exile

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The great writer is taking a nap on a bed. The great writer is in a kitchen frying fish. The silhouette of the great writer is against a tall window with a view of a bay, a battleship, a distant city, and a clear sky. The great writer is visiting a mosque. The great writer is having his shoes shined by a boy. The great writer is standing next to a pelican. The great writer is smoking a hookah in a tea garden—his legs are crossed, a smile is on the face of the old woman behind him, and the young man sitting next to him has the lips of a Eurasian movie star. These are pictures of James Baldwin. He is in Istanbul. The year is 1965. The photographer is Sedat Pakay. The images are part of an extraordinary exhibit, Bearing Witness from Another Place: James Baldwin in Turkey Through the Lens of Sedat Pakay, opening this fall at the Northwest African American Museum.

Baldwin visited Istanbul to work on his fourth novel, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, which is set in New York City and concerns a bisexual actor and his lovers, a white American woman and a black American male, and his country, which is in the middle of a massive and often violent social transformation (murders, hosing of protesters, dogs attacking protesters, assassinations, burning cities) called the American civil rights movement. In one of Pakay's intimate, tranquil, quiet pictures, Baldwin, his back turned to us, is hugging a woman and a man. She is on one side of him; he is on the other. Smoke rises from the man's cigarette. Bright flowers are in a vase. All three seem to be sharing a secret. For this writer and political activist, humanism could not be disentangled from eroticism.

Is what we see in these pictures a stranger in a strange land? Does he look lost, disoriented, displaced? No, these images capture the writer in his habitat: The natural place for the writer is exile. It can be spiritual or physical exile, but they always have to be outside of their society, because writers are outsiders. The writer is out of place when they're in their place. They need distance. They need to get away to process what it means to be who they are. Think of Jonathan Raban, Lesley Hazleton, W. G. Sebald, James Joyce, Richard Wright, and on and on—the true home of the writer is always another country. recommended

 

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