On the second Wednesday of each month I select one book I absolutely love. To celebrate and acknowledge Black History Month in the US, I have selected a James Baldwin classic, Giovanni’s Room. Published in 1956, the novel tells the story of David, a young American living in Paris. He Meets Giovanni, a young Italian bartender at a popular bar in the city, slowly falling in love with him. This romantic and homosexual tale is made more complicated when David’s girlfriend Hella, who came back from Spain and the US, moves back to Paris with David. Jealousy and a deep sense of betrayal and hurt infiltrated his heart, as he became increasingly depressed and desperate for love and David’s recognition.
Giovanni’s Room can be interpreted in many ways. When someone comes out (of the closet), it is usually in reference to someone’s public self-disclosure. In this instance, I interpret the metaphor as being contained and shackled by David’s homosexuality. Throughout the novel he attempts to break away from the confines of Giovanni’s character and identity, including his sexuality. By fighting his pure and natural love, David, he is confining himself to his sexuality in order to transform himself to a reality that embodies a societal norm that isn’t necessarily his. This dichotomy within itself is complex enough to describe the difficult reality of being a black, homosexual man in a western and supposedly “progressive” society. And yes, I did include his race as a point of relevance to this novel because it is naturally interwoven within his identity. Being black defined the relationships and friendships he had, the state he is in and his own sexual orientation. His black identity defines every single emotion and decision, every step of the way throughout. The way he interacts with Guillaume and Jacques is defined by his black experience, and the cautious nature of his decisions and introverted nature. It’s a beautifully written novel, one which encapsulates such complexity in a reflective, caring way.
James Baldwin is undeniably one of the greatest 20th Century writers ever to have lived, and Giovanni’s Room is just a small example of this icon’s long and deep writing history. Do pick this book up and read it this month!