Sunday, April 7, 2013

Interview with James Baldwin

This is an interview with James Baldwin, I believe from 1984.  I have only read a few little things by Baldwin, but I greatly admire him as a writer and especially as a thinker and proclaimer of truths.  This interview hit me like a speeding train, imbued as it is throughout with the color of exile and expatriation.  There are two passages that perfectly describe feelings I've had for years but could never quite explain precisely.  The first deals with Baldwin's perception of the self-centeredness of white America. 
    You read contemporary novels out of a sense of responsibility?
    In a way. At any rate, few novelists interest me—which has nothing to do with their values. I find most of them too remote for me. The world of John Updike, for instance, does not impinge on my world. On the other hand, the world of John Cheever did engage me. Obviously, I’m not making a very significant judgment about Updike. It’s entirely subjective, what I’m saying. In the main, the concerns of most white Americans (to use that phrase) are boring, and terribly, terribly self-centered. In the worst sense. Everything is contingent, of course, on what you take yourself to be.
    Are you suggesting they are less concerned, somehow, with social injustice?
    No, no, you see, I don’t want to make that kind of dichotomy. I’m not asking that anybody get on picket lines or take positions. That is entirely a private matter. What I’m saying has to do with the concept of the self, and the nature of self-indulgence which seems to me to be terribly strangling, and so limited it finally becomes sterile.
In my case, I do not necessarily stress the whiteness of the US's navel-gazing--indeed, black US culture and many black people I know are hideously self-centered, too.  But the essential divide between self-centered, frivolous people, and people who try to think beyond themselves, is for me a very important issue in the United States, and it played a big part in my own decision to leave the country.

The second passage is about an expatriate's enduring love for his own country, warts and all:

    Yes, before 1968, you said, “I love America.”
    Long before then. I still do, though that feeling has changed in the face of it. I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it. There isn’t any other place to go—you don’t pull up your roots and put them down someplace else. At least not in a single lifetime, or, if you do, you’ll be aware of precisely what it means, knowing that your real roots are always elsewhere. If you try to pretend you don’t see the immediate reality that formed you I think you’ll go blind.
Aside from these two passages, which when I read them caused in me an effect between catharsis and naming a long-held, unconscious belief, the interview is full of insights as to the writing process, and what it is to be a writer.  I can relate to many of the feelings Baldwin describes on this count, because I've gone through the same thing many times in writing my blog.  And I just write about my own life and my own thoughts.  I have never even been able to imagine summoning the discipline and bravery and initiative to write fiction.  It's hard enough just writing a bit of nonsense from time to time about the movies my kid watches or my impressions of an agricultural development report!

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