Today in 2SLGBTQI+ history…
Though the novel was first published in 1956 – a particularly impressive feat during the mid-20th century, when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness in the United States – and was banned in 1977, James Baldwin’s brilliant narrative Giovanni’s Room remains at the centre of 2SLGBTQI+ literature decades later. Years before the gay liberation movement, the African American novelist and intellectual showcased the internal struggles of sexuality, the difficulties created by standards surrounding sexuality and race, and the pain created by a lack of personal freedom.
At its heart, Giovanni’s Room is about the human need for connection and intimacy. The critically acclaimed work explores the internal struggles of sexuality and the complex representations of homosexuality and bisexuality by following the thoughts and actions of David, an American living in a bohemian neighbourhood of Paris in the 1950s. The book details David’s feelings and frustrations with his relationships with other men in his life, particularly an Italian bartender named Giovanni, whom he meets at a Parisian gay bar.
Baldwin moved to Paris in November 1948, at the age of 24, and soon met and fell in love with a young Swiss, Lucien Happersberger. In the winter of 1951–52, while staying in Switzerland with Happersberger, Baldwin completed his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which was published in 1953. Over the next two years, living mainly in France, he worked on his second novel, Giovanni’s Room. When it was first published, Giovanni’s Roomwas a surprise to his readers, since Baldwin was primarily known for exploring the African American experience, and all of the characters in Giovanni’s Room are white. When asked in a 1980 interview if the book was autobiographical, Baldwin explained that he was influenced by his observations in Paris, but the novel wasn’t necessarily shaped by his own experiences:
“No, it is more of a study of how it might have been or how I feel it might have been. I mean, for example, some of the people I have met. We all met in a bar, there was a blond French guy sitting at a table, he bought us drinks. And, two or three days later, I saw his face in the headlines of a Paris paper. He had been arrested and was later guillotined. That stuck in my mind.”
Baldwin died in 1987, but 67 years after its publication, his second novel Giovanni’s Room feels as trailblazing as ever.