Photo by Sedat Pakey.

James Baldwin Might Have Been Most
at Home in Istanbul

Hilal Isler on Finding Home When You're Not Looking for It

You spend your whole life being told some place is home, only to get there and realize you don’t really belong. For me, it happened the summer after I turned eight. My mom and I boarded a plane from Canada to England, our first time in Europe. We stayed overnight at a hotel near London’s Hyde Park: its lobby floors a polished wood, the terrifying taxidermy head of a wild cat affixed to the wall.

I’d never been in a hotel like this. My parents—immigrants, frugal—generally favored off-the-highway establishments, with buzzy neon signs, and wood-paneled rooms that open directly onto a parking lot. I remember how different the taxidermy hotel was, how there were fresh flowers near the elevators, how Mom and I ordered room service for dinner. A splurge. My hamburger arrived hidden under a metal warming dome, and I remember thinking: this burger costs five times as much as a Big Mac, but does it taste five times as good?

*

When James Baldwin left home for Europe, he was broke. It was Armistice Day, 1948, when he sailed from New York to Paris, 40 bucks in his pocket. He would say he left not to go to France, but to get away from New York. He left because he had to.

“I knew what it meant to be white and I knew what it meant to be a nigger,” he said, “and I knew what was going to happen to me. My luck was running out. I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed.”

His close friend Eugene Worth, a black socialist, had recently killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, a death that devastated Baldwin, haunting him for years. The only way Baldwin believed he could survive, he said, was by leaving America behind, and so he went to France and, 13 years later, Istanbul.

Baldwin was in crisis when he arrived: sick, and in danger of losing his sanity.

At the time, he was trying to write his third novel, Another Country, but it wasn’t going well. Writer’s block, he told friends. Engin Cezzar, a Turkish actor Baldwin met and befriended in New York, once offered him a place to stay in Istanbul. If you’re ever in town, he said, so one night in October, 1961, Baldwin showed up unannounced at the door of Cezzar’s modest Taksim Square apartment. Cezzar was hosting a party, and was surprised to find Baldwin standing on the welcome mat, holding a beat-up suitcase, his eyes tired, face drawn. Welcome home, Jimmy, Cezzar recalls saying. He told guests Baldwin was an important novelist from America, and there was great buzz. Baldwin came inside, took a bath, and eventually fell asleep in the lap of an actress.

According to Cezzar, Baldwin was in crisis when he arrived: sick, and in danger of losing his sanity. The suitcase contained his troubled manuscript. He’d been hammering away at Another Country for years by then, and the story’s failure had taken a toll on him, depressing him, pushing him to consider suicide.

But once in Istanbul, Baldwin steadied. Settled at Cezzar’s place, fed and clothed and shown the spare bedroom in the back, he began writing again. In a matter of months, he reworked the book completely, finishing it, polishing it, and producing a novel that was ambitious, experimental, acclaimed critically. A bestselling hit. The film rights would be acquired by a British production company two years later.

*

Before we left London for Istanbul that summer, Mom and I visited Buckingham Palace. It happened to be the Queen Mother’s birthday, so we stood on the pavement outside the grounds, waiting for her to come out on the balcony, which she eventually did, wearing a hat and waving.

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY QUEENIE!” I shouted at her, until it started to rain and we left. Inside the airport, I used some of my allowance money to purchase a fridge magnet with her face on it.

That summer, my prized magnet was a tool, breaking the ice with my Turkish “cousins,” an assortment of various young people I was said to be related to. I saw a Queen in real life, I would say, and flash the fridge magnet at them proudly until one day, Selim, my much older, anti-establishment cousin, took my Queen magnet and flung it into oncoming traffic. The entire point of being a Turkish person, Selim said, was that you didn’t cow to colonialist outside forces, didn’t express enthusiasm via imperialist fridge magnets.

In Istanbul, he said, he could begin again.

I listened to Selim’s sermon, chastened and solemn. I looked at my treasured magnet lying on the street and thought, Sorry I couldn’t save you, Queenie. I looked a bit longer, feeling sad as a yellow cab accelerated, crushing the Queen’s sweet, plastic little face.

*

When asked why he came to Istanbul, Baldwin alluded to the city being a location of healing for him, presented it as a place in between things, both Asian and European; a city where he could, for a while at least, slip off the various identities assigned to him by others and try to exist in between things too; try to become a human being, was how he put it. In Istanbul, he said, he could begin again.

Baldwin’s Turkish decade coincided with the middle of his career not just chronologically, but thematically; years that led to significant artistic growth and exploration. It was while in Istanbul that Baldwin would write his most American works, including Another Country, The Fire Next Time, and No Name in the Street. He would tell friends Turkey had “saved” his life. He would talk about buying a place in Istanbul, settling permanently.

When he eventually moved out of Cezzar’s apartment, Baldwin rented a place of his own: a red house overlooking the Bosphorus that once belonged to a Pasha. Baldwin embedded himself in the neighborhood, becoming a regular at the Divan Hotel bar, befriending local activists and intellectuals, staging productions for community theater. His direction of Fortune and Men’s Eyes, a play on gay men in prison that looked at their sexual lives, opened up new possibilities for Turkish theater, which typically had little room for overt explorations of sexuality.

Baldwin entertained at home often, his place a required stop for visiting African American artists and others. Yaşar Kemal was a regular, and when Marlon Brando arrived mid-1966, it was Baldwin who arranged for him to be shuttled around the city in Cezzar’s little car while a limo acted as decoy, distracting Turkish fans who gathered on the street. There’s a photo of Brando and Baldwin sitting across each other at a table in Urcan Restaurant, a favorite haunt of Baldwin’s you can still find today, in Beyoğlu.

Baldwin spoke of the positive “energy” he felt in Turkey, and it’s been suggested this was a factor in his staying: because it was “easier to be gay in Istanbul than in America, easier to be black,” Suzy Hansen wrote for Public Books. Here, men could hold hands, kiss one another in public, and maybe it meant they were gay, or maybe not. Here, people could be physically white-passing, but they weren’t considered white culturally, politically, not by the West. In this sense, Istanbul gave Baldwin opportunity and space to re-examine the ways in which he had been thinking about race and sex, providing him a vantage-point to stretch the colonialist and American binary understandings of such things, allowing different truths to emerge, helping him imagine new, more full and fluid identities for himself and others.

*

After the magnet episode with Selim, I didn’t venture into the street to salvage the Queen Mother’s remains. I kept my mouth shut, trailing Selim and the others up a crowded pavement in Taksim. We’re going to show you what being a real Turk is all about, Selim said to me, and I thought, Ready.

Sometimes our identities are shaped while we’re out in the street together, out in public spaces, living public moments. Sometimes these identities gather sense and steam through a family that makes demands of us, insists that this be our tongue, this our God, this where we place our anger, our faith. This is what we do with desire.

That summer, with my cousins, I learned to look at the country through their eyes, and I was interested in this learning, attentive to it, but I also felt distant—disconnected, somehow, from what was supposed to be my culture, too; from what they told me was my true home.

I wouldn’t visit Turkey again until five years later, as a teenager experiencing a sort of cultural cognitive dissonance. I didn’t feel any strong pull, any lasting allegiance to Turkey, and by then, Canada was lost to me as well; the price I paid for a widened perspective was a compromised sense of allegiance. In Calgary, when we learned to sing “God Save the Queen,” a nod to Canada’s Commonwealth allegiance, the words didn’t form comfortably in my mouth, so I just mumbled them, my mind under the sway of Selim’s teachings, my heart an imposter. I felt alone in my experience. I didn’t yet understand I was not alone. I didn’t yet understand this is what it means, to grow up in the in-between.

*

Once, when a friend encouraged James Baldwin to return to America, or at least to pick one place to settle down permanently, Baldwin told him, he couldn’t settle any one place because he didn’t really belong to any one place. “The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it,” he said, and I wonder if this holds true for others, too. Those of us who move between nations, between homes. Those of us who grow identities, like skins, only to shed them, expand into new ones. Those of us who carry our sense of belonging like belongings, turtles and shells. We arrive at night, unannounced, battered suitcase in hand. We move our things into a four-level-split in suburban Calgary, or out of a modest apartment in 1950s Harlem, and all of it can feel like home, or none of it can. It depends on us: on how much we allow ourselves to attach, to settle, to stay; on how much others allow us to do these things as well.

In fact, home is not, James Baldwin would write in Giovanni’s Room, a place at all, but an irrevocable condition. In a 1957 letter to a high school friend, Baldwin would insist it was necessary to “get over” the idea that there was some place out there where he would fit in once he had “made some real peace” with himself. There was no such place. Maybe there was no such peace or, if there was, it was fleeting, slippery, unsteady.

A person’s inner and outer environments were one and the same, Baldwin wrote, and those of us in the in-between understand the truth of this, too. Those of us not anchored to some specific geography, some patch of land, we understand turtles and shells. We see home as an inward condition, a reality we don’t just create, but are constantly creating. We realize home is a place we make, and that makes us, again and again and again.

Hilal Isler
Hilal Isler
Hilal Isler is a 2019 Loft Literary Center Fellow, sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.





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