Playwright finds inspiration: Author delves into novelist’s mind

Rebecca Dominguez

Getting inside someone’s mind may seem impractical, but not to Jewelle Gomez, who journeyed into African-American author James Baldwin’s head when writing her play “Waiting for Giovanni.” In her presentation “James Baldwin: Race, Desire and the Blues” on April 16 in Newman Auditorium, Gomez discussed what she learned about Baldwin’s life and herself in the process.

While Gomez’s presentation was serious, it was interjected with humorous anecdotes. She told of finding a copy of “Giovanni’s Room,” a novel about two white gay men in Paris, in her father’s home. Baldwin’s struggle to have it published inspired Gomez’s play.

Gomez said her father always had magazines and books stacked throughout his house. The first time she saw a Playboy magazine it was prominently displayed at his home. There were also books by African-American writers, one of those being “Giovanni’s Room.”

“When I first read this book at 14 I didn’t know any of the backstory that surrounded its publication, or the fact that both other writers and readers were not happy with it because it wasn’t black,” Gomez said. “He was told he was abandoning the civil rights movement.”

“Giovanni’s Room” was different than Baldwin’s previous works. Not only the location, but also because African-Americans rarely wrote about white characters, let alone homosexual men. Many denounced it because of this.

“Baldwin had to weigh what it would mean to write a book that some thought was trivial, in light of the violence that was happening out in the world,” Gomez said.

Critics were upset that Baldwin’s novel “focused on homosexuality but not on homosexuality as a sin,” said Gomez.

Baldwin had similar struggles to Gomez’s when she was tried to publish her novel about lesbian vampires, “The Gilda Stories.”

Gomez also talked about the struggles Baldwin and other African-Americans faced during the time his novel was published and the inspiration he drew from Bayard Rustin, a leader in social rights movements for civil rights, nonviolence, and gay rights.

Since many film and music entities that had been all African-American had started to enter into the mainstream, there were not many outlets for African-American people.

“Ironically, as the black cultural modes moved into the larger mainstream, a lot of the things that were important for African-Americans kind of got left behind,” Gomez said.

One of the only places that people could address racial and social issues was in literature. “Literature was very lively and racially conscious,” Gomez said of works published during the Harlem renaissance.

Gomez also focused on how the blues inspired Baldwin. Gomez said, “[For Baldwin] the blues not only served as a historical context but also as a map to help him find his strength.”

Gomez ended her talk with mention of the importance Baldwin put in talking to youth. She said she felt, as Baldwin did, that talking to youth is a way of talking to the future, and that is why she enjoys giving talks like this one.