“Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin

By Anda Purina S5ENA at EEB2

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a queer, black American, who wrote many novels, essays, short stories, and plays. Even though his most recognized books were published more than 60 years ago, they have maintained their popularity due to their pressing topics. His work raises awareness of the oppression people of color and queer people faced during his lifetime, and still does. He was also a prominent figure in the civil rights movement and wrote multiple books on the topic. A few of James Baldwin’s books are: “The Fire Next Time” (1963), about the racial injustice in the US during the movement, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1952), a semi-biographical novel about religion and family, and “Giovanni’s Room” (1956). 

The novel was written during the last years of James Baldwin’s nine-year-long stay in Paris, where he had moved to escape America and the racism and homophobia he faced there. Unlike the United States, Paris let him grow as a writer, and it’s where he published his first novels. His experience of both countries largely influenced his third novel, “Giovanni’s Room”. 

Set in the 1950s, “Giovanni’s Room” tells the story of a young American called David, who has moved to Paris and is trying to find himself and what he wants. A major theme of the novel is internalized homophobia, which is what I’m going to focus on. It is the feeling of self-hatred, shame and discomfort that queer individuals often experience. Most of the time the fear of sharing their sexuality is a result of the society around them. 

The book starts off with the main character, David, in a holiday house in the south of France, remembering the events that led him to that point. He essentially spoils the story, giving us the ending, however, he doesn’t explain the events that led to it. This way it invites readers to continue, to find out why things end up as they do.  

He tells us about his childhood, his relationship with the boy that made him realize he was queer, and the shame he felt after.  

“The incident with Joey had shaken me profoundly and its effect was to make me secretive and cruel.” 

David had overheard that all his dad wanted for him was to grow up into a man, which largely influenced David. Obviously, David didn’t feel safe talking to his dad about his feelings, and in the 50’s being queer was not often openly admitted. Following his dad’s example, David started drinking excessively, and acting cruel to the people around him as a way to feel more traditionally masculine. 

 “I could not discuss what had happened to me with anyone, I could not even admit it to myself.” 

Continuing like this, jumping between two timelines, David begins telling us about Giovanni: an Italian man he met at a bar in Paris, while his girlfriend, who he had proposed to, was on holiday in Spain.  

In “Giovanni’s Room”, David is queer and in a relationship with Giovanni, yet he tries to hide that part of him. Multiple times in the book we can see the confusion David experiences. 

“With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.” 

“I was in a terrible confusion. Sometimes I thought, but this is your life. Stop fighting it. Stop fighting. Or I thought, but I am happy. And he loves me. I am safe.” 

“You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love.” 

In the 1950s, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, so it is no wonder that David thought his feelings were unnatural and something to be fixed. As I mentioned above, for him not to feel like an outsider, and to seem traditionally masculine, he criticizes others, even his close friends, and displays homophobic and sexist beliefs. 

While LGBTQ+ rights have definitely improved, for example, homosexuality no longer being considered a mental illness, many queer people still experience internalized homophobia and the feeling of disgust shown in this book. Baldwin’s writing is truly amazing, and gives an impression of David confiding in the readers, explaining his experience. If you ever have the chance, I would definitely recommend reading it. 

– Anda Purina