Writing Discussion : Interview excerpt: James Baldwin (1984)

Discussion in 'Short Stories - Authors - Writing' started by skuderjaymes, Oct 19, 2012.

  1. skuderjaymes

    skuderjaymes Contextualizer Synthesizer MEMBER

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    INTERVIEWER
    Would you tell us how you came to leave the States?
    JAMES BALDWIN
    I was broke. I got to Paris with forty dollars in my pocket, but I had to get out of New York. My reflexes were tormented by the plight of other people. Reading had taken me away for long periods at a time, yet I still had to deal with the streets and the authorities and the cold. I knew what it meant to be white and I knew what it meant to be a nig###r, 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. My best friend had committed suicide two years earlier, jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
    When I arrived in Paris in 1948 I didn’t know a word of French. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t want to know anyone. Later, when I’d encountered other Americans, I began to avoid them because they had more money than I did and I didn’t want to feel like a freeloader. The forty dollars I came with, I recall, lasted me two or three days. Borrowing money whenever I could—often at the last minute—I moved from one hotel to another, not knowing what was going to happen to me. Then I got sick. To my surprise I wasn’t thrown out of the hotel. This Corsican family, for reasons I’ll never understand, took care of me. An old, old lady, a great old matriarch, nursed me back to health after three months; she used old folk remedies. And she had to climb five flights of stairs every morning to make sure I was kept alive. I went through this period where I was very much alone, and wanted to be. I wasn’t part of any community until I later became the Angry Young Man in New York.
    INTERVIEWER
    Why did you choose France?
    BALDWIN
    It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.

    INTERVIEWER
    You say the city beat him to death. You mean that metaphorically.
    BALDWIN
    Not so metaphorically. Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.
    INTERVIEWER
    Has writing been a type of salvation?
    BALDWIN
    I’m not so sure! I’m not sure I’ve escaped anything. One still lives with it, in many ways. It’s happening all around us, every day. It’s not happening to me in the same way, because I’m James Baldwin; I’m not riding the subways and I’m not looking for a place to live. But it’s still happening. So salvation is a difficult word to use in such a context. I’ve been compelled in some ways by describing my circumstances to learn to live with them. It’s not the same thing as accepting them.
    INTERVIEWER
    Was there an instant you knew you were going to write, to be a writer rather than anything else?

    BALDWIN
    Yes. The death of my father. Until my father died I thought I could do something else. I had wanted to be a musician, thought of being a painter, thought of being an actor. This was all before I was nineteen. Given the conditions in this country to be a black writer was impossible. When I was young, people thought you were not so much wicked as sick, they gave up on you. My father didn’t think it was possible—he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. He said I was contesting the white man’s definitions, which was quite right. But I had also learned from my father what he thought of the white man’s definitions. He was a pious, very religious and in some ways a very beautiful man, and in some ways a terrible man. He died when his last child was born and I realized I had to make a jump—a leap. I’d been a preacher for three years, from age fourteen to seventeen. Those were three years which probably turned me to writing.
    INTERVIEWER
    Were the sermons you delivered from the pulpit very carefully prepared, or were they absolutely off the top of your head?

    BALDWIN
    I would improvise from the texts, like a jazz musician improvises from a theme. I never wrote a sermon—I studied the texts. I’ve never written a speech. I can’t read a speech. It’s kind of give-and-take. You have to sense the people you’re talking to. You have to respond to what they hear.
    INTERVIEWER
    Do you have a reader in your mind when you write?
    BALDWIN
    No, you can’t have that.

    INTERVIEWER
    So it’s quite unlike preaching?
    BALDWIN
    Entirely. The two roles are completely unattached. When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.


    ...
     
  2. info-moetry

    info-moetry STAFF STAFF

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    peace

    And aint' much changed about how brothers feel about NYC to this day. I know many who have bungied and not neccessarily moved to a different country, but they have moved to many different states. Most of them being southern states. A reverse post civil war migration, if you will.

    I've always considered Baldwin a VERY deep brother, but this is the first i've heard of him leaving for france for the reasons he mentioned.

    I first bumped into him in the early 90's watching 'like it is' with gil noble and he was interviewed about 'malcolm'. He spoke about him with the same reverence, as say, Dr. Clarke.
     
  3. skuderjaymes

    skuderjaymes Contextualizer Synthesizer MEMBER

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    Baldwin is one of my Literary fathers. His short-story Sonny's Blues had a tremendous impact on me and my writing style..his books: "If Beale Street Could Talk" and "Go Tell It On The Mountain" are two of my favorites.. and his collections of essays "The Fire Next Time" and "Notes Of A Native Son" should be on every black shelf.

    did you know that the script for Spike's Malcolm movie was based on James Baldwin's script?
     
  4. skuderjaymes

    skuderjaymes Contextualizer Synthesizer MEMBER

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    info-moetry,

    that line about his friend jumping off the George Washington bridge.. he actually put that in his Novel, "Another Country"

    Page 87-88:

    "He stood at the center of the bridge and it was freezing cold. He raised his eyes to heaven. He thought, You bastard, you motherfucking bastard. Ain’t I your baby, too? He began to cry. Something in Rufus which could not break shook him like a rag doll and splashed salt water all over his face and filled his throat and nostrils with anguish. He knew the pain would never stop. He could never go down into the city again. He dropped his head as though someone had struck him and looked down at the water. It was cold and the water would be.
    He was black and the water was black.
    He lifted himself by his hands on the rail, lifted himself as high as he could, and leaned far out. The wind tore at him, at his head and shoulders, while something in him screamed. Why? Why? He thought of Eric. His straining arms threatened to break. I can’t make it this way. He thought of Ida. He whispered,I’m sorry, Leona, and then the wind took him, he felt himself going over, head down, the wind, the stars, the lights, the water, all rolled together, all right. He felt a shoe fly off behind him, there was nothing around him, only the wind, all right, you motherfucking Godalmighty bastard, I’m coming to you."
     
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