Her latest book, Me and My House: James Baldwin’s Last Decade in France, uses James Baldwin’s house in the south of France as a lens through which to reconstruct his biography and to explore the politics and poetics of blackness, queerness, and domesticity in his complex and underappreciated later works.
What initially drew you to James Baldwin’s house in the South of France? What was it like the first time you visited?
I first visited that house, known locally as “Chez Baldwin,” in the Provençal village of St. Paul-de-Vence in June 2000. I was fascinated with the writer’s international peregrinations and admired his cosmopolitan, decades-ahead-of-our-time approach to how one’s composite self, inflected by race, gender, sexuality, and class, was key to understanding one’s national identity within and without one’s home country. I also wanted to get a sense of the domestic environment in which he wrote his later works, and where he thrived as a black queer American artist, who was reviled both by US black nationalists and white liberals at the time.
Like most readers, I had first read the best known early Baldwiniana of 1953-63, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, and The Fire Next Time. The works written at Chez Baldwin, during 1971-87, were another matter. They revealed an author transformed, testing new ideas and approaches to identity, trying his hand at new forms. I wanted to look for material and tangible reasons for that transformation. I was teaching in Denmark until 2000, and thanks to Aarhus University’s support made my trip to Provençe, where I first encountered Baldwin’s most enduring home. Another draw was my interest in the interpenetration of literary and literal social spaces, or how material environments become metaphoric representations by means of evocative language and imagery on the pages of books. Perhaps, because I was an immigrant, I was curious as well about how the writer lived his life in French and in such a remote location, especially given his earlier fondness for metropolitan locations like Istanbul, New York, London or Paris. In the early 1970’s, when Baldwin moved there, St. Paul-de-Vence was a sleepy, slow-paced Provençal village, rather than the densely commercialized tourist destination it is today.
My first visit to the house and surrounding gardens in June of 2000 was a revelation on several levels. First, because of how unlike the place that Baldwin had come from it was, and second, because it made him into a homeowner and someone who lived, so to speak, on and off the land. Third, as he explains it in the little-known Architectural Digest piece on his house published just a few months before his death in 1987, as he grew older and frailer, he loved the light, peace, and quiet that filled the old structure. He had first rented rooms, and then bought, piece by piece as money from his books came in, the property from an eccentric old lady. In his last interview, literally on his deathbed, he explains that the place had led him to discover and embrace a rather mythic “peasant” mindset that he traced back to his parents, who migrated to New York from Maryland and Louisiana. He loved the ancient olive, orange, and almond trees, and enjoyed flowers and herbs that enveloped the house in a lush embrace. He was beloved by the town, and wished to be buried there after his death, which we know did not happen. The more I looked, the more I found and realized, too, that Chez Baldwin had to be a character of sorts in the book along with the writer.