On James Baldwin and Reviving the Art of Ambivalence Vanessa Kisuule
Lately, I’ve been plagued with the urge to start smoking. It’s all James Baldwin’s fault, sat askew in that chair, his face framed with a film noir scribble of smoke. Opposite him sits poet Nikki Giovanni, her afro a flawless circle. Baldwin smiles at her like a fond uncle towards his precocious niece. I close this link and open another. He smokes again, in another tab, another corner of time, this time with Maya Angelou. They discuss literature, family and travel, their vowels soft and elongated. She calls him Jim. Five minutes in, he lights a match and touches it to the end of her cigarette, a practiced gesture so subtle and intimate it makes me want to be the match, the flame, the smoke surrounding them like a co-conspirator.
I itch for a cigarette not only because the smoking looks cool, but because their conversations move as fumes do. They begin in some sort of shape, the colour and texture indistinguishable from the air, but then they dissipate, the smell permeating the room long after they cease to be visible. Baldwin wrote like this, too. His work shapeshifts, never settling into one form. We are never left with anything so fixed as a conclusion, but a truth with as many layers as the earth we stand on, a truth just as perilous as it is triumphant. What conditions are needed to write the way he did? I suspect it’s something more than having a ten-a-day habit, though if that were all it took, I would sacrifice both my lungs for half his talent…
I am a Baldwin stan (fan, follower, stalker), as are many of the writers I admire. He is a communal lodestar across writers – spanning age, race, taste and genre. There’s so much to adore: the Baroque layers of his sentences, how they build and build to their crescendos, like the sermons he delivered in church as a young preacher. His wry turn of his phrase, his sincerity paired with a complete lack of sentimentality. And his sass! Who else’s observations can evoke a weary eye roll or arch of the brow like his could? When I pick up one of his books, I find myself panning for nuggets of guidance, some sifted extrapolation of his greatness that I might extract to assist me in my wrestles with the page, with myself.
It’s hard to reduce Baldwin’s words to truisms, which hasn’t stopped people from trying. His ideas were far more pluralistic than any pull quote might suggest. He was opinionated, certainly, unafraid to say things as he saw them, irrespective of what was popular or widely assumed. But for all this, Baldwin was not a strident figure. He never rested on his moral or intellectual laurels. His critical voice was forceful and robust, often excoriating but never dogmatic. He held personal and political allegiances and didn’t attempt to hide these, yet he never absolved any social group of their transgressions. Even when dissecting the personal cost of prejudice, Baldwin remained remarkably open to feelings which were ambivalent.
I can’t say the same for myself as a young writer. Full of swagger and contrarian spirit, I believed myself to have a unique viewpoint on the world, one carried by a deep need to be vindicated, to be unequivocally right. Age has humbled me, instructing me to speak less and listen more, to not be quite so enamoured with having something to say over what it is I am saying. I am learning to sit longer with my thoughts, not to rush them towards a hasty conclusion. It is easier now to distinguish what truly compels me. Many fledgling ideas sink away of their own accord, whilst a precious few mushroom up and out of themselves. Only these make it to the page, where they must prove themselves further.
Thinking now is slower and more agonising, as is writing. The spikes of satisfaction I often felt are now more infrequent, probably because I no longer seek this from the process. What I am reaching for is seductive and shadowy, doesn’t yet have a name. I am trying to be curious rather than fearful. Sometimes, I mourn the confidence of my younger self, how she’d fire out poems in a matter of days and thrust them, unruly and pulsing, onto the nearest stage. Now I am hesitant, newly aware of legacy, the long life of published work beyond the heat of instant feeling. I am hacking my own path through ambivalence with Baldwin as my self-appointed mentor.
At the beginning of his essay ‘Autobiographical Notes’ in Notes of a Native Son (1955), Baldwin asserts this simple aim: ‘I want to be an honest man and a good writer.’Underlining this, like a faithful student, I feel galvanised but also chastised. It’s all too easy to stray from these pillars of virtue.
I reread, for the umpteenth time, Terrance Hayes’ ‘[Seven of the ten things]’, a gorgeous homage to Baldwin’s face, its expressive furrows and ‘all of his eyes’. A few pages after this poem, I stumble on another sonnet from his American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (2018), one that ends with a line which lands like a surprise gift: ‘Sometimes/ Is a good answer to any existential question’. This line strikes me as both honest and good, a line like a long corridor with many doors along its sides, each one slightly ajar.
Ambivalence, for me, is not a muted energy or inability to commit to my convictions. God forbid! It still feels important to lead with my compulsions and embodied waves of feeling, though I’ll admit to fearing the cardinal sin of fence sitting, toggling between opposing views, only to land at a shrug. Instead, ambivalence keeps my thoughts buoyant and keeps my scope wide. It bodes well to surprise or even betray myself as I type, a blissful relinquishing of ego. I, with all my latent assumptions and grand pronouncements, must get out of the way and see what reveals itself in this liminal space. Subtle shifts and slippages in conviction, the painful but necessary look at our myriad contradictions; these are all things I love to read. They are the things I would like to write. Because of this delicious lack of resolution, a writer’s vocation is necessarily elliptical. The full stop is a false assertion of endings and completeness, a pause that wishes something grander for itself …
Baldwin famously found a refuge of sorts in Paris, living there for a total of nine years. The city was a favoured destination for politically engaged Black artists, including Nina Simone, Josephine Baker and Richard Wright. Like them, I too have a complicated relationship to the country I call home. Unlike Baldwin, I haven’t the courage to see what life might mean in a different country. My sense of self seems too brittle to survive this untethering. But I am convinced that self-instigated exile, literal or otherwise, is a possible path towards the openness of ambivalence.
A school friend I lost touch with keeps crossing my mind. She was an international student from Cyprus and her parents were diplomats of some kind. She had lived in a scatter of countries, her accent a startling artefact of her nomadic life. She could never join in reminiscing about Saturday morning cartoons or ‘90s pop groups. Our cultural references were too fixed and frictionless. She had vivid memories of random things: the moustache of an uncle she’d lived with for a year, a pair of bright trousers she’d worn to a party in Nairobi. She forgot the names of schools she’d attended, her sister’s birthday, so many English words. Errant phrases of Greek and French would find their way into her speech, her butchered phrases and mispronunciations amusing and sometimes often poetic. She was so confident and smart, and made friends with enviable ease. I see now that underneath was an implacable loneliness that comes with transience, the ever-changing definitions of home and belonging. I think she would have made an excellent writer, as the spiritually nomadic amongst us often do.
When I’m asked to read my work abroad, I get a brief glimpse into all my alternative lives. Multiple versions of me unfold in Oslo, in Rio, in Malmo, in Hamburg. The tyranny of English loses its grip. My vocabulary is stunted, my statements blunt. I learn that words are only one of many ways to cut across silence and misunderstanding. I listen to cars driving the wrong way down roads, rethink the choreography of hands. My assumptions of how the world works are exposed for the thin distractions they are. I am an honest person, a good writer.
Though every era has its moral panics, seeming to signal the end of humanity, I often consider the decades in which Baldwin was writing a pre-internet utopia, with people unburdened by the panopticon of smart phones and Big Tech. I can’t help but compare this current time to his, when I consider what it means to be a writer in the context of modern technology.
Twitter is my chosen poison. The iterative spew of petty jibes, niche memes and ‘hot takes’ is endless, the brain pinging between the manic urge to respond to everything or shut it all out. When the constant connectivity most of us live in erodes our capacity to be alone with our thoughts, this chaos is the enemy of ambivalence. The years I’ve spent reading and writing into this rapacious, fickle landscape have had a profound effect. It’s not all been doom, but I do fear that my instincts have curdled, that my trust in myself and my reader have been fatally compromised. The search engine optimisation (SEO) process favours the pithy and cynically provocative. Nuanced writing gets lost in the melee – reifying the fallacy that there is no one writing this way and no willing readership for it.
I am not the first to express how bleak our current landscape is for writers. It’s clear that the algorithmic demands of our age are draining the financial, social and cultural rewards of ambivalence. Yet, despite everything, I am hopeful we will find creative ways to resist this shift.
Turning your phone off for a week is a partial solution, though it doesn’t meaningfully disrupt the accumulative debris left by our online lives. A writer must cultivate and jealously guard their pockets of solitude. This is not just a physical state. Sat alone in a room, the head can still be cluttered with the real and imagined interjections of others. I often think about how Baldwin was, at his core, a loner. He had many friends and admirers, a gift for floating between various social circles with ease and charm. But he seemed far more preoccupied with being listened to than simply being liked. Whether a person is ‘nice’ or ‘right on’ seemed the least of his concerns, especially in writing his fictional characters. His renderings of people were loving but rarely comfortable or comforting. In his novel Another Country (1962), Baldwin describes a character’s profound sense of dislocation:
‘There were no standards for him because he could not accept the definitions, the hideously mechanical jargon of the age. There was no one around him worth his envy, he did not believe in the vast, gray sleep which was called security, did not believe in the cures, panaceas, and slogans which afflicted the world he knew; and this meant that he had to create his standards and make up his definitions as he went along. It was up to him to find out who he was, and it was his necessity to do this, so far as the witch doctors of the time were concerned, alone.’
We must each decide what matters to us, as writers and human beings, undistracted by the fool’s gold of popularity and ego, our various silos of parochial bias. I would like to hope that Baldwin would approve of my growing uncertainty, my restless fumbling for meaning in an increasingly polarised, frenetic world. I lay a pack of Marlboro Lights by my laptop – just in case his ghost might sidle up beside me with a match box in hand, asking what I’m writing…
We are grateful to WritersMosaic for their grant to support our James Baldwin projects. Audio versions of this essay can be found at writersmosaic.org.uk.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons