How to Get to Bucharest from Harlem via Istanbul

  • onJune 21, 2018
  • Vol.40 Summer 2018
  • byJohn Freeman

Next week, James Baldwin’s groundbreaking second novel, Giovanni’s Room, will be published in Romanian for the first time, sixty-two years after its publication. The novel tells the tragic love story of a young man named David, who moves to Paris with a fiancée and—after a brief, heady affair with an Italian, Giovanni—departs, unsure of everything and terrified he has rejected the possibilities of true love. Although it’s frequently noted that Baldwin’s agent and publisher told him to burn the manuscript, Baldwin actually received a great deal of encouragement. After reading the novel, Michael Joseph, Baldwin’s UK publisher, professed that they would put out anything he wrote. Norman Mailer offered a prepublication blurb, and the reviews in America, when the novel finally appeared, were largely positive. On the basis of Baldwin’s talent, one of the first complex portraits of the alienation of gay and bisexual life in American fiction was treated simply as literature.

I know Baldwin’s Romanian translator, Elena Marcu. Along with her friend, AncaDumitrescu, she runs the first all-female publishing house in Romania, Black Button Books, which publishes and translates the literary journal I edit. A couple years ago, in Bucharest for the publication of a book, I sat in a bar with Elena and Anca on an otherwise dismal night, drinking Irish stout, conducting the kind of comparison game editors play when visiting each other’s countries. Is this published? What about this? Heads are slapped and titles spelled out letter by letter. It’s less essential to do this explanatory work as an American. Most people know the essential writers in English, their work and influence travels on the jet streams of empire, even if empire is what these writers critique. But sometimes the work migrates on the back of other thermals.

Such was the case for the essays and novels of Baldwin. This was the fall of 2015, after a long year of spectacular police shootings, stranglings, and outright abuse had been captured on camera phones and spread round the world on social networks. “The whole world is watching,” the phrase one could hear at many Black Lives Matter protests, took on a new meaning for me when two Romanian womenbegan to describe to me their reactions to the atrocities they had seen on screens and then quoted James Baldwin back to me. We talked for a while in the rainy pub about Baldwin’s essays and the sound of his voice, of the power of longing in the current environment and also in the context of a former police state like Romania under Nicolae Ceaucescu, where almost everyone over a certain age had had an experience of being harassed or beaten or interrogated. Put in jail. One of Ceausescu’s last great plans was to bug every telephone in the country.

On that night we also talked for a bit about the long aftermath of this kind of disruption—the way trauma is passed down and inherited, housed in the body—and then spoke of Ta-nehisi Coates’s memoir, Between the World and Me, written—as Baldwin’s essay “The Fire Next Time” was—as a letter, in this case to Coates’s son rather than to a nephew, grieving for the racist world his boy would inherit. The need for Coates’s book was apparent every thirty-six hours in America, which was the periodicity with which a black person was shot and killed by the police. Anca and Elena had already read the book. He’s not published here, Elena remarked. Neither of them are, she continued, making it clear she was speaking of both Coates and Baldwin. We have to do this, she said, looking out the window.

Two years later, Anca and Elena had made this impulse a reality, not only translating Coates and Baldwin, but essentially starting a publishing house to give themselves the platform to do so. I think of this experience often when I fret, briefly, over the necessity of translating culture alongside the words of a writer. How, after all, are we to understand all the peculiar reference points and personalities of a writer when the culture that has made them is often partially or even largely invisible? Shouldn’t there be footnotes? What about a map? How about a glossary of terms? Shouldn’t a reader know exactly what the writer was referring to at all times? What in the world, for example, would Baldwin's debate with Richard Wright mean to a Romanian?

My experience in Romania reinforced something I have slowly come to realize as a traveler and reader. True literature has a way of speaking to people from elsewhere. This is hopeful. One of the reasons it can speak to so many people, however, is that most of us have experienced an abuse of power. Literature does not solely exist to witness such tyrannies; but the best of it does not shy from speaking against them. Think hard of the works of great literature, from Mo Yan to Han Kang to Adrienne Rich to Virginia Woolf to Naguib Mahfouz to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Doris Lessing. A huge amount of great literature reinforces the human scale of life and in so doing forms some kind of resistance. It reiterates what is essential in living, through the senses and the experiences of love and loss, and in so doing forms bridges between cultures. Power doesn’t count on this; power in fact fears it. This is why Stalin came for the poets. It’s why writers today still need to defend their right to speak freely. It’s why so many writers have been in prison.

The first time I experienced a shock that a book I felt was an essential text in American life was only recently being translated into another language was in 2004. Baldwin was in the air there then too. I was in Turkey, visiting the great Kurdish writer Yasar Kemal. For three days I traveled around Istanbul with Kemal and his wife and friends, moving from public square (where a statue of him stood) to mosque (where he slept when he was poor) to restaurant (where the biggest fish was brought out to him by the entire staff), listening to stories, hilarious and tragic. Many of them involved the absurdities of living under state control. I pointed out that what he described in one moment was a form of civil disobedience, a term made relevant in American life by the writer Henry David Thoreau. Walden was recently translated, Kemal replied right back, but I read him a while ago at the recommendation of James Baldwin.

Baldwin, it turned out, had been a friend of Kemal’s. They met in the 1960s at a house party in Istanbul whenBaldwin was on his way to Israel to begin what he thought was going to be a series of reports. Baldwin would later return so appalled by what he saw in Sinai that he couldn’t write the piece as planned. He ended up staying in Turkey on and off, longer than he lived in France, becoming a great friend of Kemal’s and learning a whole new side of American’s empire, in how it treated Arabs through its surrogate in the Middle East, Israel. The former boy-typist from an Anatolian village and the one-time boy-preacher of Harlem bonded over their love of song, and would often stay up late singing when they got together. When Kemal’s outspoken views earned him a place behind bars, Baldwin used his international celebrity to intervene, essentially shaming—as is so often necessary—Kemal’s tormenters into relenting.

As I sat and listened to Kemal tell these stories, I wasn’t hearing his words exactly. His wife, Aysa Kemal, was translating them, often slowing her husband down, interrupting and elaborating upon and even correcting his tales. I also wasn’t alone. Everywhere we traveled in Istanbul, Kemal was stopped, thanked, and then joined. In breaks, I often turned to these friends of his and asked how they had met Kemal, and the answer I heard most often was just one word: prison. We met in the clink, some of them said, and then they would burst into laughter, after which toasts would be said and then a new story loaded up. Sitting there as the nights unfolded, it occurred to me: of course a man from a country which imprisons a huge portion of its black population would have something in common with another man from a country where minority population were jailed. And so Baldwin and Kemal could be friends while speaking very little of each other’s languages.

Toward the end of that trip, after Yasar had shown us most of his Istanbul, and we’d sat in his house overlooking the Bosporus and heard about the novel he was working on at the time, Aysa took me over to the Museum of the Ancient Orient. In her previous life she’d been a museum curator and recommended this one for its collection of antiquities. Wandering through the halls, gazing upon pottery two millennia old, I stumbled upon a tiny slab of text, the size of a piece of toast. It was billed as the world’s oldest existing love poem, and it was recorded on a clay tablet in Sumerian. Gazing into the words, then at the adjoining placard, I realized I didn’t need to know who was king during this time period, or who the poet had paid taxes to, just that one person had loved another enough to write it down and to want to make it last forever.

Moved by the poem, I left the museum by way of its bookshop, in search of a postcard or two and maybe a volume of poetry for the flight home. Like any bookstore within a 1,000-mile radius of Palestine, there was a selection of books by the then living poet Mahmoud Darwish. I chose one at random and a few hours later when I was on the plane I took it out. Mahmoud Darwish, I learned, had begun writing poems as a boy. He had first been imprisoned at age sixteen. It was not hard then to imagine him sitting in the circle of the writers I’d just left behind with Asya and Yasar. I opened the book at random to a poem called “Now, As You Awaken” and read: “Did you see the morning dawn from the fingers / of the one you love? . . . tell me how you lived. . . .” and I realized in its best moments, a translation can do just that. It can ask us, without anything other than words, to provide it with the other half of its meaning, so the bridge from one place to another can continue, in spite of what the world does. 


by John Freeman

Editor, Freeman's
Author, Maps (2017) & How to Read a Novelist (2012)