Reading James Baldwin’s ‘Giovanni’s Room,’ I Realized What I Wanted To Do: I Wanted To Make A Stranger Feel What I Felt Just By The Words I Chose

Reading James Baldwin’s ‘Giovanni’s Room,’ I Realized What I Wanted To Do: I Wanted To Make A Stranger Feel What I Felt Just By The Words I Chose

In 1975, when I was young, I went to hear James Baldwin speak. Afterward, I waited in a long line and finally got to stand before him. I told him that his book “Giovanni’s Room” had made me want to be a writer. He looked me up and down and asked, “Do your parents know?” I was earnest and sincere and at first didn’t realize he was making a joke. I blushed and stammered something, no or yes, I can’t remember.

What I didn’t tell him was that the first time I read “Giovanni’s Room,” I was 12. I was already spending my time scribbling stories about enchanted dogs and Titanic survivors trapped on icebergs. I saw his book on the living room shelf and had never heard the name Giovanni before. The idea that the book was about a room seemed magical to me. I don’t remember exactly what I expected when I took the book to bed that night. But I know that what I got was so much more.

“Giovanni’s Room” is the story of David, the narrator, who lives in Paris and is engaged to Hella. She goes home to the U.S. for a visit and David is left alone. Through a friend he meets Giovanni, a bartender, and they end up having an affair. David is conflicted, leaves Giovanni and returns to his fiance, while Giovanni is found guilty of murder and dies on the guillotine.

The other thing I didn’t tell Mr. Baldwin was that when I started reading the book, I assumed at first that Giovanni — a name that sounded feminine to me — was a girl. The descriptions of his eyes, his skin, seemed to be descriptions of a beautiful, short-haired Parisian woman. I thought for many, many pages that the book was filled with typos — “he” instead of “she” and “his” instead of “hers.” I didn’t mind making the changes in my head because the writing was so lovely, the story so filled with yearning and romantic despair. It was a doomed relationship, like Romeo and Juliet. In my middle school mind, I wanted Giovanni and David to be together — 4ever.

At the same time, the things David struggled with — who he was, what he did and its implications — rang true for me. I too lived in my head, obsessed about every decision, every thought. I underlined a sentence — in my mother’s book — that I returned to again and again: “Then something opened in my brain, a secret, noiseless door swung open and frightened me.” I’d had that feeling of fear when a new door opened in my brain. Baldwin was articulating what had happened to me, and it was amazing. About halfway through, I decided that, yes, Giovanni was a boy, and yes, David was having sex with men. I thought that was even more imaginative and weird and beautiful. Like falling in love with a unicorn.

I know now that the book is about alienation and fear and repression and what it means to be a man both in society and in your own heart. I’ve read it many times. But when I was 12, it was a love story, and it was Giovanni I cared about. I couldn’t believe David would leave him, leave his room — which was truly a magical place — for Hella. What kind of name was that anyway?

What I also knew, at 12 years old, was that Baldwin had made me experience that love, that confusion, that guilt. He had spoken to me as if he knew exactly what was going on in my head; he had touched me and moved me. I remember standing in my bedroom with the book in my hand deciding I wanted to do that: I wanted to make a stranger feel what I felt just by the words I chose.

I only had the chance to see Baldwin that one time. I wish now I’d said something more intelligent or listened harder when he spoke. I don’t even remember what the lecture was about. I know he laughed when I blushed, and told me that in the future, when I was poor and miserable, not to blame him.

I don’t.



Diana Wagman’s most recent novel is “The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets.” She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.


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