115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Variousness of Baldwin’s Rooms: Avatars and Resisting Iconicity in Giovanni’s Room and Sedat Pakay’s Visions of James Baldwin

Christopher J Varela, University of California, Irvine

This project adopts a black feminist visual studies lens, adapting the concepts of “avatar” and ‘black iconicity,” to place James Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, in conversation with Sedat Pakay’s film and photograph work of Baldwin to explore how these works stage authorial and subject performance to shift discursive foci from binary constructions of race and sexuality to complex accounts of such through the canny use of space, movement, and variousness.


In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956), the main character, David, contemplates the nature of sexual experience as well as his own actions and desires that have rendered him partially culpable for his ex-lover Giovanni’s impending execution: “People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted” (5). This paper claims that Baldwin, posing race and sexuality as both ontological possibility and threat, produces this quality of variousness through the text itself in its ability to hold and in its insistence on holding danger and vulnerability in simultaneity. The novel’s contemporary American readers, including its original intended publisher, largely excoriated James Baldwin for both writing from the viewpoint of a white male narrator/main character rather than from the subject position of something like “blackness” as well as writing about “homosexuality” or “bisexuality.” While there has been some current reassessment/exploration of Giovanni’s Room in queer, black, and queer black studies—most recently, extensively, and clearly by in Matt Brim’s James Baldwin and the Queer Imagination—, there remains a dearth of scholarship on this early second novel in Baldwin’s oeuvre. This project borrows and adapts two concepts from black feminist visual studies—“avatar,” as developed by Uri McMillan, and “black iconicity,” as per Nicole Fleetwood—to place Giovanni’s Room in conversation with Sedat Pakay’s short film, From Another Place (1973), and photography from that same era in James Baldwin in Turkey: Bearing Witness from Another Place (2012). By doing so, we can explore how the novel is deeply concerned with visibility—what is made strategically visible or not visible—, but also theorize what the failure or problematics of this strategy can articulate.

            More specifically, we can read Baldwin’s adoption of a white queer protagonist/narrator as staging an avatar, as an act of creating cultural objecthood by manipulating or resisting the expectations of his public persona as a burgeoning black writer, a rhetorical performance akin to what Stephani Li cheekily calls “playing in the white.” This authorial performance shifts the discursive foci from binary constructions of race and sexuality to complex accounts of such through the canny use of space, movement, and the concept of variousness. Likewise, Pakay’s photography and film work on Baldwin can be read as part of a strategy of performance that makes visible the simultaneous, multi-valent modes of Baldwin’s subject/object positionality through a play of space and motion that produces variousness in what becomes the image of Baldwin as text. This variousness complicates “black iconicity”—“the ways in which singular images or signs come to represent a whole host of historical occurrences and processes” (Fleetwood, Troubling Vision, 2)—while also performing a unique version of iconicity. As well, by using the concept of avatar as a framework, this project seeks to avoid the problematic conflation of author with narrator/main character or reading Giovani’s Room as autobiography, and instead reads these instances of representation and resistance to representation as a strategy of managing and maneuvering amongst racist and homophobic publics and their expectations.