“Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin is the inaugural Ballerina Book Club Classic pick. Follow the discussion by signing up for our newsletter.
On re-reading “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin
I read James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” for the first time in 2019. It had been passed around my friends and made its way to my dressing room spot at the Metropolitan Opera House one spring season. Taking in the pages, full of handwritten notes, asterisks, highlighter and underlines, felt like a rite of passage. Reading this copy of this book, I suddenly felt closer to the lives of my queer counterparts at American Ballet Theatre. Have you ever had that feeling when someone says or does something you so exactly identify with it renders you speechless? This was how I felt. Understood.
This time around with Ballerina Book Club, I was excited to revisit a masterpiece that felt so tender to me and my heart. I was especially excited to reread it now that I have lived a little more and come to terms with some of my own personal truths.
“Giovanni’s Room” centers on David, an American boy raised by his widowed father and aunt. Our protagonist, disturbed by the loss of his mother and the impending pressures of his father to become a “real man,” escapes to France to find himself.
This may sound surprising, but the day that you realize you’re gay, there’s no parade. At least not for me. Sexuality, contrary to what many might believe, is not something observable to the eye. It is something that is felt, something that is discovered about oneself along the way. Imagine being a teenager having to reconcile your feelings about yourself, while society and its anvil of impositions lie upon your back. As if puberty weren’t complicated enough, throw in the societal confines of the 1950s and you have David.
After some time in Paris, David is left to his own devices when his girlfriend, Hella, journeys to Spain to contemplate marriage. While Hella is away, David connects with Jacques, a gay acquaintance who offers financial support. Together, they venture one night to a gay bar, owned by Jacques’ friend Guillaume. Enter Giovanni, the new and handsome barman. (Oh là là!) After a failed attempt to pick up Giovanni, Jacques runs off with Guillaume, and David and Giovanni spark an instant connection. Things with Giovanni progress quickly, and David is forced to face the self he had been hiding from and running toward for so long.
In the same drag of a cigarette, David can love and loathe Giovanni. David’s spectrum of emotion is vast and conflicted. But how could it not be? He has a war going on inside of him, and shame is the death of liberation.
Here’s the thing about suppression: When you do it for long enough, you lose track of where your truth ends and where society’s constructs begin. You feel ashamed of your own individuality and weave a web of self-convinced falsehoods in order to fit the mold. But you can only run from yourself for so long; and sooner or later, the truth comes knocking.
I spent a few years, quite literally, convincing myself that I was not gay. I was not attracted to men, I was admiring them. Aspiring to be like them. These years are tricky because while you go through the motions of what you think others expect of you, you are simultaneously extinguishing your natural reactions to life. David, on the brink of marriage to Hella, enters into a particularly trying tug-of-war with himself. He detests the idea that he could really love a man, but cannot defy what’s innate to his nature. Or can he?
There were a few themes that only became clear to me the second time I read this book. One was the comparison of David and Giovanni with Jacques and Guillaume. There is clear scorn and fear of becoming like their deviant and lonely elder counterparts, and on the flip side, an envy of youth, beauty and opportunity. The relationships between them are fickle, fiery and full of faithless desperation, yet they rely on each other to survive.
The other theme I had missed was the symbolism of Giovanni and David’s relationship. In my first read, I was so wrapped up in the romance between the two and my longing for their success as a pair. But this time, I noticed something more symbolic. I kept thinking of RuPaul’s famous line: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” David’s tempestuous feelings toward Giovanni were more accurately representative of his inability to love himself. And Giovanni’s room, a space for love and emotional depravity, was synonymous to David’s heart — a place decorated with conflict, pressure, fear, lust and irresolution.
What is most beautiful to me about this work is its ability to identify and articulate with such clarity the very complicated struggle that humanity faces with self-acceptance. When you’re caught between society, family and friends, finding the space for your individuality to blossom can feel like seeking rain in a desert. Each one of these unique characters in their own right is desperate for internal peace. These consistent and beautiful emotional juxtapositions reiterate to me two things: how chaotic it is to love and how impossible it can feel to love yourself.
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