Author: James Baldwin.
Publisher: Penguin Classics.
From the illustrious mind of James Baldwin, one of the greatest writers on race and sexuality, Another Country (1962) tackles subjects that were considered taboo in 60’s American society. It is an exploration of race relations, masculinity, sexuality, class and the expatriate. The novel begins with Rufus, a black jazz musician, and his life in New York city, and then follows the lives of his friends Vivaldo, Cass, Richard, Eric, and his sister Ida.
A prolific thinker on race in America, Baldwin brings racial issues to the forefront using his characters’ relationships. The character of Rufus is a centrepiece for the treatment of black men in America. He is depressed, aggressive, and troubled because of society’s view of him as lesser than white people. His internalised racism leads him to abuse alcohol, become financially unstable, and even abusive to those around him. His relationship with Leona explores the dynamics of an interracial relationship. The abuse he inflicts on her is symbolic of the power he tries to wield over white America.
Similarly, Vivaldo and Ida’s relationship explores the dynamics between black and white America, and the stigma of interracial intimacy. They receive criticism from both black and white people for their relationship, from being seen as traitors to their race to feeling like they don’t belong in a particular part of town. Ida, herself, is a powerful figure for the discussion of race; Baldwin uses her narrative to show how the experiences of race cannot simply be explained, they must be lived. Thus, a distance begins to form between them due to the disconnect in their racial experiences. In these depictions, Baldwin foregrounds the claustrophobic nature of being black, even in the liberal locals of Greenwich Village.
Like in his earlier novel Giovanni’s Room (1956), Baldwin revisits his discussion of homosexuality, bisexuality and the expatriate, with a more optimistic outlook. Eric, an American actor living in France, has a his own section where his problematic sexual relations in Alabama are compared to his liberated life in France with his boyfriend Yves. Sexuality is large thread that flows throughout the novel, whether uses as a weapon or an act of love, it explores the inner psyche of each character. Most of the male characters in the novel are bisexual; Eric uses sex as a way to comfort Cass but he ultimately in love with Yves. Vivaldo, boyfriend of Ida, comes to accept his bisexuality after he sleeps with Eric, and learns that he has an inner yearning for passivity. Rufus himself was sexually involved with Eric before he Eric left USA. Baldwin has a deep understanding of how sexuality is connected to people’s mentalities and their unconscious desires. Each character’s mental journey is intricately traced, showing how Bladwin was in tune with how people ticked.
In an interview with RTÉ Lyric FM’s John Kelly, Colm Tóibín, who wrote the introduction, talks about how Another Country explores masculinity. Baldwin was critical of the suffocating nature of traditional masculinity, which is undoubtedly apparent in this work. The majority of the male characters struggle with power. Rufus, Richard and Vivaldo struggle in their relationships with their female partners as they all feel levels of emasculation. Baldwin delves into the nature of restricted masculinity as it can lead to abuse and aggression. He describes the toxicity of this type of psyche, showing the downfall of each character who behaves in such a manner. Baldwin captured the essence of masculinity in the 60’s America leading up to the emergence of masculinity in crisis, such as the protests over the Vietnam War. Like the threatened governmental authority, the men who feature in this novel all feel endangered by losing control over their more agentic female partners.
What Baldwin manages to do is open the male characters up to more fluid masculinites. Through a relinquishing of their overbearing dominance, the male characters learn to listen to their female partners and move away from their traditional beliefs of limited masculinity. Through sexual intimacy with other men, bisexuality allows the men to broaden the scope of their relationships to other people and look inwardly at their own psyche and desires. Vivaldo, for example, learns about his inner desire for passivity with Eric and how letting go of control can be pleasurable and rewarding.
Another Country is a deep intellectual journey into the psycho-social nature of race, sexuality, and masculinity during 60’s America. Although accurate to this time period, Baldwin’s ideas are still relevant to contemporary society and can teach us a lot about social relations and what drives are psyches.