Writers are observers of people, events, and political theater. We observe and sometimes record what we’ve seen, felt, and heard. Writers of a seasoned age who have lived through life experiences ranging from the very tragic to the most triumphant step through the writers’ world wearing a “shell of expectations.”
We expect romance novels to end happily. (See K.D. Willamson’s blog of March 19.) We anticipate plot twists will wind their way through our mystery stories. In writing speculative fiction we create fantasy worlds inhabited by creatures whose appearances and characteristics are limited only by our imaginations. Once in a while our characters surprise us by breaking through our expectation shells and creating fissures that expose other possibilities and truths we hadn’t foreseen when we began writing a particular story.
For example, an author begins to write a meticulously researched and outlined murder mystery. From the first word, she knows the killer’s identity. After all,she’s created the killer’s back story. She knows what has motivated the person to commit the crime. Or does she?
As that character becomes multidimensional, she and the author traipse through complicated territory. The character reveals deeply embedded psychological and/or physical woulds with which she’s lived since her childhood. At her core she is needy and vulnerable.
When the plot forces the main character to deal with an intriguing law enforcement agent as well as a highly skilled and empathetic psychiatrist, the story becomes less a murder mystery and more a character study with elements of romance, racial and socio-economic conflicts that began long before any of the main characters were born. The genre shift occurs because the author allows the cracks in her “expectation shell” to widen and split open.
An author intends to write one novel, but many times s/he produces a different one. Writers find it easy to allow their characters to steer them in an unplanned direction, to leave one genre and enter another one. to say it more plainly, shifts happen.
What does this preamble have to do with James Baldwin? He was a masterful genre-shifter. He jumped deftly from novels to essays to plays and back again in order to write about the world as he experienced it. Constrained by an American culture that either punished him for being black or preferred that he deny the reality of his sexual identity, he left the U.S. and went to France where he shed racism’s power to paralyze a creative mind, prevent its development, and stifle a writing career.
Baldwin arrived in Paris with little money, no knowledge of French, but with a wealth of determination to write. He accomplished that goal, all the while maintaining his awareness of the civil rights movement roiling through the U.S.
His absence from America during that period bothered him. He felt he wasn’t doing anything to further the movement. During his return visits to the U.S. he gave talks, met and befriended civil rights leaders, marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and participated in the March on Washington, D.C. The essays he wrote during that time felt more genuine to him than his efforts to write fiction. Writing and public speaking was his way of contributing to the struggle. He called himself a “witness.” A more fitting label might have been “a reporting witness.”
Whenever I’m asked with whom (alive or deceased) I’d most like to share a meal, I say the names James Baldwin and Josephine Baker. The latter because her evolution from an amateur dancer in St. Louis to a professional Parisian show woman and anti-Nazi Resistance figure was revolutionary. The former because of Baldwin’s exquisite self-expression and ability to succinctly synthesize America’s tragic flaws and offer a prescription that could have led to its healing. The distance that results from a physical separation from his native land allowed him to see and understand with crystal clarity the reasons for for his country’s frailties and short comings.
If he were to face our current national situation, what would James Baldwin do?
I imagine he would write essays and speak out until the political climate change choked his words. He would witness and testify. He would explain to us why the film “La La Land” was such a hit this past Oscar season. He would cry tears of joy about “Moonight” winning the Oscar for best film. He would stoke our awareness of the danger of Alt-right nationalism and encourage us to spread our written words regarding that danger to the pages of our books, newspapers, blogs, and social media posts He would remind us and our readers of one of his book’s titles, The Fire Next Time.
And he would proclaim loudly just how close we are to the fire this time.
Renee Bess is the author of five novels, all published by Regal Crest Enterprises. Aside from writing a monthly blog for Women and Words, Renee is co-curating (along with Lee Lynch)an anthology of short fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. She expects this new book, Our Happy Hours – LGBT Voices from the Gay Bars, will be published in the very near future. You can find Renee on Facebook and you can visit her web site: