"Bearing Witness from Another Place: James Baldwin in Turkey"
Photographs by Sedat Pakay
I don't know about you, but my pre-election nerves are shot by the negative campaign ads and nightly news prognostications. I have done due diligence in researching the candidates and ballot issues, and I will certainly exercise my right and privilege to vote, but at this point I confess that I'm doing what I can to take refuge from the electioneering hype.
Thank goodness for books. This week I found relief by sitting down with "Bearing Witness from Another Place: James Baldwin in Turkey." Published by University of Washington Press in conjunction with a new exhibit currently on view at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, the book features intimate portraits of African-American author James Baldwin living as an ex-pat in Istanbul during extended periods in the 1960s.
The images were captured by Turkish photographer Sedat Pakay, and starting with the striking black-and-white cover, which features both the "distinct topography" of Baldwin's profile and Istanbul's mosques and minarets in silhouette, you know you're in for a visual feast.
There are images of Baldwin on the streets of Istanbul - getting his shoes shined, relaxing in a tea garden, having a face-to-face moment with a fishmonger's regal pelican.
There's also a marvelous photograph of the diminutive Baldwin trying to strike up a conversation with a strapping armed guard in front of the ornate gates of the Dolmabahce Palace.
Some photos show Baldwin in the homes of friends, donning an undersized apron and presiding over the kitchen sink, cutting up at parties, or - in a more pensive moment - taking in his adopted scenery from a friend's apartment window.
While many of these images convey the notion that "no man is an island," there are others that zero in on Baldwin as an individual. There is a terrific close-up portrait in the frontispiece. Later in the book, a photograph conveys the simplicity of Baldwin's dark form tangled in white sheets during an afternoon nap.
And my favorite images show the author at work: Baldwin, bathed in light from an unseen window, sitting in front of his typewriter and pounding out the pages for his next novel, "Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone."
This gallery of photographs is supplemented by a foreword from Seattle-based novelist Charles Johnson and essays by others, including another Seattle-based author, Nancy Rawles, and an old cohort of Baldwin's from the 1960s, David Leeming. His reflection of time spent in Istanbul with "Jimmy" richly evokes the mood of the time and demonstrates how it fed Baldwin's muse.
The only contribution that doesn't seem to mesh well is a poem by Michael Harper.
Finally, author and professor Howard Norman was an admirer of Baldwin and a friend of Pakay, and Northwest African American Museum executive director Barbara Earl Thomas credits him with seeing that the exhibit came to Seattle. Norman's interview with Pakay and written appreciation of the photographer at book's end cap a very satisfying experience.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com.