Bi Book Club: Another Country

By Muhammad Modibo Shareef

November 21, 2021

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Photo credit: Pexels/Designecologist

James Baldwin's writing is one of the most potent avenues that allow people to examine the human psyche and society at large. In 1961, he wrote, 

Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.

He utilized fiction and non-fiction to confront and beautifully depict issues that continue to linger in the minds of Americans. Baldwin's essays still get plenty of accolades from audiences today, but his novels are often overlooked in many ways. 

In 1962, Baldwin's third novel, Another Country, was published. Following the footsteps of Giovanni's Room (Baldwin's second novel), Another Country takes place predominantly in Greenwich Village and Harlem in New York City. It is an unflinching look into the lives of folks plagued by inner turmoil and self-destructive expectations. Another Country tackles heavy themes, including race, bisexuality, and adultery. Through it all, Baldwin's novel is a beautiful story of intimacy and the fatal cost of conformity. Please be warned that I will be discussing the book's plot, and there will be SPOILERS ahead.

Book cover featuring abstract art of figures in red and other behind in dark colors.
Image/Dial Press

The greatness of Another Country lies within the complexity of its characters. The first part of the book focuses on Rufus Scott, who is a Black musician. He achieves moderate success and makes a living as a drummer. The novel begins with his fall from grace. We learn about Rufus' days as a respected performer through the recollections of the narrator. Despite his talent and confident demeanor, Rufus is desperate for an inner peace made unattainable by the color of his skin and his inability to accept his own bisexuality. The racism of mid-twentieth-century New York exacerbates Rufus' experience as a bi man. The excruciating pain that the world inflicts on him handicapped Rufus' ability to love anyone healthily:

He remembered only that Eric had loved him; as he now remembered that Leona had loved him. He had despised Eric's manhood by treating him as a woman, by telling him how inferior he was to a woman, by treating him as nothing more than a hideous sexual deformity. But Leona had not been a deformity. And he had used against her the very epithets he had used against Eric, and in the very same way, with the same roaring in his head and the same intolerable pressure in his chest.

Both Eric and Leona are white southerners who made their way to New York. Racial and gender factors strained their respective relationships with Rufus to the breaking point. Ultimately, Another Country brilliantly portrays the historical implication of interracial love through these characters' connection when interracial unions and same-sex desires were heavily frowned upon by society.

Eric is another fascinating bi character in the novel. He is an actor who comes from a privileged background. Nevertheless, Eric never fits in with his community in the South due to his sexuality. He meets Rufus in New York but eventually moves to Paris. Eric falls in love with a man named Yves while in France. However, he decides to move back to New York after receiving the news of Rufus' suicide. In New York, Eric has an affair with a married woman named Cass; she is the person who informed Eric of Rufus' tragic fate. Eric says something to Cass that is very compelling for the reader right before they sleep together for the first time. He says, "You make me feel things I didn't think I'd ever feel again." 

Eric's phrase leading up to their moment of passion speaks volumes to Baldwin's willingness to depict the complicated experiences of some bi men. For the longest time, Eric was indifferent towards his attraction for women because of monosexism. Eric's experience is a sad reality for many bi men who can't explore the full spectrum of themselves because of artificial rules around sexual desires. Even though the book came out decades ago, many people still have a hard time accepting bisexuality, especially male bisexuality, and Eric's experience will continue to resonate with readers today. 

Black and white photo of Jams Baldwin posing with statue of Shakespeare.
James Baldwin on the Albert Memorial with a statue of Shakespeare - Photo by Allan Warren

Another Country takes the time to explore the very human struggles of its many minor characters. There is Vivaldo, Rufus' best friend and another closeted bi man in the story. I could go in-depth about Cass' pyrrhic marriage to her husband. Her role is another device that Baldwin uses to scrutinize society's unfulfilling standards and tendency to govern people's sexuality. An article can never do the novel justice because Another Country embodies many resonant characters that are fighting against the very real problems of the real world. Baldwin's book is a riveting novel that forces the reader inside the minds and intimate thoughts of beautiful individuals fighting human battles, battles that remain all too familiar to a modern audience. 

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