What is it about Paris that attracts young, wayward writers who regurgitate provocative and inspiring works of fiction? What beauty did Richard Wright witness when he wrote his inextricably beautiful, yet gruesome novel The Outsiders? Or the daily struggles of identity Baldwin witnessed from a corner café when he wrote Giovanni’s Room? I ask myself: what must a city have to evoke such powerful and passionate works of art from these Black men? Black men who possessed a hole in the middle of their stomachs from the oppressive racism in America; that breathed the air of a history bound by the smog that caused us to wheeze in desperation. This place stripped the color off these men, leaving them with only the flesh of internal struggles harboring in their hollowed shells. I had no doubt that the only way I would find my answer would be to search deep in the heart and mystery of that very place: Pah-ree, France.
How do I describe Paris and all of her majesty, appreciate her for what she has given me during my tenure there, love up on her for her kindness, her warmth, her glamour, without telling you how much I hated her first. I hated her with the sort of resentment a child has for a toy that was not the one he wanted for Christmas. I hated her because she denied me all the essence I sought having read about the Black people traveling to this city and creating masterpieces. Studying abroad in Paris is a once in a lifetime experience, sometimes. Getting the experience fully funded can be even more rare, so for that I could never deny this opportunity.
But to digress, I had in my mind an idea of Paris before I went: historical visits, shopping sprees, tourist site visits, cultural deep diving. And although I do feel like I’ve done a lot of these things, I had no idea how much culture shock I would experience. A part of me was envious when reading the stories of Baldwin and Wright and their time in Paris. It seemed like although they had many different obstacles to overcome, they still carved out the time needed to perfect their craft. I do believe I was fortunate to be able to come to this city and do what I love, but as important as that was for me, I still feel like I did not apply myself to my fullest capabilities. Or, mostly, that I did not apply myself in order to create more intentionally. It makes me feel unworthy of this experience. I feel almost as if writing must not be as important to me as I think, or rather, I am trying to convince myself that it holds more water in my life than it actually does.
If I could go back, the one thing I would change is how much time I spent crafting new material, as opposed to going out every night. There is a balance that must be upheld, as you cannot go to a new country and not explore its splendor. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of that. But when I went to Paris, I was originally hyper focused on my craft, even starting a new short story while there; I wanted to truly immerse myself in Baldwin’s shoes as I created, hoping that he would find his way into my fingertips, translating words into phrases and then paragraphs and finally full-length short stories. I guess, if I am forced to admit it, that I really wanted Baldwin, and Richard Wright, and Josephine Baker, to all jump inside of me at the same time and force the creativity out of me. I wanted them to do the heavy lifting, I just wanted to show up. And when that did not come to fruition I had no one else to blame but that which had promised me: Paris.
So, I hated Paris with a passion for a time when I returned to the states. That encompassed with catching COVID, almost being robbed twice, having a weird experience with my American-ism that prompted thoughts about my identity, all culminated in an experience that left me sour for majority of my time in France. Everything is a learning experience, and if the documentary Paris is Burning has taught me anything, it is that the world owes you nothing, and if you are going to embody a persona, you better make it your own. Paris is Burning, Burning, Burning, and I couldn’t tell if I was a spectator, or if I was burning up with it.