A couple of years ago, I was making plans for my semester abroad; I was going to study at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (go Badgers!), and it was time for me to decide which classes I wanted to enroll in. I had only one condition: I wanted to take at least one class that I would never be able to find at my own university. When I spent a semester at the National University of Ireland in Galway, I had enrolled in Irish Women’s Poetry. So what did Madison have to offer that my home base didn’t? By the end of the afternoon, I had narrowed down the list to two options,, Ghetto Literature and Literature and HIV/AIDS; on a whim, I picked the latter.
Literature and HIV/AIDS turned out to be one of the most fascinating classes I had ever taken, and I cannot even begin to tell you what an impact it has had on me. Being introduced to Angels in America alone was a lifechanging moment, as was watching the mini series with my roommates. At the end of the final lecture, students lined up to hug the professor and thank him for the experience.* I sent my mentor back in the Netherlands an e-mail and told her that I wanted to write my MA thesis on American AIDS literature. I also started a monthly donation to the largest Dutch HIV/AIDS charity, which I still support to this day.
In this post, I have made a selection from the (very, very long) resource list I had compiled while working on my MA thesis. Since my research was on works written by queer authors during the American HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 80s and 90s, that is mostly the focus of this list as well. It is far from complete, but it is a good place to start, I think. Of course I don’t expect you to read every work I’ve listed, but personally, I would strongly urge you to pick up either Tony Kushner’s Angels In America or Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast. These are voices that need to be heard.
*The professor’s name is Colin Gillis., the course code for Literature and HIV/AIDS is English 474, and Gillis also teaches Queer Narratives, another class I thoroughly enjoyed. Get on that, Badgers.
Halfway Home (1991), Paul Monette
Home is the place you get to, not the place you came from.
The Gifts of the Body (1994), Rebecca Brown
I leaned over the bed and took him in my arms. I held him as tenderly as I could.
‘Keith,’ I said, ‘your mother is coming. You’ll see your mother soon,’ I said, ‘you’ll see your mother soon.’
I held him and told him again and again. I held him until his mother arrived.
Then I put him in her arms.
Rat Bohemia (1995), Sarah Schulman
It drives me crazy who quickly the great ones get canonized. ‘Blah-blah-blah is such a terrible loss.’ Does that mean that the death of one mediocre slob is not as terrible? Do fags have to be geniuses to justify living?
Arkansas (1997), David Leavitt
Love’s poison, I’ve noticed, has a way of lingering in the body even years after love itself has withdrawn its fangs.
The Farewell Symphony (1997), Edmund White
I thought that never had a group been placed on such a rapid cycle—oppressed in the fifties, freed in the sixties, exalted in the seventies and wiped out in the eighties.
Borrowed Time (1988), Paul Monette
Being scared is not the same as being convinced. Fear still has the room to maneuver, and every wave of its energy goes into pushing the terrible thing away, like the ocean leaving a body on the sand.
Heaven’s Coast (1996), Mark Doty
I no longer think of AIDS as a solvent, but perhaps rather as a kind of intensifier, something which makes things more firmly, deeply themselves. Is this true of all terminal illness, that it intensifies the degree of what already is? Watching Wally, watching friends who were either sick themselves or giving care to those who were, I saw that they simply became more generous or terrified, more cranky or afraid, more doubtful or more trusting, more contemplative or more in flight. As individual and unpredictable as this illness seems to be, the one thing I found I could say with certainty was this: AIDS makes things more intensely what they already are.
Hospital Time (1997), Amy Hoffman
The patient lies in the ICU, and you charge in gabbing about the weather, which you have brought into the room: you shake the rain from your hair, or the cold air reddens your cheeks and clings to your coat, or sweat beads on your upper lip and dampens the hair on your temples. You draw the patient’s attention to the view from the window, the time of day: the sun, the moon, the clouds. Your vigor, your life outside, is an affront. It’s utterly frivolous, the world and its stupid times. Here in the hospital is the real thing. Eternity.
My Brother (1997), Jamaica Kincaid
People are born and they just can’t go on and on, but it is so hard, so hard for the people left behind; it’s so hard to see them go, as if it had never happened before, and so hard it could not happen to anyone else, no one but you could survive this kind of loss, seeing someone go, seeing them leave you behind; you don’t want to go with them, you only don’t want them to go.
The Man With Night Sweats (1992), Thom Gunn
My thoughts are crowded with death
and it draws so oddly on the sexual
that I am confused
confused to be attracted
by, in effect, my own annihilation.
My Alexandria (1993) and Atlantis (1995), Mark Doty
It’s been six months,
almost exactly, since the doctor wrote
not even a real word
but an acronym, a vacant
that draws meanings into itself,
reconstitutes the world.
We tried to say it was just
a word; we tried to admit
it had power and thus to nullify it
by means of our acknowledgement.
Love’s Instruments (1995), Melvin Dixon
We promised to grow old together, our dream
since years ago when we began
to celebrate our common tenderness
and touch. So here we are:
Dry, ashy skin, falling hair, losing breath
at the top of the stairs, forgetting things.
Vials of Septra and AZT line the bedroom dresser
like a boy’s toy army poised for attack -
your red, my blue, and the casualties are real.
Does Your House Have Lions? (1997), Sonia Sanchez
this father always a guest
never a permanent resident of my veins
always a traveler to other terrains
The Normal Heart (1985), Larry Kramer
We’re all going to go crazy, living this epidemic every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives and not knowing what it’s like, what we’re going through. We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peacetime, and we’re all in the same country.
Angels in America (1991), Tony Kushner
I’ve lived through such terrible times and there are people who live through much worse. But you see them living anyway. […] Death usually has to take life away. I don’t know if that’s just the animal. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die, but I recognize the habit; the addiction to being alive. So we live past hope. If I can find hope anywhere, that’s it, that’s the best I can do. It’s so much not enough. It’s so inadequate. But still, bless me anyway. I want more life.
AND ALSO THIS
The documentary We Were Here (2011)
Trailer here - don’t watch without a million tissues on standby. Seriously.
And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987), Randy Shilts
The story of the first Wall Street Journal piece on the epidemic would later be cited in journalism reviews as emblematic of how the media handled AIDS in the first years of the epidemic. The reporter, it turned out, had long been pressuring editors to run a story on the homosexual disorder. He had even written a piece in 1981 that the editors refused to print. Finally, the reporter was able to fashion an article around the twenty-three heterosexuals, largely intravenous drug users, who were now counted among GRID patients. With confirmation of bona fide heterosexuals, the story finally merited sixteen paragraphs deep in the largest-circulation daily newspaper in the United States, under the headline: ‘New, Often-Fatal Illness in Homosexuals Turns Up in Women, Heterosexual Males.’
The gay plague got covered only because it finally had struck people who counted, people who were not homosexuals.
Vito Russo’s “Why We Fight” (1988 – full speech here)
Living with AIDS is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices. It isn’t happening to them. They’re walking the streets as though we weren’t living through some sort of nightmare. And only you can hear the screams of the people who are dying and their cries for help. No one else seems to be noticing.
Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), Susan Sontag (more on Illness as Metaphor here)
Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. Although we prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
The Diseased Pariah News (1990 – 1999 – online archive here)
What’s so damn funny about a pandemic devastating the world? Well, we have it and sometimes we find it amusing. Besides, who wants to be serious all the time, even about fatal illness? So what we’re hoping to do here is bring some much-needed levity to the experience of HIV infection.
Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (1997), Marita Sturken
AIDS at 30: A History (2012), Victoria A. Harden
Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS (2009), Deborah B. Gould
The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience (2013), Perry N. Halkitis