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Narratives of hope

Angels in America. Photo: Special Arrangement

Angels in America. Photo: Special Arrangement

First identified officially in the U.S. in 1981, AIDS has since become a global epidemic. While the recent UNAIDS and WHO estimate of 33.3 million people to be living with HIV illustrates the persisting threat, AIDS themed literature continues, since the beginning of the crisis, to destigmatise and humanise the syndrome.

AIDS as a literary theme emerged in the U.S. with the publication of Larry Mitchell's novel The Terminal Bar (1982). Since, initially, homosexuals were perceived as the vectors of AIDS, the first-wave responses were predominantly produced by gay writers.

Unflinching accounts

Not surprisingly, they documented the lives of gay men with HIV/AIDS. For instance, Paul Monette's elegiac memoir Borrowed Time (1988) offers an unflinching and intimate account of his lover Roger Horwitz's eventual death from AIDS. Similarly, Mark Doty's remarkable poems in My Alexandria (1993) and Atlantis (1995) narrate the death of his lover Wally Roberts; the collection of stories The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis (1987) examined the effects of AIDS on gay men and their families.

The first-wave also saw the emergence of both critical scholarship and literary activism in response to HIV/AIDS. Paul Reed's Facing It: A Novel on AIDS (1984), Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart (1985) and William M. Hoffman's As Is (1985), for example, disparaged the political inertia in addressing the crisis while resisting the prevalent misconception about AIDS as a ‘gay plague.' AIDS literary activism reached its zenith with Kramer's play The Destiny of Me (1992) and Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Angels in America (1993) which, in different ways, rendered the ordeals of living with AIDS. Paradigmatic non-fictional statements in the first-wave include Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On (1987), a journalistic account of the AIDS crisis from 1981 to 1985 and Susan Sontag's seminal AIDS and its Metaphors (1989), a study examining the constructed nature of the AIDS.

In fact, the first popularly received AIDS novel was Alice Hoffman's At Risk (1988) that charts the life and death of Amanda Farrell, an 11-year-old white girl who contracted AIDS through blood transfusion. While American Indian physician Abraham Verghese's My Own Country: A Doctor's Story (1995) recalls his experience as a caretaker of HIV/AIDS patients in Tennessee; Rebecca Brown's The Gifts of the Body (1994) chronicles the predicament of AIDS patients from the viewpoint of an unnamed AIDS caretaker.

By the 1990s, the realisation that AIDS affects everyone saw a decline in the gay responses; but, the growing incidence of HIV/AIDS among women, especially ethnic women, initiated a second-wave with HIV positive women as central characters. Notable works include Charlotte Watson Sherman's Touch (1995), Pearl Cleage's What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (1997) and Sheneska Jackson's Li'l Mama's Rules (1997) which describes black women's confrontation with HIV positivity and their attempts to come to terms with it. Similarly, Sapphire's Push (1996) and its film incarnation “Precious” (2009) explores the life of an HIV positive African-American teenager. While the first-wave narratives challenged the homosexualisation of AIDS, the second-wave shared a cautious optimism.

While new medical interventions transformed AIDS into a manageable, chronic disease and the easy availability of information ‘normalised' the panic of 1980s. Literary AIDS narratives in the third decade attest to this transformation and continue to destigmatise the disease through fictional and non-fictional renditions. This is borne out in Marvelyn Brown's The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive (2008), which concerns Brown's HIV positive life and how she self-fashions herself to morally triumph over the syndrome. Edited by Kelly Norman Ellis and ML Hunter, Spaces Between Us: Poetry, Prose and Art on HIV/AIDS (2010) is a significant anthology that engages the taboo subject of sex and sexuality. Other notable works include Gil L. Robertson edited Not in My Family: AIDS in the African American Community (2006); Paula W. Peterson's memoir Penitent with Roses: An HIV+ Mother Reflects (2002) and Women in the Grove (2004).

In India

Even though the first AIDS case in India was identified in 1986, AIDS as a theme in Indian English literature remains under-explored. However, a few literary narratives deserve special mention. Significant among them are Kalpana Jain's Positive Lives: The Story of Ashok and Others with HIV (2002), which traces the story of Ashok Pillai, a radio operator in the Navy, and Mahesh Dattani's A Different Season ( Ek Alag Mausam ) (2005), rendered into a movie in 2003. Mortal Cure: A Novel by Dr. Sunil Vaid (2007) unfolds the quest of Anjali Srinath, an US-born Indian doctor and Prerna, the prime ministerial candidate of the Indian National Party, to find a cure for HIV/AIDS. Non-fictional Sex, Lies and AIDS (2001) by Siddharth Dube takes on governmental negligence in addressing AIDS in India. Published in collaboration with Avahan and edited by Negar Akhavi, AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India (2008) is a compilation of fiction, reportage and ethnography by 16 well-known writers. This inspiring anthology remains a valuable record in that it documents the living portraits of HIV/AIDS in India.

AIDS undoubtedly remains an unabated global pandemic and a challenge to the medical fraternity. AIDS literary narratives through an empathetic portrayal of the physical and emotional strivings of HIV/AIDS patients not only resist the figural meanings of AIDS but also educate, subvert and revise public (mis)perceptions. To conclude, literary AIDS narratives in offering political, psychological, and historical insights into the disease remain a valuable cultural record.

The authors are with the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchi.


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Printable version | Sep 27, 2022 8:46:36 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/narratives-of-hope/article2681005.ece