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literature

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AIDS Literature  
 
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1993

The most sustained and affecting gay American AIDS fiction of 1993 was Jameson Currier's collection Dancing on the Moon: Short Stories About AIDS. At the hearts of most of these "simple," realistic stories are acts of "passionate" care-taking that demonstrate how the lives of gay men under AIDS, their friends, and families "keep interweaving" and that unembarrassedly convey "the unbearable sorrow which had punctured their souls."

In his moving Scissors, Paper, Rock of the same year, a collection of linked short stories in the form of a novel, Fenton Johnson also uses traditional realism to "name the unspeakable death" of a young gay man with AIDS who returns to his working-class Kentucky family to die and whose story takes up half of the book.

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The landmark Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS (1993), the first anthology devoted entirely to African-American AIDS writing, follows the sample in the earlier Brother to Brother in maintaining that literature's testifying, "kicking and screaming" tradition, with a range of outspoken materials covering interviews, personal essays, fiction, and some vivid poems: for example, Marvin K. White's "Last Rights," Rodney McCoy, Jr.'s "Confessions of an HIV Health Educator," Harold McNeil Robinson's "The Vale of Kashmir," and B. Michael Hunter's "Untitled News."

Several other 1993 works reflect in differing ways the current national tension about "speaking" and "touching" AIDS. The most blatantly counter-immersive is Paul Rudnick's highly praised play Jeffrey, where occasional spirited testimony about AIDS is engulfed by burlesque or camp humor ("It's still our party," says Darius's ghost). The audience is ultimately allowed the self-exonerating experience of feeling it is encountering AIDS while actually being largely diverted from it. Jeffrey's commercial and critical success indicates how powerful the need to evade AIDS remains in our society.

Other 1993 works about AIDS seem to have immersive aims but are also instilled with elements that distance the subject. In the painful death of the narrator's lover, Jasper, as well as in its unusual amount of technical medical information, Christopher Coe's Such Times seems to want to impress readers with AIDS' "waves of dying," yet the characters' often heartless "pansy bitch" personae give the book a distant and chilly texture.

In James Robert Baker's outwardly gritty Tim and Pete, an "over the edge" Southern California sexual picaresque, violent rage toward reactionary national responses to AIDS (at the end, a gang of drugged-out "postmodern" terrorist gay men with AIDS is on its way to machine-gun the convention of the right-wing "American Values Foundation") is offset by varieties of alienating thoughtlessness, from the terrorists' "moral insanity" to the title pair's pop-entertainment derivativeness to reliance on contrived plot devices and soap opera romance conventions.

Even the two most acclaimed 1993 works about AIDS--Tony Kushner's two-part Angels in America: Millenium Approaches and Perestroika and Dale Peck's Martin and John--have, along with their obvious distinction, some overlooked concessive implications. Angels in America won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for best play (both parts), but more time is needed to tell whether the praise lavished on it reflects its merit or chiefly critics' guilt at having overlooked earlier AIDS art.

In the stories of Prior, Louis, Joe, Belize, and Roy Cohn, Angels in America has brought AIDS and American gay male life before more mainstream viewers than any other work of AIDS writing. Yet the play also regularly shifts focus to another subject, heterosexual women (whom it ironically makes Mormons, one of the most religions), and also relies heavily on spectacle and a supernatural context (which it then ultimately tries to frame ambiguously). Each of these elements implies an audience (and world) that doesn't want to "touch" AIDS too frontally, plainly, or entirely, and, no matter what Kushner's intention, gives the play an evasive dimension.

Relatedly, though we learn at the end of the consciously "decentered" Martin and John that Peck's various "Martin" and "John" stories are the narrator's way of finding something "to grab on to" after the "real" Martin's death from AIDS, and though some of the scenes of AIDS suffering are harrowing, the actual subject of AIDS does not enter the book until almost halfway through. Moreover, most of the stories do not concern AIDS, though several concern subjects as unnerving in their own terms, such as degenerative illness, child abuse, and homophobic hatred and violence.

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