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AIDS Literature  
 
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Since its appearance in America in 1980, AIDS has shifted from a largely "unspeakable" and "untouchable" phenomenon--because of its first association with a gay male population already stigmatized in those terms--to a semi-acknowledged and still dismaying reality. Certain sectors of society now regularly "touch" and "speak" about AIDS, whereas the larger population remains generally ignorant of or indifferent to the disease and frustrated activists and practitioners see no cure in sight.

This tension was captured in microcosm on World AIDS Day 1993, when, on the one hand, the U.S. Postal Service issued a red-ribbon AIDS stamp and, on the other, President Clinton cited in a speech the recent stirring New York Times Magazine essay "Whatever Happened to AIDS?" by the late journalist Jeffrey Schmalz, conceding that AIDS is "receding in the public consciousness as a thing to be passionate about."

Sponsor Message.

A striking amount of AIDS literature has been written in the relatively short span of the epidemic. In the United States and much of the West, this literature has also largely been a gay literature. This fact has reflected partly the epidemiology of the disease since at first gay or bisexual men constituted almost all American AIDS cases; partly the preexistence of a politicized gay literature available to embrace the issue; and partly the already outcast status of gay men, who had nothing left to lose in taking up the stigmatized subject.

Though infectivity is rising proportionately faster now in other CDC-defined risk groups, such as heterosexual women and IV-drug users, those groups have as yet produced only a scattering of their own AIDS writing.

Two Approaches to Writing about AIDS

Even in its apparently most private examples, AIDS literature has inevitably been a social literature. Common to all of it has been some desire to "speak" the "unspeakableness" of AIDS and to bring the detached majority audience in closer "touch" with the subject. Some authors have practiced an immersiveness whose priority is to expose readers as closely as possible to the emergency of the epidemic and the suffering of affected individuals. In its rawest examples, this kind of literature mimics a frontal assault on the majority society's denial by thrusting readers into a direct, unrelieved, imaginative encounter with the devastation of AIDS.

At the same time, AIDS literature has also had a counter-immersive strain, which reflects marked conflict about sustained "touch" with the subject. In this typically ironic mode, the characters are often in kinds of denial, whether Persons With AIDS (PWAs) themselves or survivors or bystanders, and an immersive incident or realization is countered by some distancing device--such as camp wit, broad humor, or a shift to another subject--that ultimately shields the audience from too jarring a confrontation with AIDS. This protective framing may provide a temporary release from distress, but it also risks cooperating with the larger cultural denial of AIDS since it does nothing to dislodge readers from it.

Immersive AIDS Literature

Though some AIDS writing had appeared earlier, it was not until 1985 that AIDS became a widely acknowledged American literary subject, with the success of two New York plays, William M. Hoffman's As Is and Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. Each vividly "spoke" the emergency of AIDS to audiences that had typically seen no artistic demonstration of it before. Hoffman combined the poignant tale of a person with AIDS and his lover with fuguelike choruses of other affected people, whereas Kramer offered a high-decibel chronicle of early AIDS activism augmented by graphic didactic sets.

In 1985 also appeared the pioneering "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," Part III of Flight from Nevèrÿon by the gay African-American science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. Delany intertwines reflections about the mounting AIDS crisis in New York between 1982 and 1984 (including a rare depiction of AIDS among street people) with a narrative about a similar plague in his fantasy realm.

An early portrait of AIDS among African Americans by a black gay author, about a man who is shunned by his lover's family at his lover's funeral, is the story "Cut Off from Among Their People" by Craig G. Harris (d. 1991), which appeared in In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology (1986), edited by Joseph Beam (d. 1988).

Appearing in France in 1987 was the intense Corps à Corps (trans. Mortal Embrace, 1988) by Emmanuel Dreuilhe (d. 1988). Based on Dreuilhe's diary during the preceding three years in New York, this "News from the Front" is pervaded with martial metaphors that occasionally obscure the specificity of the author's experience of AIDS while attesting to its severity.

The success in the same year of And the Band Played On, the impassioned chronicle by Randy Shilts (d. 1994) of the widespread national inaction about AIDS between 1980 and 1985, gave added momentum to AIDS literature.

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Top: Larry Kramer in 2007. Photograph created by David Shankbone, edited by Daniel Case.
Above: Randy Shilts. Photograph courtesy reporterzero.com.

  
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