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HIV/AIDS: A Postmodern Epidemic and Its Depiction (March 2016): Cultural Responses

By Sharon Leslie


The legacy of the artists and creative people who have died from AIDS or suffered the loss of loved ones is huge.  Many of the personal narratives and memoirs about the effect of AIDS on people’s lives reflect the fatalistic mood of the 1980s.  In Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, poet Paul Monette candidly recalls his longtime partner’s illness and eventual death.  In the wake of that work, while he himself was dying of AIDS-related complications, Monette wrote Love Alone: 18 Elegies for Rog, a collection of raw and bitter poems.  The autobiographical documentary film Silverlake Life: The View from Here balances an intimate love story of two gay men (both HIV-positive) with an account of the daily grind of pharmacy visits, physical exhaustion, and despair as the men were in the last stages of the disease.  Tom Joslin—the director of the film and one of its two subjects—died during the making of the film, and film student Peter Friedman completed work on it.

Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival comprises expanded, previously published essays by journalist Andrew Sullivan.  He offers a potent description of the early days of his HIV infection and describes AIDS as an “integrator” that helped him feel part of a community.  In Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, painter, writer, and multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz writes with intensity about his years of drug use and street hustling in New York City.  He blames his anticipated death (he died a year after the book was published) and the deaths of many others on politicians and doctors who did not move fast enough to stop the disease.  In Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir, Mark Doty, who went on to earn the 2008 National Book Award for poetry, describes the “slow erasure” of his partner of more than ten years.  His grief and rage, and the physical effect of his deep emotions, are reflected in his exceptional prose.  Jamaica Kincaid’s memoir, My Brother, relates her journey home to Antigua to help care for her brother who was dying of AIDS.  Witness to AIDS, by Edwin Cameron, a white, HIV-positive South African High Court judge, is both a personal memoir and a story of the moral obligation to challenge and fight the apartheid government.  Abraham Verghese’s My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS recounts the author’s experience treating a Tennessee hospital’s first cases of AIDS.

AIDS memoirs have also taken the form of graphic novels.  In his 7 Miles a Second, David Wojnarowicz uses his intimate, angry narrative and colorful surreal art by James Romberger and colorist Marguerite Van Cook to vividly re-create the New York City street scene of the early 1980s.  Joyce Brabner’s Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted against the Plague, illustrated by Mark Zingarelli, is a more traditional black-and-white graphic novel recounting the typically desperate stories from the early days of the epidemic.  Originally published in French in 2001, and translated into English by Anjali Singh, Frederik Peeters’s Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story is an autobiographical black-and-white graphic novel telling the story of a heterosexual couple who are serodiscordant (i.e., one is HIV-positive, one is HIV-negative).


Many fictional works address the AIDS crisis in a thoughtful way, and a number of short story collections are particularly fine.  In Vital Signs: Essential AIDS Fiction, Richard Canning collects eighteen short stories by authors such as Ann Beattie and Dale Peck.  Canning’s informed historical introduction places these works in the context of the literature on AIDS.  Rebecca Brown’s The Gifts of the Body is a collection of intimate, compassionate short stories told in the voice of a home healthcare worker caring for AIDS patients.  The Way We Write Now: Short Stories from the AIDS Crisis, edited by Sharon Oard Warner, includes Susan Sontag’s seminal AIDS short story “The Way We Live Now.”

There are also many books of memorial poetry addressing the grief and loss of the epidemic.  Poets for Life: Seventy-Six Poets Respond to AIDS, edited by Michael Klein, features the work of Eve Ensler, Wayne Koestenbaum, Thom Gunn, and Walter Holland, among many others, and includes essays by Paul Moore Jr., Joseph Papp, and Carol Muske.  Tory Dent published two award-winning collections of poems about living a life HIV-positive, What Silence Equals and HIV, Mon AmourPersistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS, edited by David Groff and Philip Clark, includes poems by forty-five poets, among them William Dickey, Assotto Saint, and Pulitzer Prize winner James Merrill.  The poems in Diva, by the openly gay Cuban American physician Rafael Campo, touch on memories of Cuba and the deep sense of sadness and loss of patients and their caregivers.

Visual Arts

Not Over: 25 Years of Visual AIDS, written by Robert Atkins et al. and edited by Nelson Santos, provides a history of the Visual AIDS organization, which was founded in 1988 and created the Red Ribbon Project and the annual “Day without Art” project.  The book includes images of Visual AIDS projects, collaborations, and printed matter; the organization’s eponymous website includes an online gallery of artists’ works.  Loss within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, edited by Edmund White, makes real the void created by the loss of many New York artists in the early days of the epidemic.  The book was funded by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.  In Muses from Chaos and Ash: AIDS, Artists, and Art, Andréa Vaucher interviews HIV-positive artists and explores the effect the disease has on their creative works.  Included are filmmaker Marlon Riggs, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, painter Keith Haring, and author Hervé Guibert, to name just a few.  David Wojnarowicz, discussed above, showcases his art in David Wojnarowicz: Brush Fires in the Social Landscape.  Like Wojnarowicz, artist Mark Morrisroe was a former street hustler.  Morrisroe used many types of photographic processes and toward the end of his life created experimental abstract images using x-rays of his own PCP-filled lungs.  His work is reproduced in Mark Morrisroe, which chiefly comprises illustrations and is edited by Beatrix Ruf and Thomas Seelig.  The book is well designed and beautifully printed.  The renowned photographic collective Magnum produced Access to Life; edited by Annalyn Swan and Peter Bernstein, the photography project shows the improvement in people’s health, lives, and finances since beginning antiretroviral treatment in 2007.  In it, photojournalists report from Haiti, Russia, and six other countries.  Each section includes brief biographies of the participants, large-format black-and-white and color photographs, and HIV/AIDS statistics from the country.  The volume is accompanied by a DVD and includes a preface by Desmond Tutu.

Theater, Film, and Performance

HIV/AIDs has been a frequent subject of the performing arts.  Larry Kramer, discussed earlier in this essay as the founder of ACT UP, started his career as a screenwriter and later became a playwright.  His award-winning, semiautobiographical play The Normal Heart, chronicling the early days of AIDS in New York, was staged Off-Broadway in 1985 and later revived on Broadway and adapted by HBO.  That play’s follow-up, The Destiny of Me, is slated for a Broadway revival and an HBO treatment.  Both plays are available in print (in one volume), and The Normal Heart is available on DVD.  The Way We Live Now: American Plays and the AIDS Crisis, edited by M. Elizabeth Osborn, collects ten plays and play excerpts that illustrate the theater world’s response to the AIDS crisis.  Included in the anthology are William Hoffman’s play As Is (a treatment of Sontag’s short story “The Way We Live Now”) and works by Harvey Fierstein and Terrence McNally.  In How to Make Dances in an Epidemic: Tracking Choreography in the Age of AIDS, Dave Gere looks at how the loss of many dancers and choreographers (Alvin Ailey and Rudolf Nureyev among them) to AIDS affected the dance world.  Jonathan Larson’s Broadway musical Rent looks at poor young New Yorkers living with HIV and their relationships.  The play was made into a film and is available on DVD.  Tony Kushner’s award-winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes—probably the best-known dramatic response to the AIDS crisis—affirmed the political Right’s impression of all gay and/or HIV/AIDS-related art as sacrilegious.  Comprising two plays—Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: PerestroikaAngels in America examines AIDS, sexuality, and Reagan-era politics and is available on DVD as an HBO miniseries.  The film Philadelphia, which is about the discrimination and legal battles facing those living with AIDS, was released in 1997 and is likely to have been the first cultural encounter many Americans had with HIV/AIDS.  Derek Jarman’s Blue, a poetic film and audio diary about his AIDS-induced blindness, was filmed against a blank blue screen, with voices—accompanied by music and text—speaking about friends, physical changes, and spiritual quandaries.  Zero Patience, a sexually explicit New Wave musical, has a unique AIDS-related plot involving the ghost of AIDS “patient zero” and is an example of inspiring, low-budget filmmaking.

Ethnomusicologists Gregory Barz and Judah Cohen look specifically at the African continent in their edited volume The Culture of AIDS in Africa: Hope and Healing in Music and the Arts, which examines how music, theater, and other performance arts help African communities address AIDS.  And in Community Theatre and AIDS, Ola Johansson looks at a Tanzania-based research project and how traditional art forms like community-based theater allow the participants to speak of HIV prevention and issues like fidelity, prostitution, and condom use.

Compiled and edited by Thomas Avena, the anthology Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS brings together various media and artists.  Among the interviews Avena includes is one with singer Diamanda Galas, a classically trained pianist and singer, who discusses her Plague Mass, a challenging, militantly fierce work in the style of Greek funerary music expressing the rage and sorrow caused by the AIDS epidemic.  Also included are an interview with photographer Nan Goldin, poems by Essex Hemphill and Tony Kushner, and short stories.

Works Cited

Works Cited