HIV Prevention Day is upon us, which means that now is a great time to read up on the history of HIV awareness, get tested, ruminate on the stigmatization of HIV and AIDS, get tested, share relevant literature with your friends, bring them along to get tested, get educated on the ongoing struggle to secure life-saving drugs for all, and also, get tested.
Literature has played a key role in the advancement of HIV and AIDS discourse, so what better way to commemorate today than by picking up one, or two, or all of these great works?
1. And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts
And the Band Played On was published by Randy Shilts, of The San Francisco Chronicle, in 1987. It is a non-fiction account of the reaction and response from several groups to the emergence of the AIDS virus in the United States, including the gay community, the medical community, the political community, and the media. For Shilts, the book was about more than a simple historical chronicle:
Any good reporter could have done this story, but I think the reason I did it, and no one else did, is because I am gay. It was happening to people I cared about and loved. – The New York Times
2. How to Survive a Plague by David France
How to Survive a Plague was written by investigative reporter David France in 2016 after having been a documentary he directed in 2012 (one of the rare cases in which book follows movie). Both works are a historical account of the early years of the AIDS crisis, with a particular focus on the work of ACT UP and its splinter organizations. The publisher’s website describes it as “an unparalleled insider’s account of a pivotal moment in the history of American civil rights,” but more than being a retelling of events, How to Survive a Plague never lets you forget the humanity of the people who were affected, and continue to be affected, by the crisis.
3. The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer
The Normal Heart is widely known as Larry Kramer’s magnum opus. Kramer is an activist who has been steadfastly fighting for an end to the AIDS crisis since the very beginning. The Normal Heart is a semi-autobiographical tale of the foundation and later dissolution of a prominent AIDS activism group. The play is based on Kramer’s experience founding and later leaving the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. The play is an honest portrayal of the struggle within activist communities to decide between loud, confrontational forms of protest or calmer civil disobedience.
4. Angels in America by Tony Kushner
Angels in America is Tony Kushner’s two-part magical realist play set in the mid-to-late eighties. It follows the stories of a large cast of characters who are each affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis, including a fictionalized portrayal of real-life McCarthyist lawyer Roy Cohn as one of the victims of the AIDS virus. Kushner’s play has been produced several times, including the recently concluded Broadway run starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield.
5. Dry: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs
Dry was published in 2003 by acclaimed memoirist Augusten Burroughs. While the main plot of the memoir revolves around Burroughs’ struggle with alcoholism, Part II also describes the decline in health of Burroughs’ ex-partner and friend due to HIV. While not solely about HIV and AIDS, Dry offers an intimate portrayal of the way the health crisis affects close personal relationships.
6. The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination by Sarah Schulman
The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination by Sara Schulman is a memoir that details the story of the AIDS crisis from 1981-1996. Schulman tells the story through the lens of her experiences among her artistic friends in the queer community in the Lower East Side. The book is known for how Schulman layers the description of her personal experiences with an astute intellectual analysis. Schulman is a dedicated activist, and continues to work toward the advancement of queer rights.
7. AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag
AIDS and Its Metaphors is a work of critical theory published in 1989 by the inimitable Susan Sontag. It is a companion to her 1978 book Illness as Metaphor, which covered the often victim-blaming metaphors used to describe various illnesses. AIDS and Its Metaphors anchors itself specifically in the way people talk about AIDS, challenging the typical narratives that tend to stress the culpability of the victims. Sontag’s work seeks to undo the guilt and shame forced on victims of the AIDS virus and change the way the virus is discussed.
8. What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day is a novel by acclaimed playwright and Pearl Cleage. It follows the story of Ava Johnson, a young black woman who relocates from Atlanta to her hometown in Michigan after being diagnosed with HIV. The novel includes a large and vibrant cast of characters whose stories are told alongside Ava’s. The book was very highly rated and chosen for Oprah’s Book Club in 1998.
9. Queer and Loathing: Rants and Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone by David B. Feinberg
Queer and Loathing: Rants and Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone is the first nonfiction work by renowned author and activist David B. Feinberg. The book is a collection of essays describing Feinberg’s experience living with AIDS. Unfortunately, the book turned out to be Feinberg’s last; he passed away shortly after its publication. After his death, a recording of him reading from Queer and Loathing was featured in the PBS series Positive: Life with HIV.
10. Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Don’t Call Us Dead is a book of poetry by Danez Smith. The book explores the various environmental factors that affect the mortality of the black community, especially HIV. Danez themselves is HIV-positive, and has made it a point to write through their life experience and provide a point of relation for others. In an interview with Mic, they said:
My job is to live and pay attention to other people living around me in order to archive it for whoever may stumble upon it. It’s the poet’s job to make sure there is a record of what it meant to live, love, fight, rebel and be in their brief time on Earth.
Featured image via The Keith Haring Foundation