Two Girls Fat and Thin probes cycles of abuse

Two Girls Fat and Thin

By Mary Gaitskill

Poseidon Press

The title of Mary Gaitskill’s novel, Two Girls Fat and Thin, is apt in several ways. Most obviously, the novel begins with the events leading up to the meeting of two women, one of whom has been a devotee of a writer who started a cult of extreme right-wing individualism, the other of whom is a freelance journalist writing a feature on the writer, now dead, an on the current status of the cult. The novel is about these two women, and is told from their points of view. Though one woman is represented by first and the other by third person narration, the latter only contains that character’s viewpoint.

The title’s reference to the characters as girls is appropriate, because a great deal of the novel is taken up by retrospective accounts of each woman’s childhood and adolescence. As they reveal to each other at their first meeting, they were both sexually abused children — Justine having been molested several times at age five by a friend of the family, and Dorothy having been forced into an incestuous affair with her father at the age of fourteen. These abuses actually take up little of the narrative, which is focused more on showing the acts as they start or perpetuate continuing and spreading cycles of violence.

Justine’s experience echoes throughout a childhood full of sadistic behaviour towards other girls coupled with masochistic surrender to teenage tough-boys. The defensive paranoia of Dorothy’s father and the meek compliance of her mother escalate throughout Dorothy’s childhood so that when the incest starts occurring it is the extension of a situation that was always inherently violent. This is not to say that the debasing attitudes the girls take towards their bodies, perceived as estranged objects capable of betraying them, stems directly and simply from the abuse they have been victims of. Justine’s fascination with fantasies of domination and submission are perpetuated by the existing social order of adolescent suburban America; the fat Dorothy is already practiced at creating fantasy worlds, based on Peter Pan and supplemented with candy, in order to escape the friendless misery of her scholastic life.

As the lives of the two women intersect, the book depicts complex and interdependent patterns of violence that are greater than the characters, who are not only trapped within but helplessly perpetuate them. The emphasis in the title on the weight of each girl is fitting for a novel in which everything from social environment and family to personal beliefs and fantasies aids the atmosphere of alienation and violence that is still centering around the women’s bodies when they meet as adults.

Even though Gaitskill tells an intense story from the point of view of her characters, her well-crafted prose is unemotional and at its most beautiful is sometimes at its most distancing. My own preference is for books that treat highly disturbing material in an unsentimental way, and I think a great deal of the power and effectiveness of the novel comes from this. However, although at times a dry humour surfaces that works well, the writing sometimes falls into a kind of flippancy which is a little jarring. For example, names in the novel are apposite to a degree that is quite funny. Justine Shade recalls de Sade, Dorothy Never refers to both Oz and Never Never Land, the writer whose books, reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s, create the cult of Definitism is Anna Granite, the town where Dorothy is repeatedly raped by her father is Painesville, Pennsylvania, and so on.

These names suggest an allegorical character that the book does not have. While a more scholarly examination of the novel might explain them in a critical context, they are hard to deal with when one is just reading it. They suggest that the characters are types, and the story is so particular and individual that this suggestion is disconcerting: this is not a didactic treatment. While the novel does contain a general premise about the nature of this kind of violence, it has a specific context, and like any good novel it does not degrade the context for the sake of the premise.

Age of comic anxiety

Pointing out that the comic is no longer just for kids seems to be a bit redundant. Most people, after all, know that these days comics often examine serious social themes in a way that is far more powerful than many other “sophisticated” art forms. They do so through their accessibility, in that an illustrated character is more likely to acquire your sympathies than say, certain actors, as well as the fact that you can suspend your disbelief more effectively when you’re reading a cartoon.

Of course, like the dog that will forever chase its own tail, many people refuse to accept the genre of what I proudly call illustrated literature. They refuse to acknowledge what fans of this form of expression have known all along: the same things that interest your average kid will interest your average adult. That’s why we grown-ups addict ourselves to computer games as much as any child, and that’s why an article reviewing graphic novels can show up proudly in a literary supplement.

The graphic novel, popularized by Frank Miller’s revolutionary and oh-so-adult look at the Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, takes many shapes these days. Ahead, we have Miller’s latest work as well as two books provided us from The Beguiling, one of the hippest comic stores in Toronto, which is currently located on Harbord and will soon be moving to 601 Markham Street.

One of the most interesting forms the graphic novel has acquired can be seen in a work put out by Fatagraphic Books entitled Love That Bunch by Aline Kominsky Crumb. While this title might suggest some sort of Brady Bunch in cartoon form, in reality “Bunch” is the main character in this novel.

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The character Bunch is directly based on the author and illustrator’s life, and its realism and willingness to deal openly with various social ills are what make it most fascinating. The work spans the various stages of Bunch’s life as a girl growing up in the affluent Jewish community on Long Island, exploring her entrance into the hippy world, the sexual world, her marriage to Robert Crumb — himself a king of the comic world — and finally her attempts to come to terms with her roles as a semi-housewife and mother.

While the illustrations certainly aren’t pretty, they seem to be congruous with the way the author portrays herself in the novel: as a woman who is constantly vacillating between announcements of her incredible ugliness and obesity and her unwillingness to subject herself to any standards other than her own.

In Love That Bunch readers get a fascinating illustrated gaze at one woman’s life and her attempts to make room in her mind for both the obnoxious materialism of her Long Island community in the forties and fifties as well as the beauty of that culture. This work asks as many questions as it resolves, but it does so in a way that is as thought-provoking, entertaining and often humorous as some of the best literary works.

The next think I look at, once again from Fantagraphics Books, was a neatly titled collection entitled The Adventures Of Junior and Tragic Tales About Other Losers by Peter Bagge. Certainly the characters and the book have a similar trait—they are all failures. While the opening section dealing with Junior, a man so frightened and dogged by life that he preaches the doctrine of never leaving home, is amusing if not hilarious, the rest tries to deal with social trends and the trials of middle-age in ways that neither amuse nor impress.

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The artwork in the novel is competent, but other than Junior, one gets the feeling that the characters could look like anyone or anything and not change the meaning of the book. Half as witty as it pretends to be, this work, unlike Bunch, ends up making social revelations as obvious as reasons not to drink and drive; not that they shouldn’t be said, but nobody should have to pay eighteen dollars to hear them.

On a different side of the spectrum is the more mainstream work by Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons. This is a series of four books, with the third being the most recent, and all of them called Give Me Liberty and published by Dark Horse Comics.

Good old Frank Miller isn’t quite ready to change themes. While the characters are new, the premise isn’t. Give Me Liberty is set in an America riddled with corruption and hatred. It looks at how Miller envisions the future of that fine country. The comic books all star one Martha Washington, a black youth trapped in the prison-like ghettoes that plague urban America.

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Anyway, the novel traces her escape, her subsequent allegiance to PAX — the new American army — and the various attempts by the corrupt government to eradicate her. Certainly there are some cunning touches in this work and it is well conceived and enjoyable. Once one gets past the fact that nothing new is going to happen in these works, one can settle down and appreciate the combination of blood, guts, and gore that is Miller’s breadwinner.

While Give me Liberty has nothing as interesting as, say, The Joker gassing David Letterman and the entire studio audience to its death, it does have similar ironic circumstances. I love the old “on the verge of the apocalypse look what’s going to happen if we keep on fucking up so much” book and so, while the art is typical comic-book, as are the heroes and the basic premise, I still had fund reading Give Me Liberty.

All these books deal with serious issues; none of them are for kiddies and at least two of them have nudity if not actual (burn ’em for it) depictions of sexual intercourse. While the cops should probably kick in my door for suggesting you read them, I will point out that some of the greatest literature of all time has started off being censored, banned and condemned.

Hashish-made words for life

The Arabian Nights

A new translation by Husain Haddawy

W.W. Norton

The first, most striking feature of Husain Haddawy’s new translation of The Arabian Nights is its size: at a mere four-hundred-plus pages, Haddawy’s text looks like little more than a novella next to the seventeen-volume, several-thousand-page translation by Sir Richard Burton which has, since 1888, served as the standard English version.

Where did all those pages go? To explain that, a little background is needed. For this edition, Haddawy has translated an Arabic text, based on a 14th-century Syrian manuscript now in Paris, which was edited and published in an Arabic edition by Muhsin Mahdi in 1984. There are two main manuscript editions for The Nights, the Syrian and the Egyptian. This early Syrian manuscript in Paris is one of four extant texts representing the Syrian tradition. The Egyptian tradition, however, has many extant texts. These, according to Haddawy, date no earlier than the 17th century and are generally much later than that.

It was from just such a late, Egyptian manuscript that Burton made his translation. The Bulaq edition, as it is known, was printed in Cairo in 1835 and represents the work of hundreds of years of copyists’ and scholars’ additions and emendations. Taking the number “one thousand and one” literally, though it was certainly originally intended to denote endlessness or infinity, these writers added stories of their own, as well as stories from various other mythologies and oral traditions, to bring the collection up to the famed number.

One such addition, Haddawy says, is the story of Sinbad the Sailor. A very old story, it was nonetheless not part of the original Nights. To speak of an “original” may seem rather questionable (and so it is), taking into consideration the Nights’ origins in an oral tradition, but what Haddawy is referring to is a hypothetical prototype of the Nights, one re-constructed by comparison of the earliest works in both traditions.

Previous to this edition, the only other Western translation which relied on the early Syrian manuscript was written in French by Antonine Galland in the early 18th century. It is this translation that first introduced The Nights to a European audience. Galland, however, also drew on other oral and manuscript sources, and it may be that he wrote the famous story of Aladdin and the magic lamp himself. Thus, Haddawy’s new translation provides English readers with a chance to experience this ancient cycle of stories in a form much close to its original written, and perhaps oral, form than ever before.

What is immediately apparent from this new translation is how The Arabian Nights (or Thousand and One Nights) captivated generations of audiences in the East and those first European orientalists who “discovered” the Nights for the West.

The overlying narrative is the same; Shahrazad, the Vizier’s daughter, each night tells a take to King Shahrayer, her husband, and leaves him so interested in what will happen next that he cannot bring himself to have her killed (why he would desire this is another story). By dint of her clever storytelling, she manages to stay alive and ultimately cures her husband of his misogyny.

A measure of her success is that the stories are still hard to put down. The initial accounts are quite short, each bringing forth such clever and striking images that one can’t imagine how the next will top it—and yet they consistently do. Typically, someone is telling a story, and in turn a character within that story tells a story, in which another character has a story to tell and so on. As wild as these tales get, they almost never seem arbitrary or pointless. When there is not an obvious moral at work (e.g. the folly of curiosity, the merit of bravery) a bizarre logic seems to be behind these flights of fancy. The stories, and the levels of narration, gradually become more convoluted and rich as The Nights progresses.

There is, as Haddawy points out, a unique marriage between full-blown fantasy and concrete detail in The Nights. On the fifty-first night, for instance, in a tale which Haddawy designates “The Tale of the Envious and Envied,” the daughter of a king does battle with a demon. The Princess, skilled in sorcery, and the demon go through a number of metamorphoses, battling as different animals and substances, until she suffers a fatal wound. Before dying, she explains the battle to her father and a startled onlooker, making a brief reference to the laws that govern magical battles with demons. And that’s it. She dies, and we hear no more of these arcane laws, so briefly introduced. It is as if someone had turned on a light in a room crowded with treasure, quickly turned it off again, then took you away to a different room. This is the overwhelming experience of The Nights: its plenitude, the infinite treasure house of the imagination which is illuminates in brief, surprising flashes; the rent it makes in time through the endless interpolation of new stories, worlds, lives.

This is certainly what the British literary critic W.E. Henley had in mind when he said “He that has the book of the Thousand Nights and a Night has hashish-made words for life.” But this plenitude has often been, to some extent, attributed to the sheer size of the work’s European manifestations. “At home I have the seventeen volumes of Burton’s version,” wrote Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges. “I know I’ll never read all of them, but I know that there the nights are waiting for me.” Well, Haddawy’s version needn’t take more than three or four nights’ reading, but it is no less “eternal” (to borrow an adjective from Borges) than its enormous Victorian namesake.

Haddawy’s English is also far more accessible than Burton’s. Burton’s convoluted Victorian prose can tend to make the stories dry or even confusing. It also seems likely that Haddawy’s uncluttered, modern style better approximates for us the experience of The Nights as it would have been for early readers and listeners. It is important to remember that this was a very popular and widely known cycle of stories about, primarily, magic, sex and death.

The Nights is also, as the overlying story suggests, pervasively misogynist and, as it happens, quite racist — aspects overlooked or perhaps indulged in by earlier audiences, but bound to be an impediment to many readers today. Haddawy makes no note of these elements in his introduction, unfortunately, and no attempt in his translation to hide them, thankfully.

In all, Haddawy’s translation is an important work and a fine place to begin one’s introduction to The Nights. But despite his belief that Burton’s translation is no more than a “Victorian relic” and Galland’s now lies “buried in the archives of literary history,” this most recent translation is not about to erase all that has come before it. Burton also believed he was writing a definitive translation that would preclude all others. However, Sinbad and Aladdin are not about to vanish in a puff of smoke simply because some scholar has declared them unauthentic.

The influence of The Arabian Nights, including its doubtful or apocryphal tales, can be traced throughout Western literature (John Barth’s latest book, in fact, is titled The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor). Whenever a writer makes use of an interpolated, multilayered narrative structure, The Nights is the archetype to which that work is compared. Haddawy’s new, more accessible translation will not only facilitate such comparisons but also introduce a whole new generation to this unjustly neglected Syrian text.

Resolve re-examined

The Sharpville Six

By Prakash Diar

McClelland & Stewart

In 1988, the South African Supreme Court turned down a last-ditch petition to reopen the case of six young Black workers convicted of murdering a town councilor in an ugly mob scene. Pictures of the Six’s families awaiting the State President’s word on mercy or death were televised across the world. They were a confused lot, mostly women and some of them bare-footed, who shifted their gazes between the ground and the void to which their eyes mechanically returned.

Now some years later, and with the knowledge that the death sentences were commuted, one of the lawyers for the defence tenders his record of the trial with the modest addition of sociological and legal background.

The Six, one woman and five men, were the first Blacks to be tried and convicted for murder under the law of “common purpose,” which allowed a judge to assign guilt for collective actions to any individual found to be a participant in mob violence. An initially peaceful procession on the municipal offices with the aim of protesting rent hikes was broken up by the police, and some of those in attendance regrouped at the house of a councilor to take their anger out on him as the main proponent of raised rents. One thing led to another, and around one hundred people stones and burned the house, then captured the fleeing councilman and set him aflame by the side of the road.

None of the eight people originally accused was pinpointed by the prosecution as a direct perpetrator of the murder.

The author, Prakash Diar, represented the accused at the trial and during the circuitous appeals as an “advising attorney,” meaning that it was his task to prepare them for the trial, and provide updates on the status of the case. Given the opportunity for close observation of his clients, Diar merges a biographical approach to the defendants’ plight with the reporting of the fact of the case as it unfolds. Some of the psychological observations he contributes are truly striking, although the vignettes for the lesser characters are too sketchy to merit more than a passing notice.

In particular, the book benefits from Diar’s resolve to let his clients speak in their own voice. “Even today,” says one of his interlocutors, “after so long, nothing has changed. When the door behind me closes, I become sad.” In the maximum security prison, where the Six are confined for over three years pending execution, it is habitual for the wardens to have the inmates shut the door on themselves when they are returned to their cells. This is what Diar’s client has to say on the practice: “It is an automatic door. When you close it, it locks from the outside. It was not nice doing this, you do not want to close that door, you know you do not belong here, but you must do it.”

Diar’s exposé focuses on the most salient facts of the trial, and therefore it does not reproduce the entire court record. But when it falls back to quoting the record, there is much for the reader to notice. For example, the judge’s and the prosecutor’s documents substitute numbers for the names of the accused.

As an even more tangible sign of the South African legal system’s fixation with numerals, we are told that the accused sat behind numbered cards which served to identify them at the trial. The defence moved that the cards be removed from the courtroom, because some of the witnesses might rely on them in singling out the person implicated in their testimonies. In fact, if anything is to be said about Diar’s fast-moving presentation of the trial, it is that he is enticed too much by the task of breaking the serial logic of the prosecution, as in the above instance, and consequently tries to follow through the case of each of his clients with the same amount of detail. As a result, the reader at times has to juggle a host of names, not only of the accused, but also of the witnesses.

Interestingly, there is a sense of real resistance against the grid of social and racial divisions that emanates precisely from the variation of names. At any rate, the defence could use the fact that almost every defendant bore a private adopted name to its advantage, smashing the testimony of two false witnesses.

In terms of his analysis of the legal aspects of the case, Diar fosters the desire to remain on the descriptive side. What criticism he offers is mainly directed at persona and not the legal institutions as such.

Torn between his defence towards the legal system, which, says he, “all of my training has taught me to respect,” and his conviction that the state prosecution had committed perjury, Diar does not allow the reader to gain a good grasp of the smooth surface of the apartheid system of justice.

In the Sept. 25, 1958 issue of The Times (London), Erwin Griswold wrote that “South Africa has long had excellent Courts, maintaining high standards of fairness and justice.” But, he added, “however fair and competent a court may be, if the underlying legal situation is deeply unsound, a court may, simply because it must act according to law, be compelled to unsound results.”

Diar’s book amply refutes the first statement, the one about the integrity of the courts, but does not really touch upon the questions of the underlying legal situation. “I am aware,” Diar writes, “that appointments to the bench are political in many civilized countries, but in most of them the party in power represents the majority of the people.” This clearly cannot be accepted as the whole picture.

Diar does hint at the demise of a legal system which, like the South African, operates without supporting values and concern in those called upon to administer justice. That is, even if some safeguards can be said to exist against internal abuse, the practices are just not in place to make these remedies anything more than formal.

But that is all on the negative side. The Sharpville Six is a book, a great book, about the lives lived in a state of constant mobilization, and a promise, a great promise, about the possibility of finding an interface between all levels of politics, local and international, and everything in between. As such, it is of interest to all those wishing to make a career in human rights advocacy, and in general anyone who wants to gain a powerful glimpse into the South African situation.

Thirty years of pain and insight

Getting Used to Dying

By Zhang Xianliang

Harper Collins

In moments of the greatest despair and anguish lies the strongest force within each of us, the will to survive. Despite oppression, fear, and injustice, the human spirit still thrives.

In his novel Getting Used to Dying, Zhang Xianliang explores this fortitude of the human spirit against the backdrop of twentieth century Communist China. The novel follows the author’s own life as an intellectual in China, and gives an accurate portrayal of what it means to be living in China today.

The author is highly suspected of treason by the government for his poetry. In 1957, during the anti-rightest movement, he is sent to a labour reform camp, remaining there until 1961. During this period, china undergoes the Great Leap Forward, led by Mao Zedong to stimulate economic growth in China. The movement fails, leads to divisions within the governing party and contributes to a three-year famine which ravages China.

Xianliang is released in 1961 in the midst of this turmoil and travels around China. He is placed under surveillance in 1963 for writing a book about his experiences. He is then sent to another labour camp for three years. He escapes in 1968 to visit his mother in Beijing but is later recaptured and remains in prison camp until 1979. During this time, China undergoes the Cultural Revolution to rekindle revolutionary and progressive fervor in China. However, this also fails and leads to further violence and repression in objectors.

Upon his realeas, Xianliang travels to San Francisco, New York, and Paris to experience western culture and ideology. At the same time the new leader, Deng Xianoping, has adopted a new constitution which entrenches the repression of intellectuals like Xianliang.

Xianliang returns to China in 1989 to complete the book which has caused his previous captivity. On June 4, 1989 the Tiananmen Square Massacre takes place in which student demonstrations for democracy and freedom of expression are firmly suppressed by both the military and government. It further entrenches the Communist system and causes greater censorship of Xianliang’s work. The book is completed by the reader is given an insight into the pains of such an accomplishment in modern China.

Xianliang provides a compelling depiction of his experiences as a conscientious objector to the present state of China. His graphic descriptions of starvation and depression within the squalid conditions of reform camps depict the injustice of such a system. At the same instance, he provides a picture of hope. Despite such horrors, he survives and continues to detail his thought. In one compelling scene, he is brought before a firing squad and everyone around hi is killed. However, he too receives a bullet, one that “fear and repression has lodged inside his brain,” and one that “every intellectual in China lives with … in his brain.” Despite the bullet, Xianliang continues to write his book and poetry to emphasize the power of his convictions as a stimulus for his survival against his treatment.

Although Xianliang details his travels to the West, he fails to analyze or fully discuss the impact of Western ideology upon his thinking, and views. The reader must determine for her or him self why Xianliang returns to China when he is given an opportunity to remain in the West. In doing so, the reader is asked to recognize the significance of one’s own situation and to accept and survive the ideological “bullets’ found within each society.

Xianliang shed his tears of pain during the years of captivity, but was strengthened by his spirit to survive. Although the Chinese government ironically captured Xianliang to make him suffer, his tears only testified to the reality of his existence. Xianliang and the memory of the student demonstrators have stayed alive.

In defiance of neutrality

Finally, I had an interview with her—this poet, current U of T writer-in-residence, and film maker whom I had been playing telephone tag with for the last five months. At last.

Equipped with a camera which I barely knew how to operate, sheaves of paper, an aging tape recorder, a pen, and her new book, No Language is Neutral, which was nominated for the Governor General’s Award; I came, spilled paraphernalia, and sat.

It was nice to see her.

One thing about Dionne Brand which is really fortunate for interviewers is that she has a completely relaxed disposition. No need for piddly small talk to break the ice, her smile and calm voice was invitation enough to start the interview right in the thick of things.

Namely politics and its place in the arts. Starting with this question, Brand discussed why politics is inherently part of her work as a Black woman writer. Interestingly, most of the points she made are illustrated in her work, and so the following article draws material from No Language Is Neutral as well as the interview.

“Politics always was an integral part of my work because I come out of a tradition where the politics of living Black in the world has been central to the literature. It’s in the African, or African American, or African Caribbean writers, or in the writers coming out of England.

“It’s central to the Black tradition whether that’s music or literature. There’s a kind of relevance, accountability and socio-political coherence, you know, and that has always been central to the tradition that I come out of. So when people ask me ‘so what about the politics in your work?’ I say, ‘What are you talking about? That is what work is supposed to be about. You can’t write a Black work without that. It’s not possible. [she laughs] It’s not even necessary.”

Aside from having published poetry, short stories, and fiction, Brand also helped direct Older, Stronger, Wiser, a documentary film about historically significant Black women in Canada. She is currently working on a second documentary, Sisters in the Struggle, as a sequel chronicling current efforts and achievements of Black women.

“The search for Black woman’s history is a personal search. I feel that coming out of my experience as a Black woman, the truth of Black women’s lives has not been told. They have been designated as valueless.

“But because of the fact that I am a woman and Black, I know the evidence of those lives. I find them inspiring and important and so this is a way of saying we really existed. It really doesn’t even matter what anybody else things about that; we exist and so I set myself the task of recording that existence.

“I think that every Black woman should commit herself to that project because it’s the most fulfilling project in the world if you’ve been through this experience,” she says laughing.

Brand’s decision to write, even her sense of identity as a writer, is indebted, she says, to African writers in the diaspora who have been publishing since early in the century.

“I was lucky enough to be born at the time that I was born. I was a child of the ’60s and ’70s. There was a blossoming of African literature from the diaspora and I was heavily influenced by African American writers. Sonia Sanchez, Ralph Ellison — some of the poets of the ’60s who spoke of poetry as empowerment for Black people and were part of the Black power movement.

“After discovering writers like James Baldwin, Samuel Selvon, it was like coming home. Hearing the voice of Martin Luther King was like coming home. It suddenly landed in the pit of your stomach — and it landed there because there was a place there, there was an emptiness there, there was an absence there for it to land in.

“To suddenly discover yourself like that having seen yourself before in terms of British imperialist history, it was a revelation. Millions and millions of moments of self-discovery all the time something becomes clearer and clearer to you about how you were born and how you lived and why.

“Meeting African writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo — Caribbean writers like Walcott, Braithewaite, Lamming—that opened up a whole spring of things, and that was another part of that spring you know. Their influence was great and I’ll always be in debt to that experience.

“What those writers taught you was the meaning of writing, you know, like what they taught you was what writing was for. In the Black tradition writing is for redeeming, rejoicing in, paying attention to Black life and being critical of the history that we’ve encountered in this part of the world.”

… I beg him to recall something of my

mama, something of his mama. The ninety year old

water of his eyes swell like the river he remember

and he say, she was a sugar cake, sweet sweet

sweet. Yuh muma! that girl was a sugar cake!

“And it’s also for the intensity and beauty of the language that come out of that history, and that come out of those people. Ways of speaking embody ways of living so all the rhythms of all those languages … you can just ponder for a long time.

“When you read someone like Toni Morrison who in a novel like Beloved who word after word after word, the selection and placement of each word has an incredible importance, and reflects so deeply that history.

“Just the sheer beauty of the gesture that comes out of that life—that comes out of Black life, how they are, how they live, how they are alive. I try to capture that gesture. Language becomes no longer word and symbol but angle and movement and I listen to that and I enjoy my life. There is a sweetness to it that’s so intense. I try to put that in my creative effort.

…Our

singing parched, drying in the silence after the

chicken and ham and sweet bread effort to taste like

home, the slim red earnest sound of long ago with the

blinds drawn and the finally snow for christmas and

the mood that rum in a cold place takes. Well, even

our nostalgia was a lie, skittish as the truth these

bundle of years.

“There are two things I meant by that, one of them is that it’s a statement against the lulling silence of sleep or even for that matter being lulled into sleep. It’s a statement about remaking all the time, staying fresh.

“And secondly, it refers to the experience, and it’s a particular one for me, of being an immigrant in this country and of that longing for some other place, for the ideal rather than the future. It’s not only my personal experience, it’s the case of a lot of us who came here who begin to, because of some of the shit we suffer, look to the past as more glorious than it was.

“In one way I’ts a good thing because it is that longing that gives us our integrity, it keeps us sane, [she laughs] or some of us at least. If we were to wait for this society to tell us who we were, we’d be totally devastated.”

Recalling the Oka incident last summer, and the recent rash of killings of Black people in Metro Toronto, Brand criticizes the treatment and negative stereotyping of people of colour in Canada.

“You just have to look in the face of something like Oka last summer, and you see what this society really thinks of people of colour, you know.

Is steady trembling I trembling when
they ask me my name and say I too
black for it. Is steady hurt I feeling
when old talk bleed, the sea don’t
have branch you know darling. Nothing
is a joke no more and I right there
with them, running for the train until
I get to find out my big sister just
like to run and nobody wouldn’t vex if
you miss the train, calling Spadina
Spadina until I listen good for what while people call it, saying I coming
just to holiday to the immigration
officer when me and the son-of a bitch
know I have labourer mark all over my
face.

“That’s how this society has constructed you. I mean there’s nothing wrong with labouring, [she smiles] but they do have their hierarchies as to where that fits, right. So on one end [that longing] keeps you sane, but at the other end of it, it might stop you from moving forward because it’s the future that should keep us sane.

“It’s what we can make, what we’re gong to make, how we rose, which is a truer reflction of us within this society.”

Medical myths of malice

History of AIDS

By Mirko Grmek

Princeton University Press

AIDS Demo Graphics

By Douglas Crimp with Alan Rolston

Bay Press

The privileges status of the medical establishment in our culture dictates that its body of knowledge is somehow free of superstition and myth, despite the fact they’ve fed off each other for centuries. Even Susan Sontag, in her otherwise brilliant work Illness as Metaphor, wrote that the extent to which a mythology is mobilized in connection to a disease, and the extent to which those with the illness are stigmatized and victimized, is an index of how little we actually know about a disease scientifically. Her supposition allows for that common myth: the purity of scientific knowledge, that rare conjuncture where inquiry is untarnished by any interest other than concern for the ill.

Of course medical discourse has always had its own fallacies, and although many people are inclined to believe that myth and medicine fortunately enjoyed a divorce some time ago, the case of AIDS, and the distillation of harmful myths around it, has proven otherwise.

In his introduction to History of AIDS, Mirko D. Grmek, a Yugoslavian professor who is currently Director of Studies at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes at the Sorbonne, identifies AIDS as an illness which “expresses our era,” but more correctly it has become the symbolic locus for our contemporary anxieties. Its social enigma has triggered a reactive power structure; in North America it’s a case of reacting to an altered concept of what constitutes a family, changing gender roles, and the legal gains of lesbians and gays.

In its perhaps premature attempt to trace the spread of the epidemic this history unfolds with the mannerisms of a very highbrow detective novel often encumbered by its medicalese; Grmek likens his work to Thucydides and his theory of history. Initially, as History reveals the characteristics of those who first showed signs of the disease in America, the discovery that they were gay is pure rhetorical device. Grmek works the logic of his writing into paragraphs that end with the reaffirmation of the patients’ homosexuality. Grmek is swelling with sympathy for those who have been referred to derogatively as the 4-H club: homosexuals, Haitians, heroin addicts and hemophiliacs.

Certain medical discoveries which would make it possible to discern what AIDS is caused by, namely Robert Gallo’s discovery of retroviruses in 1975, occurred only recently. Grmek argues persuasively that it doesn’t make sense that AIDS emerged concurrently with the development of methods for understanding it, that perhaps this disease had appeared somewhere, sometime earlier.

In tracing incidence and loci of the virus, and its adaptability, Grmek scans the ages, going so far as to wonder whether AIDS dates back to antiquity. Grmek concludes it did manifest itself previously, notably in cases of what was diagnosed in the ’50s as Kaposi’s sarcoma in central Africa. And contrary to popular belief, Grmek finds evidence of AIDS in Europe before its appearance in the United States. He also asserts that spread of HIV to Haiti was a consequence of the gay American visitors and the Haitian male prostitutes who continue to sleep with their female companions.

Where much of History courts speculation at best, it also finds itself falling into an archaic pothole or two. Aside from his saintly praise for the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, an institution with lab closets full of skeletons, Grmek also recalls the “Patient Zero” theory, elaborated by Randy Shilts in Played On. For Shilts’s purposes North American patient zero was the French Canadian Gaetan Dugas, conveniently enough an airline flight attendant. Shilts took great narrative pains to cast Dugas as one of the archetypal villains in the AIDS crisis: the irresponsible gay slut. To make it work, Shilts needed to establish Dugas as a modern vampire, and he did so quite amply with accounts of Dugas’s licentious escapades which, Shilts says, often ended with Dugas telling his “victims” that he was infected and that they were going to die. Of course by unraveling all this for an anxious mainstream media, Shilts established himself as one of the heroes of the epidemic: the sexually conservative gay man.

Both Grmek and Shilts apparently ignore reparks from Dugas’s case worker at the Center for Disease Control, that Dugas “had come down with Kaposi’s but no one ever told him it might be infectious. Even at CDC we didn’t know then that it was contagious. It is a general dogma that cancer isn’t transmissible [AIDS was originally thought to be a form of cancer].” Grmek is careful not to accept Dugas as Patient Zero per se; he admits it’s quite possible he got it from another American, but nonetheless uses Dugas as an example of promiscuous ruin.

Obviously this is no social history, not in any significant sense. As mentioned, Grmek alludes to the suffering of those with AIDS/HIV, and sympathizes with those against whom AIDS has occasioned bigotry and violence. It would seem that with such passages History of AIDS would be trying to be too many things to too many disciplines, though its attempt at sensitivity may be commendable. It is only when detailing the unfortunate controversies between Robert Gallo and the Pasteur Institute in France over naming of the virus does Grmek hint at the “unofficial” History of AIDS which remains to be written. And further, all the instances in which competition between research companies, and the amount of money and prestige at stake, determined the direction of AIDS research, and worse even, the public’s understanding of AIDS. But overwhelmingly, what flaws this history, this scientific investigation, is not just Grmek’s choice of the road most traveled; it is the obviousness of the cultural prejudices which infiltrate his own understanding of AIDS.

When it comes to assigning blame for the spread of AIDS in North America, hemophiliacs suffer from “bad luck,” while the promiscuity of gay men is sexually irresponsible. Grmek complains that among gay men, the “search for physical pleasure and multiple partners passed for fundamental expressions of individual rights.” What Grmek fails to supply, while passing his judgments, is the cultural context of the lesbian and gay civil rights movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Grmek’s horror and pity escalates to paranoiac nightmares of Sodom, when he speculates that before the San Francisco of the ’70s, “Never in human history had one city known such a concentration of homosexuals, nor such promiscuity.” He makes much of the “network of homosexual contacts,” or gay social scene, through which HIV spread.

He makes a similar argument in explaining the spread of HIV in Africa, where he says “certain ancestral customs may have contributed to the transmission of AIDS: clitoral circumcision, infibulation, scarification for esthetic and ritual purposes …” Grmek also mentions the role of “modernization” in Africa in expanding the sex trade. He concludes that generally the spread came about by use of syringes and vaccination. In one of the most insightful passages Grmek outlines the problems of western medicine grafted onto African culture:

In the eyes of Africa, the white man’s
medicine consists essentially of
giving injections. The physician’s
syringe is a quasi-magical instrument
… But in a poor country everything is
reserved and reused as much as
possible. So the disposable syringe,
and undeniable technological advantage
in one cultural milieu, becomes a
disadvantage.

Unfortunately, the conceptualization of a “cultural medium” which precipitated the epidemic’s spread in the U.S., though helpful in understanding the early dimensions of AIDS in America, allows Grmek and others to engage in a veiled instance of victim blaming once removed: the idea that the individual, once removed from his or her cultural context, is only then innocent—as though individuals are indeed separable from their culture. It also provides a neat pseudo-medical axis upon which people can attack the legitimacy of gay relationships and gay culture, something which for all of his sympathetic gestures, Grmek does little to protect against. Grmek rails against promiscuity, specifically gay promiscuity, as an inherently unsafe sexual behaviour despite the preventive measures of safe sex.

Speaking of safe sex, Grmek isn’t all too thrilled with the idea. He writes that the “obsession with safe sex will do more to assist the spread of telephone obscenity than it will to rein in the spread of AIDS.” Grmek, it would seem, chooses to pay little heed to reality; he refuses to acknowledge that without eroticizing information about AIDS, education is left to sterile government pamphlets directed at some uniform sexual audience or worse yet, scare tactics and moral indignation. Death bells to ward off the well not only tempt their passions, but they leave those living with the virus feeling like the living dead.

A history lesson in the nature of AIDS education may be of interest to Grmek. When governments finally began initiating AIDS education campaigns, after years of intransigence, their slogans typically exploited such fears and the mystery around AIDS. A British slogan was “AIDS: Don’t Die Of Ignorance.” Ironically, the disseminators of such facile rhetoric were the culpable parties in perpetuating that ignorance in the first place.

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AIDS Demo Graphics is in many ways one of the unofficial, or oppositional histories of the epidemic, and a definite antidote to the crusty theorizing of Grmek’s History. Assembled and written by two members of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in New York City, it’s part manifesto, part history and most interestingly the first thorough documentation of what has already proven to be one of the most aggressive social movements of the ’90s.

Remarkably, ACT UP has reinvigorated the concept of activism and articulated it alongside moderate doses of postmodern politics. Reversing the agenda which has seen bashing escalate in the tow of an epidemic, ACT UP has established an axis, connecting actions on AIDS with lesbian and gay rights. The now familiar SILENCE=DEATH logo symbolizes the calculation. As Douglas Crimp describes it:

Our emblem’s significance depends on
the foreknowledge of the use of the
pink triangle as the marker of gay men
in the concentration camps, its
appropriation by the gay movement to
remember a suppressed history of our
oppression, and now, an inversion of
its positioning (men in death camps
wore triangles that pointed down;
SILENCE=DEATH’s points up).
SILENCE=DEATH declares that silence
about the oppression and annihilation
of gay people, then and now, must be
broken as a matter of survival.

alt textACT UP was initially conceived by Larry Kramer in 1987 out of frustration with the lack of political will power of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an AIDS service organization he had helped found. Bemoaning the absence of an intensive lobbying group ACT UP was born.

ACT UP New York has since become renown for its early response actions called “zaps,” and its well-orchestrated and obviously symbolic “die-ins.” AIDS Demo Graphics traces the major actions undertaken with accompanying photos and their familiar demo posters, from Wall Street to Washington, where in 1987 during the Third International Conference on AIDS, demonstrators were met by a line of police wearing yellow rubber gloves. It also analyzes the posters in the context of the propaganda war over AIDS.

Demo Graphics concludes with “Stop The Church”—an excoriating lunge at the singularly most destructive barrier to AIDS education and research in New York City: Cardinal O’Connor. The intelligence of their action, choice of targets, and often the humour, though grim, of their tactics is a testament to the truth of writer Gary Indiana’s summation of the epidemic: “a litmus test of people’s humanity.”