Time & Telling
The 2016 Hewitt Award winners for Poetry, Fiction, and Creative Nonfiction are marked by three strong, distinct voices, but the connective tissue is that they all include introspections on real and potential HIV infection at key moments in the history of the disease. In 2014, the Fiction winner of the second annual Christopher Hewitt Award was a speculative fiction story (“The Cure” by Stephen S. Mills) about a future in which antiretrovirals and red ribbons are relics of a distant past. Two years on, the winner of the fourth annual Hewitt Award for Creative Nonfiction, “Save Tonight,” is a young woman’s story of seeing a bright future ahead that includes bridging the serostatus divide by becoming fully educated about undetectable viral loads, PEP, and PrEP—realities that at one time seemed purely speculative.
The title of Benjamin S. Grossberg’s winning poem is a nod to the Greek poet Cavafy’s “Days of 1909, ’10, and ’11.” Poems in the “Days of” vein, whether wistful or elegiac, aim to snatch a fleeting moment and make it tangible, permanent. In Grossberg’s “Days of 1993, ’94, and ’95,” the speaker remembers clinic visits in the days before rapid testing: “You could / match numbers on test tube and slip, return / in two weeks. Wait three months. The lag. More blood….” The poem’s form, the sonnet—with its fourteen lines and obsessive, ritualized rules—simultaneously reinforces and leavens the poem’s subjects: repeat tests, out-of-the-way anonymous testing sites, long window periods, and waiting for results. This is all done so expertly that the emotions take center stage, and one could easily read the poem without realizing it rhymes at all—until the remarkable final couplet.
In “Albert’s Prayer,” Marie Esposito’s strong narrative voice and terse, muscular prose—with hints of Dashiell Hammett and Hemingway—keep the reader on a knife’s edge between humor and heartbreak. As the story opens, Albert sits alone in a bar called the Norsemen where “the maroon vinyl cushions on the oversized barstools were cracked, exposing spongy, yellow guts.” Of Albert’s philandering lover, we learn, “Ron had family money and bad timing.” Somewhere else, Albert’s friend Paul is getting ready to meet up with him, presumably after a period of being out of touch—the reader senses that Albert is eager to confide in Paul about Ron, and possibly about something more serious. Esposito moves us deftly from the title characters’ separate presents to a shared adolescent past in which the two men struggled with identity, violence, and fractured family loyalties.
“Save Tonight” by our Hewitt Award winner for Nonfiction, Jennifer Sembler, is a contemporary tale of sero-mixed coupling in a new era. Honest, tender, and lighthearted, Sembler brings the reader along on her journey—as a thirtysomething woman in Italy who meets and connects with G, a young man who reveals early in their friendship that he is HIV-positive. In a refreshing 180 on stories both true and fictional of revelations met with rejection or pity, G’s disclosure of his status prompts Sembler to educate herself: “I researched HIV and was amazed at the advances in treatment options, and how antiretroviral therapy can lead to an undetectable viral load, like G’s, which meant little to no risk of transmitting the disease when using protection during sex. I also read about pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis for those who were negative and sought to keep it that way.” Ultimately, Sembler determines that the “real risk” is not with HIV, but with losing a chance at love.
A&U also salutes our four 2016 Hewitt Award finalists: Jill Evans (nonfiction), Chip Livingston (fiction), Whitney Sweet (poetry), and Michael Zimmerman (poetry)—we will be publishing their pieces in upcoming issues.
Brent Calderwood is Literary Editor of A&U and author of The God of Longing (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014). Visit his website at: www.brentcalderwood.com.