Why bother with short stories about HIV/AIDS?
by Raymond Luczak
Poetry, due to its power wielded by concision, may be the heart of all literary arts but stories are the veins that emanate everywhere we look. When I read a story, I want to feel its pulse and feel that much more alive. I want to forget my own life and discover a different reality than mine in order to discover a new truth, a reminder of what it means to be human, to know again that I am never alone.
In what I hope to be the only Golden Age of Social Media, I have noticed that my sense of community has eroded in the flicker of tiny screens glowing in our hands. I want to connect with others in a meaningful way, but the possibilities once wild in the faces of others glancing back and forth on the subway, sidewalk, and social gatherings seem to have shrunk. It is much harder to get people to show up for bookstore readings and book talks. It’s so much easier to stay home, a warm cocoon zone full of comfort. No one has to see our hurt expressions when a friend, or someone whom we’d thought to be “friends,” say they’re too busy to meet up with us. We learn not to take things personally, and yet the more we do this, the more we disconnect from others. We do not realize we have been doing this, but there is an accrual of enormous debt that will demand payment when our children, watching us becoming more self-absorbed with our electronic devices, imitate us. They will grow up and wonder how to articulate those rage-filled sparks of loneliness. How will they connect with others without the aid of these immersive screens?
Sometimes there is more truth in fiction than in facts. Truth, as in emotions, clarified in a startling way that makes me feel good in knowing that I hadn’t been alone in feeling that way. Truth, as in because I’m Deaf, I cannot always easily lipread others so meeting characters on the page is my way of catching up on the so-called social niceties so that when I do meet people similar to the characters I’ve met, I have a better appreciation of who they are.
When I was offered the opportunity to edit fiction for A&U, I felt most surprised and yet honored. Ever since I came fully out as a gay man in 1984, the fear and paranoia surrounding AIDS had a lasting impact on me. In those dark days, I knew I couldn’t afford to indulge in risky sex, and more than that, I was stunned to watch and hear about one Deaf friend after another die from AIDS-related causes. That I was never infected felt like a miracle, and then came the release of protease inhibitors in 1995. Gradually my remaining friends who’d been infected stopped dying, and in time, being HIV-positive became no longer the death sentence it once was.
For a story to work, one needs conflict. In the AIDS-related stories I’d read prior to 1995, death—impending or not—was the conflict. Then came the stigma and fear of “getting it” once people infected with HIV stopped dying. We are now at the point when “undetectable” means an extremely low chance of HIV transmission. How can we find conflict then in new stories to be published in a national AIDS magazine? I knew of this challenge, and that is why I took this job.
As a fiction writer myself, I can’t claim to have all the answers nor do I want to have them (because if I did, I’d probably give up on writing altogether as writing is my favorite means of discovery about myself and others), but I do know that I don’t want to see stories about a drag queen who’s just died. I read too many of them during the 1990s. I don’t want stories that sensationalize the physical effects of being HIV-positive. I also don’t want stories that focus only on a character’s disability as the result of having AIDS. Each of us, regardless of our serostatus, remains foremost a human being. We are much more than the sum of our illnesses and disabilities. We are not clichés, nor do any of us readers deserve to meet stereotyped characters.
When I read fiction, particularly when it’s submitted for my consideration, I want to meet characters as they are. I want a well-rendered glimpse into their lives. What drives them to make the choices they make? What societal (or familial) forces must they wrestle with? If I were to meet them in person, would I want to make dinner for them?
That is the crux of what I’m looking for: to connect with others in an age of great social disconnections when we need to hang on to our own humanity. I look forward to reading your submissions and working with you to make your work shine in the pages of A&U.
Raymond Luczak is the author and editor of over twenty books. His latest titles are The Kinda Fella I Am (Reclamation Press), A Babble of Objects (Fomite Press), and The Last Deaf Club in America (Handtype Press). Books forthcoming in 2019 include Flannelwood (Red Hen Press) and Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman (Squares & Rebels). He was previously the editor of the queer fiction journals Jonathan and Callisto. A ten-time Pushcart Prize nominee, he lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Visit his website at: raymondluczak.com.