Fear Is in the Air
A&U’s Nonfiction Editor on Writing in the Ages of AIDS
by Jay Vithalani

I write these words in a time of catastrophe. Fear is in the air—fear of the air is in the air. COVID-19 has, with swift brutality, transformed the world. The memories and resolutions from January—January!—seem to be from prelapsarian times. And those of us who did battle with, indeed are still battling with, a once-mysterious virus, dubbed HIV in 1986, now have to reckon with another elusive pathogen, SARS-CoV-2.

Sometimes, when I see that ubiquitous image of the virus, a coarse grey globe with crimson florets, I have to remind myself to be shocked. “Nature, red in tooth and claw”—yes. But this is an entity a few dozen nanometers in size, and which is active without quite being alive itself! A kind of dreadful awe is due. Dr. Peter Piot, a giant in HIV research and public health management, and who is currently recovering from COVID-19, has said:

I have always had great respect for viruses, and that has not diminished. I have devoted much of my life to the fight against the AIDS virus. It’s such a clever thing; it evades everything we do to block it. Now that I have felt the compelling presence of a virus in my body myself, I look at viruses differently. I realize this one will change my life, despite the confrontational experiences I’ve had with viruses before. I feel more vulnerable.

That gnawing, corrosive sense of vulnerability…all-too-familiar. One interesting facet about making a comparison between COVID-19 and the early phases of HIV/AIDS, though, is that such a comparison has occasionally been met with passionate resistance. Chiefly on the grounds that the first victims of that decimating terror in the 1980s were marginalized communities who were ignored and stigmatized for years, and that medical advances occurred only after heroic activism. I’m sympathetic to this point of view, but I don’t think it’s helpful to be an absolutist about the matter. I compiled a long list, in two columns with the headings Similarities and Differences, but I won’t torment readers’ patience with my notes. So much has been said, so much has to be learned—and let’s listen to, inter alia, the epidemiologists, economists, bioethicists, and frontline medics first.

Life still goes on. People get up each day, get through with it. For the most fortunate, there is the tedium of too many Zoom meetings perhaps, while working from the sanctuary of home, with the dog barking in the background and the kids arguing about what to eat, followed by a masked jog and binge TV. For too many others, each day is consumed by fending off starvation.

When I began this piece, I stuck to my original brief: namely, presenting some general thoughts about art and creative nonfiction, the literature of HIV/AIDS, and the role of this magazine. But COVID-19 loomed, impossible to ignore. We are still in Act One of this terrible drama.

Visions and Versions
I am usually suspicious when universalizing claims are made for the necessities of art and the imperative functions of writing. (What can I say, I’m instinctively contrarian, and I like playing the part of an avuncular curmudgeon.) Here is Joan Didion, for example, famed essayist, making a grand claim in a plain-sounding aphorism: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” By which she means that we, poor humans, need narrative in order to find meaning, and that life is pointless without some connecting filaments between otherwise random events. No matter if the narrative is made-up, as with fiction; or a probabilistic imposition, as in creating a backstory for why that hermetic neighbor started dating younger women when she turned seventy-five; or even distant speculation, puzzling over why Nero let Rome burn (one biographer has him rejoicing at the sight of “those beautiful flames!”).

But never mind fiddling Nero. Above all, Didion means that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are what constitute a life, a meaningful life. This idea has become commonplace, almost a banality. I’ve seen and heard some version of it repeated literally hundreds of times. Oliver Sacks says that “each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’… this narrative is us, our identities.” Even more strongly, there is an ethical urging: the “basic condition of making sense of ourselves is that we grasp our lives in a narrative” (the philosopher Charles Taylor).

When it comes to creative nonfiction, though, must this be the sole mandate we have to live under?

On a different note—and more gingerly, more controversially—I am also skeptical when demands and restraints are made on artists and writers—often by themselves, and more often with an implicit rather than explicit pressure—in times of crisis. Writing in the Ages of AIDS, by those who are afflicted and affected, should ideally work as a catharsis or as a weapon in the fight against the plague? That is something of exaggeration, but versions of this “case” have certainly been made with urgent eloquence. For example, speaking at a panel some thirty years ago, the novelist and essayist Andrew Holleran [A&U, August 2007] insisted that nonfiction was the best form in which to write about HIV and AIDS, but also that writers face a difficult choice: whether to sit at their writing desks or leave that solitary pursuit and go to the activist barricades:

A few years into the epidemic, I realized that all writing not about AIDS seemed terribly irrelevant. It was like playing bridge while the Titanic sank. The topics we used to write about gay life now seemed trivial and insipid… It became only too clear that the only thing to write about is AIDS… The greatest strength in AIDS writing is the simple recitation of facts. It is horrible to say, but AIDS is great material. Remember the old saying that a writer is someone who would take notes at his own mother’s funeral. But we write for two reasons: to communicate and to memorialize.

This makes me ask, today: when we write creative nonfiction, must we restrict ourselves to purgative relief, didacticism, and preservation of memory?

Creative nonfiction is no longer a humble peasant, cap in hand, on the lowest slopes of Parnassus. More and more MFA programs include nonfiction alongside poetry and fiction. There is also a growing realization in these programs that nonfiction is wonderfully various. The personal essay might be the solid trunk of creative nonfiction, but it also has some pretty funky branches. The lyric essay, for example, is a fairly recent invention. History is nonfiction that doesn’t have to be textbook-dry. Constructing a biography or profile can be more difficult but perhaps more rewarding than writing autobiography. Travelogues, anthropological or observational essays, playful parody, the so-called “list essay”… I could go on and on.

Art and Understanding
What does all this have to do with A&U? I hope the points I’m making are pretty obvious by now. Without being exclusionary or elitist, let’s rethink our preconceptions. In creative nonfiction (as in other kinds of writing), not one style or form or voicing——the more voices and styles and forms the better. The literature——I mean all kinds of literature, from the most technical scientific papers to the most flamboyant fantasies——of HIV/AIDS is notoriously vast. Thank goodness for that. A library with only one kind of book is a dull place. And so, nonfiction writers, please contribute to that creative and cacophonous library! Be cathartic, be sincere, pour your heart out. Cry or laugh, cry and laugh. Be a cynic or a trickster. Be as demotic or as baroque as you want. Set out to inspire, outrage, comfort. Try on different outfits, follies and foibles, the birthday suit, the crazy vintage ballgown.

A publication thrives when its contributors give us all they’ve got. (Readers thrive on this, too!) A&U wants to hear what you have to have say, wants to showcase your talents and craftsmanship and heartfelt voices.

I’ve received, and given, a lot of literary advice over the years; much of it is of dubious use. But, in the immortal chords of Mama Cass, there’s no such thing as only one song worth singing. Make your own kind of music.

Thank you for reading. Be well.

Jay Vithalani is a writer and editor. He grew up in Mumbai, and studied English literature, philosophy, and creative nonfiction at Amherst College, Harvard University, and the University of Iowa. Vithalani lives in New York City. He can be reached [email protected].