by David Waggoner
As we have looked back this summer at the start of the known AIDS epidemic, we have tried to be nuanced. Newspaper reports that tout “forty years of AIDS” are not exactly accurate. Yes, in North America, the CDC reported on what would become known as AIDS in1981 for the first time, but researchers think the modern epidemic started in the mid to late seventies. Science would eventually learn that HIV goes back farther than that. About 100 years it is thought. When we look back, we have a chance to reassess and correct the record if needed.
While history is open to revision, what we don’t need are egregiously false accounts, as interviewee Brian Malloy reminds us in this issue. Remember when, a few years ago, former Presidential candidate and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Nancy Reagan for being a champion of AIDS awareness? The collective gasp from the HIV/AIDS community was heard around the world and many rushed to present a documented account of Nancy’s missed opportunities to support people living with HIV/AIDS and her long, negligent silences.
What we do need are more comprehensive histories from multiple sources. That’s what this month’s cover story subject, Sarah Schulman, has accomplished in her tome, Let the Record Show, which boasts interviews with ACT UP activists. Interviewed by Nonfiction Editor Jay Vithalani and photographed by Stephen Churchill Downes, Schulman talks about her approach by way of addressing some criticism of her work: “What oral history ‘proves’ is that this is what people say about their experience. It doesn’t even prove that this is really what they think about their experience. So, it’s simply a record of what they say about it. And it’s nothing more than that. But when it’s critical mass of—in this case I think there are 140 people that I use in the text—you really start to see dimensions and shapes and patterns. And that’s revealing, it’s larger than anything one person says. You don’t fact-check oral history. Because it’s not fact. It’s only the fact that they said that. So there are some people out there who don’t understand that oral histories have been used since Howard Zinn, for fifty years people have used oral history, it’s not controversial.”
History relies on critical analysis and in doing so becomes a creative act.
Photographer Jessica Tanzer, interviewed by Managing Editor Chael Needle, has documented not only life and love during the 1990s ACT UP and Queer Nation era in San Francisco, but also created some of the most stunning and iconic images of woman-centered desire, in part to displace homophobic fear with beauty and sex-positivity.
And in the creative writing department, this issue offers interviews with novelist Brian Malloy about his new book, After Francesco (conducted by Senior Editor Hank Trout) and Poetry Editor Philip F. Clark talks with poet Spencer Reece about his new memoir, The Secret Gospel of Mark. Both revisit the past with empathetic reflectiveness and affirmations of the importance of paying tribute to those who have helped us survive one more day on this planet.
And don’t forget to check out this year’s winners of the ninth annual Christopher Hewitt Awards: Carolyn O’Donnell, David Mohan, Paul William Kruse, and Christina Robertson. In the categories of poetry, fiction, drama and nonfiction, all offer complex meditations on the realities of HIV/AIDS.
History is best when it’s multimodal. One strategy to get a sense of what happened in the past and why it happened is to read different nonfiction accounts, but also consume various forms of history: oral narratives, art, creative writing, photos, diaries, technical documents, social media posts, magazines, and so on. Remember, too, that history is not “out there,” but rather within our hearts and minds and bodies. Never hesitate to tell your story—what happened forty years ago or what happened yesterday. Everything counts.
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U: Art & Understanding, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.