Goodbye, But Not Forever
Reflections on Editing an HIV/AIDS Magazine After 22 Years
by Chael Needle
It’s very hard to say goodbye, but it must be done. If I slipped out the door without a proper farewell, silence would be more painful. And anyway I have tried to resist silence at every turn.
The AIDS community early on learned what silence equals. While some took to the streets and some sat down with community leaders, elected and not elected, in order to protest and advocate for the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS, others took to the printed word to express their collective grief and anger and joy and their unique ideas for making the world a better place.
After twenty-two years, I am moving on from my position of Managing Editor for A&U. I wanted to take this chance to say goodbye—to the writers, editors, photographers, and designers with whom I have worked over the years and also the readers, for whom we do what we do.
Editing an HIV/AIDS magazine has been a challenging task. A look at A&U column topics reveals all the facets that the publication covers: treatment, wellness, nutrition, legal issues, mental health, social justice, self-empowerment, historical perspectives, international perspectives, and the list goes on. These facets are not only many but often overlaid by a specific consciousness steeped in our histories. Patricia Nell Warren’s long-running column Left Field practiced a kind of activist skepticism that was honed in the early days of the epidemic, when critical thinking became a survival tool applied to science, politics, identity, and community, sometimes all at the same time. Corey Saucier’s Brave New World combined a literary aesthetic as bold and brash as the AIDS writings of David B. Feinberg and Assotto Saint. Hank Trout’s For the Long Run showcased the needs of HIV long-term survivors in a forthright way that people living with HIV/AIDS have had to develop to cut through the discursive fog that at times drifts over healthcare professionals and policy makers. How to write for an HIV/AIDS magazine (and how to edit one) quickly becomes an exercise in how to represent the present day while honoring the past, without flattening the differences between the two. It also becomes an exercise in embracing complexity.
So where to begin?
In my other life as a writing instructor, I always suggest to my students that they start every essay with an analysis of the rhetorical context: topic (what are you writing about?); audience (who is your targeted audience, knowing that others may read your essay, too?); occasion (why write this now?); and purpose (why write?).
Let’s unpack the rhetorical context in terms of the magazine.
Topic: Someone once asked me, How can you write about AIDS month after month? The assumption in the question posed to me had been freckled by judgments: the topic of AIDS has been exhausted; AIDS as a topic would become boring after a while; I am limiting myself as a writer if I write about HIV/AIDS.
How can you write about AIDS month after month?
I said to them, I write about life. I write about people.
Life, people—endless, expansive.
Mostly I have tried to be of service to those I represent in my writing, the advocates and artists who have agreed to be interviewed. The writing is about them, not me. As a guiding principle, I have tried to showcase their insights about how to live well with HIV/AIDS and how to fight for themselves and others impacted by HIV/AIDS. By insights, I mean tools. What tools can we offer for readers’ toolboxes for living?
Audience: Everyone—everyone is at risk for acquiring HIV. It’s a common, perhaps now antiquated HIV prevention saying—we know risk exists on a differential, as does healthcare access. Because of social unevenness created by intersections of systemic racism, gender oppression, homophobia, transphobia, and so on, and the unequal distribution of wealth and resources (material and psychological), risk manifests in ways that resist blanket statements that start with “Everyone….”
One message does not fit all. Readers arrive with different attitudes toward HIV/AIDS, or different life experiences, or different health literarcies, or different ways of learning (a poem might spark something that a treatment report might not). The goal is to not see the AIDS community, or our readership, as a monolith. Thus, attention to difference is an asset when addressing a multitude of readers. And also difference within difference. When I would ask the students in the technical writing course I taught how to address the audience implied by Caribbean-American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, they had a lot to say. Many of them were from nations in the Caribbean and proclaimed identities based on homelands, not the Caribbean. That is they sought ways to embrace the differences between people living in Jamaica and Haiti, not gloss over them.
Occasion: The “why now?” concern has at least two modes: the short-term and the long-term. The short-term mode is immediately apparent. More funding is needed. A large group of people have been excluded from a drug trial. Someone is facing a harsh prison sentence as a result of HIV criminalization law. Writers swoop in to identify and describe the problem at hand. Shine a light. Suggest a way forward.
The long-term mode is trickier to figure out. Oh, we can say we are aiming toward “ending the HIV epidemic,” and cite a year, but it’s a horizon that (so far) shifts forward. And then shifts forward again. So, we know we are putting out little fires in the short-term, but why do we keep the torch burning for some future unspecified day, year, decade? For me, it’s to honor those who have died of AIDS-related causes, those who are not here to fan the flames.
Purpose: What do you want readers to think or to do at the end of your essay? Yes, very often, writers will want readers to come to a deeper understanding of a particular issue, but this purpose cannot be the only one. People living with HIV/AIDS are not “students” of HIV/AIDS. Standpoints are not endpoints. More discussion may be needed and different sides considered, but talk is not the goal. People living with HIV/AIDS seek to put into practice what will sustain them and what will help them thrive. So, they are invited to consider what writers/advocates know, and, if they find it useful, transform that knowledge into action. Action—the readers themselves must take it. That is the potential for liberation that writing holds—ideas waiting for someone to realize them. And that someone is you.
I am full of sadness about leaving, but I am heartened to know I have been able to be a small part of a global project and will continue to be in a different way. I will miss the team at A&U, especially editor in chief David Waggoner, who took a chance on me two decades ago: Harold Burdick, National Advertising Director; Dann Dulin, Senior Editor; and art director Timothy J. Haines.
I will miss the advocates I have come to know, and the members of the AIDS community I now count as friends. So instead of goodbye, maybe it’s better to say see you soon—at an AIDS Walk or AIDS conference, in a webinar, or in that special space we call writing.
Chael Needle is a writer, editor and teacher. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.