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World AIDS Day 2010: How to have literature in a pandemic

Cover of Yvonne Vera's 'The Stone Virgins'
Cover of Yvonne Vera's 'The Stone Virgins'
Even though HIV/AIDS has been influencing American cultural production since the 1980s, only in the last ten years or so has the Ransom Center begun to acquire collections with materials documenting the effects of the pandemic.

One recent acquisition that highlights the consequences of the disease on African literature is the Charles R. Larson collection of African and African-American literature. Larson is a professor of literature at American University, as well as a writer and editor. His papers include correspondence and manuscripts by Yvonne Vera (1964–2005), the prolific Zimbabwean novelist and short story writer who died of AIDS in 2005.

In 1987, Vera moved to Toronto, where she lived with her husband and earned her undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees at York University. She tested positive for HIV in 1989, and wrote her first short story, “Independence Day,” in 1991. “I want to be a writer who can give you the illusion that you have two hearts,” Vera said in a 2002 interview with Grace Mutandwa. “My tales are tragic, rather than sad, meaning they have a catastrophic force. Some writers can give you two heartbeats—one for the beauty of the words, another for the event. I want to be a writer who can give you the illusion that you have two hearts.”

During her lifetime, she published five novels, a short story collection, and an edited anthology of African women’s writing. Vera’s novel Under the Tongue (1996) won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa region) for best novel, and her last published novel, The Stone Virgins (2002), won the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa for best unpublished manuscript. She moved back to Zimbabwe in 1995 and served as Director of the National Gallery in Bulawayo from 1997 until 2003.

The Larson collection contains important correspondence between Charles Larson and John Jose, Vera’s husband, regarding her life and work. At the time of her death, Vera was working on a novel called Obedience, which remains unpublished. The novel was written before she returned to Canada in 2004, and the fragmented manuscript and deteriorating quality of her writing reflect the AIDS-related cognitive difficulties she was experiencing at the time. The Larson papers contain drafts of the manuscript, as well as notes by Jose about Vera’s planned revisions.

Vera’s death and the work she left behind are reminders of the literary cost of the AIDS pandemic in Zimbabwe and southern Africa, in particular, as well as worldwide.

How to have literature in a pandemic

Today is World AIDS Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness about HIV and AIDS, remembering the dead, and celebrating the living. The Ransom Center’s collection includes several people, both famous and ordinary, whose lives have been touched by AIDS. Among the most well known is Terrence McNally, whose plays Lisbon Traviata (1985, 1989), Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), A Perfect Ganesh (1993), and Love! Valour!
Compassion!
(1994), as well as the Emmy-winning television movie Andre’s Mother (1988, 1990), incorporate AIDS as part of the social, emotional, and biological fabric of their characters’ lives.

All five of these works are represented in the McNally papers at the Ransom Center, in addition to manuscripts, correspondence, and production materials related to his other works, and other materials dating from his high school years through the present. His papers also include 174 computer disks with contents ranging from manuscripts to correspondence to photographs. Digital drafts exist for three of the plays mentioned above: Lips Together, Teeth Apart; A Perfect Ganesh; and Love! Valour! Compassion!

Love! Valour! Compassion!, which won a Tony for best play in 1995, is the story of eight gay friends, one of whom owns a large house in the Hudson Valley where the group meets for holiday weekends during one summer. These gatherings become a celebration of friendship and an exploration of life and desire in a time of AIDS. Andre’s Mother first took shape as a short play written for Urban Blight, a musical revue performed at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1988. Both the original eight-minute play and the television movie version, which aired on PBS in 1990 as part of the American Playhouse series, explored the confrontation between Andre’s lover and his mother, and were set at Andre’s memorial service shortly after his death from AIDS.

In addition to drafts with McNally’s handwritten corrections, the boxes related to these two works contain a small amount of correspondence from ordinary people who wrote to share their personal experiences with McNally after seeing Andre’s Mother or Love! Valour! Compassion! One letter is from a mother who lost her own son to AIDS. Another is from an older gay man who cared for his long-time partner in his final years. In 1991, Frank Rich wrote in a New York Times review that Lips Together, Teeth Apart, The Lisbon Traviata, and Andre’s Mother “offer unsentimental hope about the possibilities for intimacy at a time when fear and death rule.” McNally’s larger collection and this small pocket of correspondence are a testament to the power of stories, both public and private, to connect people.