We are coming up on a full year in some version of lockdown, as our country’s failure to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic becomes clearer every day, taking the lives of over 400,000 people in the United States alone.
But this wasn’t the first time. Over 40 years ago, HIV/AIDS ravaged queer and black communities around the world, and government indifference delayed any type of meaningful response. It took years before effective treatment was developed, costing the lives of thousands of people across the world. It’s a plague that is still raging today, and still facing the same issues that exacerbated it back in the 80s and 90s.
Sometimes in order to understand our present, we must look to the past. Today, I’m taking a look at a selection of books about the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
And the Band Played On / Randy Shilts
The grandfather of all books about the AIDS crisis, Randy Shilts chronicles the early years of the epidemic, ending with Rock Hudson’s admission of his diagnosis, a major turning point in public perception of the virus. Shilts specifically highlights the U.S. government’s complete indifference to the disease, which at the time was thought to only affect gay men. Almost 35 years since its publication, it is still one of the most thorough recountings of the epidemic’s beginnings, and a valuable document written during the plague’s earliest days.
Angels in America / Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play is probably the definitive piece of art about the AIDS crisis. Set in 1985, the play follows the intersecting lives of a gay couple, a Mormon man and his wife, and notorious fixer Roy Cohn, as AIDS has New York City in its grasp. Enthralling, bombastic, melodramatic, and ethereal, Angels in America changed the way America thought about the disease and became one of the most distinctive works of the 1990s. Check out the HBO adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Al Pacino.
How to Survive a Plague / David France
David France’s nonfiction account is a perfect pairing with And the Band Played On, recounting the fight by AIDS activists in the 80s and 90s, and the war for government acknowledgement and treatment for the virus. The book is based on first-person testimony of many activists, and is filled with righteous anger against the Reagan administration’s willingness to let thousands of Americans suffer with no end in sight. The book is an expansion of France’s earlier documentary by the same name, which features footage from many of the protests that the activist groups organized.
Taking Turns / MK Czerwiec
MK Czerwiec worked as a nurse on the AIDS floor at Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago in 1994, the height of the epidemic, and nearly 25 years later they released this graphic memoir, recounting their experiences with patients. The good, the bad, and the ugly is all here, but what really comes through is the hope from the gay community that was already into their second decade of suffering, as well as the genuine love and care from the hospital staff for their patients. A wonderful retelling of daily life in the ward, and a unique medium for this kind of story.
The Gentrification of the Mind / Sarah Schulman
Let me be clear about one thing: Sarah Schulman is a badass. A renowned queer historian, Schulman was a part of the queer community in New York City that was ravaged by the epidemic. She stood by the side of many of her friends as they died of AIDS, and in Gentrification of the Mind, Schulman recounts what was lost during the plague years. This is an angry book, but Schulman also examines the economic ramifications of densely populated communities being completely wiped out in a matter of years, using the gentrification of Greenwich Village as a case study. A short memoir that packs an incredible punch, few books have been able to examine the legacy of the plague quite like this one.
Close to the Knives / David Wojnarowicz
Artist David Wojnarowicz wrote this searing collection of essays at the height of the epidemic, focusing on his childhood, what it means to be an artist, and about his own HIV diagnosis. Formally and structurally inventive, the collection is brimming with anger and menace, as Wojnarowicz writes about losing friends and lovers to the same disease that he knows will eventually claim him, as well as vindictive takedowns of the pervasiveness of homophobia in the United States. He dares to ask the question of how hateful one must be to allow an entire community to suffer and think nothing of it. A genuine queer classic that remains just as transgressive today as it was in 1991.
The Great Believers / Rebecca Makkai
Most stories of the AIDS epidemic are centered on two cities in particular, New York and San Francisco. Both had high concentrations of gay men as well as artists, but AIDS was a nationwide plague, and Rebecca Makkai’s Pulitzer Prize finalist centers on the lives of men living in Chicago’s vibrant gay community, Boystown. In alternating chapters, Makkai tells the story of the plague years, as well as the long term impact on those who remained. Most know what they are getting into when they start a book focusing on a group of gay men in the 1980s, but Makkai paints each so lovingly that it manages to never feel oppressively sad. The book’s coda is one for the ages.
Two Boys Kissing / David Levithan
In this contemporary young adult novel, the lives of a number of gay teens are narrated by a chorus of gay men who died from AIDS. It’s a premise that could be cringeworthy, but David Levithan lands it with grace. In some of the more beautiful moments, the chorus of narrators experience something like jealousy, watching these kids able to live openly and proudly. This is what they fought for, but they can’t help but lament how slowly progress was achieved, and what happened to get us where we are today. It’s a short, beautiful story that also shows how far we still have to go.
The Prettiest Star / Carter Sickels
Much like Rebecca Makkai, Carter Sickels’ story shines a light on a common experience during the epidemic, but one that is rarely told: the men who returned to their hometowns after their diagnoses, back to the communities and families who had rejected them. This book examines the importance of “found family” versus blood family, and digs into the deep-seated homophobia and fear that causes families to abandon their own children. A beautiful, emotional book about ignorance and making peace with your life.