The HIV pandemic is a character in my new book
During a panel discussion at the recent Saints & Sinners Literary Conference in New Orleans, we discussed how to write about a pandemic, both the current COVID-pandemic, but also the HIV pandemic. The latter still claims hundreds of thousands of casualties every year. Given that it originally mostly affected gay men, it is a pandemic I have to relate to, whether I want to or not. Being gay and HIV are inseparably linked to each other. When a novel plays out in the 1980s, even more so. We lost almost an entire generation during those early years until the first effective medications reached the market.
Michel, the hero of my new book, first appeared in my 2014 novel The Fallen Angels of Karnataka. His death from complications from AIDS was an easy choice to rid me of a character who’d appeared in the story at the wrong time.
The topic was unavoidable, but how to treat it?
I recently wrote, “you know how he died, learn how he lived.” How do you write about the life of someone you know is going to die (or has been dead already?) AIDS or HIV would play a major role in the new story, that was obvious. I had done a ton of research into the epidemic for The Fallen Angels of Karnataka because Haakon was infected by Michel. Since he is a survivor, I had to make sure to make that plausible: combining his genes (of which we know little in the 80ies), early access to ACT, etc.
We never really find out how Michel was infected, and I was curious to learn how Michel’s youth was. How would HIV show up and rear its ugly head? I don’t want to give away the plot. You have to wait another three weeks before the book is released. But some things were obvious even before I picked up the proverbial pen. I had no intention to write a novel about AIDS, to spend page up and page down on symptoms, nor did I intend to ignore it. The only thing I knew for sure was where, when, and how Michel would eventually pass away.
The emotional impact of the pandemic
For me, emotions are everything. A book is all the more valuable, a story more impactful, if strong emotions are evoked on the pages. That was my focus in Michel. How does it feel to have HIV? What is it like to live with someone with HIV? To lose someone with HIV? To be friends with someone with HIV? Those are the central questions of the story. I hope to have evoked enough emotions to drive home the point of the horror of the pandemic, not just on those who caught the virus, but also on those who knew the affected.
The HIV pandemic and the LGBTQ community
To be a member of the LGBTQ community in 2022 isn’t the same as it was back in the 1980ies. It’s more than the extra letters in the acronym. Increased visibility and changed attitudes toward our way of life may have led to a better integration into mainstream society. LGBTQ people are pictured differently in mass media. Death is no longer the automatic conclusion to being queer.
I often wonder how much of that is due to the HIV pandemic? Health experts telling politicians that monogamous relationships and the acceptance of marriage equality were important tools in combatting the spread of HIV? Not to spread conspiracy theories, but it’s funny how it all took flight in the mid-to-late 1980s. At least here in the West. We still have a long way to go in the rest of the world, where oddly, the HIV pandemic is unbroken and killing thousands every day.
Michel is about more than just HIV
The new book is about so much more than just HIV and AIDS. It’s a coming-of-age and a love story. A tale about growing up in France in the 1980s. Last not least, the book also deals with how you move on from loss, how you reconcile finding happiness again with the loss of your first great love. I’m sure that many of us struggle with that question, be it in ourselves or others around us.