Monday, November 5, 2012
This past weekend saw two literary events at the Western Front -- on Friday, Chris Kraus; on Saturday, Sarah Schulman. While Sarah's Cineworks-sponsored reading was moved to the Front in advance of a Simon Fraser University job action (it was originally scheduled at the Woodward's downtown campus), Chris's was part of the Front's monthly Scrivener's series, organized by Exhibitions curator Jesse Birch (Chris's visit was co-sponsored by VIVO, who hosted a screening of her films at the Cinematheque). Both events were well-attended, with Chris reading from her new novel, Summer of Hate (2012), and Sarah, a former member of Act Up (1987-1992), from an essay called "AIDS and Gentrification". Questions followed.
Although I enjoyed both events -- Chris's fictive portraits and Sarah's social history -- it was Sarah's detailing of the AIDS crisis in her home borough of Manhattan that was most resonant. For those who might see this as yet another triumph of "Non-Fiction" over "Fiction", let me add that it is Sarah's strength as a fiction writer that makes her essay the document it is. I noticed this first when she talked about those rent-controlled apartment residents who, upon passing from AIDS, had their possessions tossed into the street. Sarah could have told us that many of these people worked in theatre, and how that community was disseminated by AIDS, but chose instead to show us, through an anecdote that had her walking down the street one afternoon, a box of Playbills nestled between two garbage cans. It is details such as this one that anchor not only the numbers (rate of infection, death tolls, percentage of rent hikes) but attitudes towards AIDS that persist to this day (government memorials for those who died on 9/11, but not for those who died of AIDS).
What hit hardest from Sarah's presentation was what she called "Old AIDS," that period between 1981 and 1996 when so many died of this disease. Although I can say that I remember this time (I was nineteen in 1981), it is the details -- the very details Sarah is so adept at placing in all aspects of her written and filmic work-- that were returned to me through her presentation, taking me back to March, 1987, when I moved from my small attic apartment off Commercial Drive to a recently-renovated bachelor suite at the Berkeley (north-east corner of Bute and Nelson). What did not occur to me at the time -- what I saw but did not feel -- were the open doors of the apartments as I climbed the stairs to my suite, the many people running to and from them with steaming plates of food or armfuls of linen, the wasted-looking men inside these rooms who did not mind having their doors open to those assisting them during what, I gathered, were their last days. Yes, I knew these men were dying of AIDS, and that those who tended them were good people, but I did not feel it. Not like I feel things today.
One of these men, a helper maybe ten years older than me, I came to know through our mutual patronage of what was then the only Vietnamese restaurant in the West End -- the Green Hut at Broughton and Robson. Over time, while I dined on imperial rolls and pork brochettes and he on pho, we began to sit together, sharing our meals and the world around us. It was he who told me about the influence of (colonial) French culture on Vietnamese cuisine and literature, the importance of poetry in Vietnam, and Nguyen Chi Thien's debt to Charles Baudelaire; just as is it was I who sat and listened, never asking his name nor what he did for a living. Nor did he ask me. Only later did I hear from another tenant who this man was, or at least enough about him to understand how he came to know so much about Vietnam and poetry, and, through deduction, why he kept so much to himself. But that is another story, one I don't feel like getting into right now; a story someone else might bring out of me, like Sarah Schulman did with her fine and thoughtful essay.