Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cockroach AIDS: World Aids Day.

Dambudzo Marechera died on August 18th, 1987, from AIDS related causes. In his work, he refers on a number of occasions to his cockroach life, an image that conjures disease and his compound-eye-view of human existence. The multi-faceted eye view applies quite well to AIDS. Facts are multiple and the whole picture is made of many fragments and reproductions. There is a mass of information.

The theme for World AIDS Day, 2006, is accountability and remembering. But what do you remember? Personal anecdote or impersonal statistics? The human dimension or the inhuman scale of the problem?

From a personal angle, I remember setting off to work and opening a friend’s letter. I intended to journey and read the letter for pleasure. Consequently, I was not prepared when a form fell out of the letter, an HIV test result. Fearing that he might have AIDS and wanting to know if he should plan his future in Accountancy or not, he had taken himself off to find his HIV status—to see if he was safe from the nameless disease as his Malawian friends termed it. As much as I was relieved to see that the test had come back negative, I was shocked by the decision he had made. This was not the UK. There was no pre-test discussion. No comfortable waiting room and sanitized surroundings. No after care in the form of counselling or medical support. He had simply walked into a testing site, been tested, given his result and sent on his way. Like an accountant, he had priced his life. No point in seeking funding for education if you are going to die and waste someone’s money. He had faced death with amazing equanimity just to be certain that life was worth fighting for.

We (?) seem to have come to a point of dubious acceptance with AIDS. If the media picks up stories, these are stories of threat and excitement. Not too long ago, the fascination was with gay men who hunted the virus: to catch it. Newspapers ran the story with a horror-film mentality: the more extreme the evil, the greater the intrigue and thrill for the viewer. The recently shown and much acclaimed Line of Beauty depicted another sort of social lie. AIDS for the rich, white, Oxbridge educated male became a tragedy of secrecy and beauty cut short. For the black, working class male, it was an off-the-stage death: it happened, was sad, but did not amount to tragedy. The tv version presented a Romantic vision in which the death of “Wani”, the “most beautiful man ever met” by the central character, was made to matter far more than the lonely death of Leo. Perhaps, it could be argued that Hollinghurst here shows a political truth: rich matters more than poor, white more than black…which is the case globally. I wouldn’t, however, be that convinced by this excuse. And both of these media representations still cling to the greatest lie: AIDS is still about gay men. The truth is anything but this misconceived fact. AIDS becomes about gay men when there is a need to be scandalised—or to scapegoat. But AIDS is very much to do with everyone else when we (?) need to salve or consciences—to feel sorry and show sympathy.

So, the cockroach’s eye:

The developed countries are responding to the danger of AIDS.A recent report shows that 23% of gay teenagers in the UK have sex before 13 and 58% before the age of consent at 16. But little of the education curriculum prepares them for this…and all of these teenagers are the responsibility of schools and the Government.

In the USA, more testing is taking place, but HIV cases are being picked up far too late, a fact that matters greatly when early intervention determines the life expectancy of the individual.

There is no difference according to race in the developed countries.In the UK, the higher rates of HIV infections are related to racial and cultural backgrounds.

A recent report in the USA, recognises 51% of new HIV cases are among African-Americans—half the new cases from one tenth of the population. When the figures are put bluntly, they show that black men are more at risk than women and an African-American gay man is three times more likely to become infected than a straight African-American man. Still, after more than two decades, nothing has changed and black gay men remain the most vulnerable human beings in the USA.

The fight is all about safe sex.
Actually, no. Though this a line still pursued, as Sontag pointed out long ago, in a struggle that is viewed, not in terms of love and care, but in terms of militaristic metaphors and eroticism.

The NMAC Report has this to say about the spread of HIV.

"A lot of what animates the sexual behaviour [of black MSM] is a sense of shame - it's subversive, it's secretive, it's hidden, it's rushed, and in that sense it's not safe… MSM approach their sexual lives with a certain level of fatalism."

Attitudes to sexuality and feeling have much to do with the problem. The developed world forces its inhabitants to live in a highly sexualised way: identity is knowledge and no greater knowledge exists than carnal knowledge. Young adults are brought up to believe that sexual acts and identity are the same. The UK might be appalled by the number of young gay men that pursue sexual experiences. The UK should be equally appalled by the way it surrounds young gay men with the attractiveness of a sexualised life style before they know enough about themselves to make a choice. I remember one eminent commentator on black gay issues joking (on his blog) about what might occur if high and low culture were fused. Personally, I do not think that it is a joke. It is ironical that great writers, such as Baldwin, Hemphill, Duncan or Gunn, say, grew up in fear of what they were, and regretted having no areas of feeling/literature to which to go, yet we now have a situation where gay men happily grow up in ignorance of what was created at great personal cost. It shows immense stupidity, that a literature of diversity and divergence has been cast aside, through an ignorance of literature, for simplistic images of same gender loving individuals: erotic and promiscuous, living for the moment. It is being divorced from areas of feeling that causes individuals to operate with a limited range of sensations.

For women, the threat from HIV and AIDs comes from imagery too. They live under the shadow of the sexual whore: it is their promiscuous natures that supposedly make them carriers of the disease. The truth could not be more different. In Nicaragua, it is the married, chaste woman who is at most risk: at risk from the promiscuity of the husband and the threat of domestic violence. The rate of infection is highest among women in Sub-Saharan Africa—double that of the rate among men.( But look for images of suffering among famous photographers and it is the suffering of men that will be seen). The issue for women worldwide is inseparable from gender issues, coercion and submission: the fact that women are given little say in their lives, their diagnosis, their treatment and expectations.

Safe sex messages matter considerably.
What can you say when Uganda, in 2005, stock-piled 35,000.000 condoms rather than be open about AIDS? Even so, it is prejudice that does the greatest damage. At the recent ILGA Conference, in Geneva, where Africa was a major voice, this point was made: Africa lives in smoke-screens. The latest is same sex marriage. But this is not what really needs to be debated, though it is where the Anglican, Catholic and Islamic religions would like the argument to be: an argument easily won! The real issue is human rights at a very basic level. The argument was made that the White Man did not bring same sex love to Africa. That existed long before the White Man. No, what the White Man gave to Africa was out-dated sodomy laws and inhuman legislation. The African voice prophetically spoke out against patriarchal and post-colonial oppression: “an Africa where no one’s health is held hostage to either money or morals.” And that final point resonates far beyond sexual issues. It is the denial of AIDS, not wanting to spend money or confront moral difficulties, accept a restricted view of humanity, that has allowed AIDS to ravage Africa more than any other continent and destroy so many. AIDS is an opportunistic infection and a negligence bordering on evil has given the disease every opportunity in Africa--it has attacked regardless of gender, sexuality, religion or age. Usually, those four words would be seen in equal opportunity policies. Cruelly, in a continent so unequal, AIDS has made its own own equal opportunity agenda: suffering and death.

In the UK, there is one new HIV diagnosis every hour.
In the World, 60 children die every hour and 5600 adults because of AIDS.
40, 000, 000 people live with AIDS in the World currently.
AIDS has killed more than twice the number of people who survived slavery and the Middle Passage.
Has killed more than 22 Rwandan genocides.
Has killed more than 4 Holocausts.
And the number of predicted deaths are phenomenal. By 2010, India alone will probably have more victims of AIDS than have currently died from AIDS—one country will replicate all that has happened in 20 years.

Perhaps, an image to consider. It says much about accountability (Copyright Gideon Mendel).

Monday, November 27, 2006

Conceptual Metaphors.

What is reading?
There is definitely something to be offered by a study of Cognitive Poetics. I am quite intrigued by Conceptual Metaphor, the basic images beneath how we feel and respond. Behind “The book was like a banquet” or the “The book was a wholesome stew for many readers”—simile and metaphor—is a conceptual metaphor: READING NOURISHES. Conceptual metaphor underlies how we perceive the world, certainly how we read. It is the basis, in many ways, for poetics or making. Peter Stockwell, in his introduction to cognitive poetics, takes up one conceptual metaphor for reading: READING IS A JOURNEY. This notion lies obviously behind such books as The Lord of the Rings or Gulliver’s Travels, where the story, as with a journey, grows with the telling.

Reading is transportation (says Stockwell): we cross into a new land; we track characters; we pursue the bends of a plot. Often, this metaphorical journey influences our immediate responses to a book. “It didn’t really go anywhere, for me.” “I just couldn’t see where the author was going.” "It is a journey that the reader takes on with the main protagonist Ka to his homeland Kars...." (id it is in an interesting review of Orhan Pamuk's Snow.). This way of looking at a book comes to mind readily and suggests something else. Readers store obvious conceptual metaphors and writers who write works outside these frames of reference do so at their peril—at the risk of being seriously misunderstood.
Transportation into another world leads to other expectations: the world and the book will be bridged, there will be minimal departure between this and that, and the bridging will allow the reader to make a participatory resonse through characters—apply this to that.
Reading is inclusion.

Marechera’s novels, however, do not rest upon READING IS A JOURNEY. That it why his absence of endings is seen as a lack: every journey goes somewhere.

Some further obvious conceptual metaphors might be:

THE BOOK IS A MIRROR (which portrays human life).
THE BOOK IS A MACHINE (which is ordered like a clock).

Of which there are deliberate anti-types: Beckett’s The Unnameable; Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
THE BOOK IS MEMORY. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Umberto Eco.
THE BOOK IS A DEBATE. The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, Ali A Mazrui.
But what about stranger ones?

“And the House of Hunger clung firmly to its own: after all, the skeletons in its web still had sparks of life in their minute bones”. Marechera.


I wonder what conceptual metaphors are behind blogging?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Da Vinci's Hermetic Code of Humour.

How did people pass the time hundreds of years ago? Not with crosswords. Not with sudoku. But with elaborate jokes it seems: riddles for courtiers. An intriguing, though small, exhibition of Da Vinci’s work draws to the close in the UK. Its final stage—touching England, Scotland, Wales, will be Cardiff…in the next few weeks. The exhibition contains a double-sided set of drawings, from around 1490, when Da Vinci would have been at the mid-point of his life. The miniature drawings are accompanied by short texts in Italian…made even more mysterious by the fact that they are written in left-handed mirror writing.

The fascination of these drawings has to be the mind at play. The visual jokes work like this, a light-hearted Da Vinci code which puns on fragments of metaphysical mottoes.

One line of pictures shows a hill+a frying pan+a very modern looking man with a clock face, a cartoon from Disney almost. These spell col+padella+fortuna/time’s fate which conceals colpa della fortuna: a stroke of fate.
Another line shows a pear tree/pare=pero+horse saddle/sella+a sailing woman/fortune’s wind+two notes of music/mi, fa+a gentle fern/felce +tal+a face/vise+a black yarnwinder/aspo nero. The riddle reads Pero se (l)la fortuna mi fa fel(i)ce tal vise asponero: But if Heaven makes me happy I will show such a look.

Crammed onto a tiny piece of material based paper, the hieroglyphs bring another modern artist to mind: Basquiat. It wasn’t just Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings that informed his own traumatised obsession with bones, death and the body of work…from the dead bodies that Renaissance artists cut up to the dying corpus of black African male identity. The packing-in of visual puns is also used in his painted texts:

Only one thing annoyed me in the whole of the exhibition—a piece of unBasquiat graffiti. The bottom right corner of the images are stamped with a royal ER+Crown. Not a clever visual pun, but a remainder of the imperial power that has come to own the artistic imagination of Da Vinci.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Essex Hemphill...More things to remember in November.

Poetry comes and goes.
It is dictated by fashion, reputation, and patronage.
If the audience called common poetry readers likes you…
If the academic world lives through you…
If the publishers believe you have a name to come…

But when your writing is favoured by none of these, what then?

Regrettably, it means your work goes out of print, which has just happened in the case of Essex Hemphill. There are some expressing concern that the corpus will be lost, but the truth really is that the body of work has never been there.

Hemphill died from AIDS related causes in November 1995. Prior to his "Introduction" to Hemphill’s Ceremonies (2000). Charles Nero decided to check Hemphill’s papers in the New York Public Library. Rather too late, he discovered that they had never been deposited after Hemphill’s death and had been missing for years: the suspicion is that his published manuscripts and a novel/autobiography were destroyed by his disapproving family.

Apparently, Brother to Brother, edited by Hemphill will be re-printed later in 2006—there is a market for historical accounts (in poetry and prose) of the black gay experience during the early battles with AIDs. But not the poetry.

Ceremonies is the critical volume that readers rely on, yet that in itself is not really a true account. It is not a collected poetry and prose volume. Ceremonies does not contain one key autobiographical short-story. It does not contain his last work Vital Signs and its working through of an African aesthetic for poetry. It does not contain all of the poems from Earth Life and Conditions: 12 interesting poems are missing. Rather like the black experience, Hemphill’s work has been scattered through gay anthologies, chap-books, journals and his one critical volume.

Amidst this compartmentalisation, one important fact has been overlooked: Hemphill was a fine poet and a fine reader of his poetry, something that many poets are not. The poems that he reads in Looking for Langston testify to his rich attention to detail…he jokes that it is the little details in a poem that are so hard to deliver on film.

So many poets are falling by the wayside, as time passes, another example would be the inspirational theatre director and academic Owen Dodson.

Here is a forgotten and out-of print poem by Hemphill. Perhaps, it might jolt some towards remembering…for he deserves attention…to be taken up by a serious publisher, by the world of academia, and the readers of poetry.

State of the Art.

I have only been here a week.
I almost don’t belong.
I slipped through.
I came during the night.
I have a room in the centre of town.

Whatever dreams I had coming here
seem suddenly dangerous under foot.
Do I start again
to blow glass into another replica of worship?
If so, then I ask as a young man who is skeptical:
how do you blow life into glass? And when you do,
should you stand like the Piper of Hamelin,
or like Patton in the drilling yard at dawn,
or like Dizzy, under a waterfall of perspiration,
his cheeks puffed, black, sails.

Beautifully timed, and suggestive!

(Earth Life, original edition).

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Dancing in the Dark: Depression and Melancholia.

Caryl Phillips’s recent novel received a mixed critical response, often the way, but the responses seemed to miss, often the way, what the book was about: was it to be read as documentary or fiction? Was it docu-fiction? This argument, really, seems to be an entertainment for those who don’t want to be entertained by quality writing: though short (200 pages) in these days dominated by the male authored mega-novel as a sort of rite of passage—much like the marathon—for egotists, the novel is thematically structured and these themes are clearly what matter to the author, not which critical box these can be placed in.

Dancing in theDark has been nominated for the The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award 2006 (judging, last night). If there was a novel meant for that award, it ought to be this one. Why? Well, Phillips’s novel is styled in the manner of Hurston and Wright and the novel is concerned with the consciousness that made the writing of these authors possible in the 1930s: pre-1920s Harlem and the eventual Harlem Renaissance.

Writing in 1940, whilst reflecting back on the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes noted a black irony: it was a time when the most popular novels about black identity were written by white authors and black authors, in vogue, wrote for a white audience. A perverse crossing of the tracks! Dancing in the Dark is fully aware of this irony and dramatises it in the novel’s central character, Bert Williams. The novel is not simply a reflection on a light-skinned black man from the Bahamas who assumed the image of a dark-skinned African by adopting black-face and “playing the coon”, whose theatrical works tried to draw closer to Africa but ended in parody and distanced from Africa. (How can you seek a fixed identity through something without identity?) It is a novel about the connection between outside and inside, the tones of blackness, and what it is like to feel that you do not belong…and how, as a displaced author, you still seek placement with a dual audience.

Bert Williams and George Walked formed one of the most successful performance partnerships ever. On stage, they were a unity, but off stage they were opposites. In Phillips’s novel, Williams knows his place. Artistry depends on the black man knowing how far he can go within the white spot-light. He is the introspective intellect, living outside sexuality, troubled by never being sufficiently black, whereas Walker is the extrovert. Handsome and confident, he is drawn by sexuality and emotion to cross the colour line…Garvey and Du Bois are the backdrop to his attitude. The real triumph of Dancing in the Dark is that is demonstrates what Wright wrote about the new black novel: it should have a “complex simplicity”. Within a simple life—and the events are mundane—a dazzling complexity should be created, for the “negro” was not simple and did not require a reading “primer”.

Short it might be, but Dancing in the Dark is no “primer”. Phillips takes one theme: the relationship between blackness and melancholia/depression. Then working with the theme of skin, light, and how black skin reflects light—dazzle—he uses the physical to become a metaphor for the psychological. Through the depression that Williams’ experiences, Phillips charts the depression that exists, not in the “heart of darkness” and the racist imagination of Conrad’s turn of the century society, but in the heart of the black identity when it is exiled from life.

Dancing in the Dark is a novel that resonates today. Set between 1873 and 1922, before the negro and negritude were supposedly liberated, it looks to be a novel about what might have been. In fact, it is a novel about what has come to pass. Black, skin, sex, race, the gulf between the ivory-tower Williams and the boy-on-the-street Walker; artistic life and monetary success becoming a withdrawal from reality, a sensitivity to life turning into depression and a terminal sensing of death. A blackness at the heart of things spreading through a despair concerned with what cannot be healed? “Performative bondage”—says Phillips, in the Prologue to his novel…that is the source of melancholy, and in the end: “I wander in this darkness that makes human beings of us all…Here in the darkness….I shall perform no more.”