In the developed world, the AIDS
pandemic originated in the
among the gay community. While we must acknowledge the impact of HIV on
other groups (bisexual men, women, drug users and haemophiliacs such as
teenager Ryan White who wrote an autobiography), this paper will
concentrate on relevant prose narratives in the anthology From a
Burning House by gay men living in the United States, and published
in 1996 when HIV was still felt to be a death sentence.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to look at the novel, poetry,
theatre, and film and television drama, dealing with the illness, and
these have been covered quite extensively by, for instance, Steven F.
and Patrick R. Hart,
especially from the 1980s and 1990s. There is also no room here for
investigation of the multitude of other non-fictional prose narratives
by gay men living with HIV in the United States but the Burning House
anthology features a variety of writers dealing with a range of pivotal
themes and can be read alongside social histories. This paper will
investigate the cultural work done by the AIDS narrative in this
collection, the literary techniques which are employed and a form which
Many...investigations of autobiographies and life
stories, particularly those that... examine narratives of difference,
add a sociocritical turn to constructivist perspectives. Narratives that
explore certain individuals and groups self-identified by gender, race,
sexuality, class, or ethnicity tend to validate the telling...in terms
of how they can be seen to respond to the dominant tales of social
identity and power within and against which they are produced.
To give more of a context, From
a Burning House is a volume of mostly prose, but also some poetry
and drama, written by gay men participating in The AIDS Project Los
Angeles Writers Workshop, led by Irene Borger, and was not originally
intended for publication. By contrast with the Names Memorial Quilt,
where panels were woven by the loved ones of the deceased as memorials,
this collection is ‘a tapestry of writings’ (see back cover) by those
with HIV/AIDS, revealing theirs, and others, predicament. The tapestry
is an image associated with textuality, found in Greek mythology where a
raped Philomela has her tongue cut out but weaves her tragic narrative
into cloth. The pieces hence differ from case notes by doctors and,
because of the nature of the illness, are first-person ‘narratives of
difference’ responding to ‘dominant tales of social identity and power’.
They are examples of pathography, being trauma narratives concerning
experience rather than just diagnosis and observation from the outside,
therefore differing from Rafael Campo’s The Poetry of Healing: A
Doctor’s Education in Empathy, Identity, and Desire (1997).
‘Narratives of difference’ can be
seen in the Burning House collection where writers deal with the
issue of growing-up gay such as in Alan Erenberg’s ‘The Humming Story’,
and Ezra Litwak’s ‘A Pair of Figure Skates’. For example, in Erenberg’s
piece, his father would make a humming sound every time his son did
something ‘queer acting’.
Meanwhile, Litwak remarks that he felt like a ‘sissy’ in the pants his
mother had bought him and how he disliked his non-hockey skates.
He states ‘I was different from the other boys. I would never be like
them, swaggering with their easy macho, flirting with all the girls’.
However, ‘narratives of difference’ can also be more medical, including
how the virus was caught.
Writers express themselves in
pieces which deal unapologetically with promiscuous gay sex and
attraction. These pieces are in stark contrast to Panos Christi’s ‘My
Day in Abanoz’ where it is stated that ‘the real thing’, that one’s
‘first “real” fuck’ would be with a female prostitute.
They include Litwak’s ‘Christopher
and Donald Colby’s ‘Bathhouse’. Colby’s piece concerns the narrative
progression from being HIV-Negative to being HIV-Positive and celebrates
in a forthright manner the sexual encounter which led to this. Colby
writes of a man who ‘wrapped his body around’ him ‘like a huge fist’ and
who ‘ordered’ Colby ‘in a coarse whisper to grab hold of’ his ‘ankles’
and ‘went at’ him ‘forever’ while Colby was high on drugs. Colby remarks
that ‘Something had changed’ and that ‘something horrible had been
planted in’ him.
There is therefore a sequence of events, characteristic of narrative.
Similarly, in ‘A Letter’, Tony
Gramaglia details promiscuous gay sex which led to his catching HIV in a
‘narrative of difference’. He recalls fantasising years later about the
sex he had with a man but, while Gramaglia remembers ‘[c]alling’ the man
‘into’ his body and ‘feeling’ him ‘ooze out’, Gramaglia does not
remember his name, what he was actually called, meaning the
letter begins ‘Dear ...’.
Although Gramaglia thinks that their encounter was the ‘source of’ his
‘dying’ he does not blame the unnamed partner since this was in 1982
before anyone really knew about HIV.
Rather, Gramaglia blames the heterosexual county prosecutor of
Cincinnati, who ‘closed down the radio station while a gay man was on
the air talking about some new disease and instructing about what he
thought might be safe sex...condoms...Because this man said it was
Gramaglia states that had he known then ‘[m]aybe...things could have
turned out differently’.
The county prosecutor, therefore, brings about a certain narrative
progression (how things turn out) and Gramaglia’s piece challenges
The volume does not only include
pieces which deal with promiscuous gay sex but also contains pieces
which concern gay relationships and AIDS in contrast to the dominant
heterosexist society. Some narratives of concern here are Litwak’s
John Mulkeen’s ‘Court’,
and Steve Maher’s ‘Laurent’,
among others set in a hospital. Droze Kern’s ‘The Kern Brothers’
differs, dealing with gay brothers who were always able to confide in
each other except for the silence surrounding one’s death from AIDS.
There are also pieces that deal
with the physical plight of those living with AIDS in wider dominant
society. It is Joe Hogan’s ‘Warts and All’ which concerns the need to
measure up to society’s image-consciousness. The piece moves from Hogan
examining the appearance of a wart in his bathroom mirror
to him in his place of work at a department store looking in the
dressing-room mirror and seeing more and more warts on his face as time
We are told that the floor manager, Mr. Sheridan, ‘was always talking
about image consciousness and how important first impressions are in
making a sale’.
Mr. Sheridan demands a doctor’s letter that Hogan is fit to return to
work but Hogan tells him ‘matter-of-factly’ that he would be returning
to work ‘warts and all’.
This piece differs from Ricky Hoyt’s ‘The Vanishing’
where we are told of someone who at first tried to conceal his body,
where marks had disappeared, from his lover.
Moreover, homosexuals with AIDS
were seen as an abomination before God by many heterosexuals and not
holding religious values and the narratives in the book are ones of
‘difference’. In ‘Court’, Mulkeen’s boyfriend, Court, enters a Catholic
church, an institution which Mulkeen does not ‘think Court had been
to...in ten years’ and, although Court had his head in his hands,
Meanwhile, in Maher’s ‘Laurent’, the title figure ‘had lost faith in
God’ as a result of being a bastard child, banished, with his brothers,
to the back of the church.
These prose narratives differ from various others dealing with religion
and struggling with one’s faith and AIDS and being in church with AIDS.
Some of the prose pieces in the
Burning House volume are meta-narratives about the act of narration
and reception. The narratives in the volume were at first orally
delivered in the Writer’s Workshop and received by listeners, which
makes them rather distinctive, but through the act of publication are,
for us, written narratives. Narratives were originally delivered for a
community that stands apart from heterosexist society and is
‘different’. Arthur W. Frank points out that ‘Stories call individuals
into groups, and they call on groups to assert common identities’
but Frank was not thinking of a workshop of writers. In ‘The First Day’
Gramaglia states ‘Why are we here? Why am I here? To write stories. To
tell stories. To be voices that are heard’.
He continues ‘Our camaraderie in this room transcends this disease. We
are connected by our willingness to create stories and our need to be
In another piece, ‘Okay, So I’m In This Bed’ Gramaglia is witness to all
the suffering at the hospital.
In ‘Pilgrim’ Brent Bellon remarks that ‘There is no shame among’ the
writers since they ‘all share a similar story’,
and this idea of storytelling also surfaces in Jimmy Drinkovich’s ‘The
In ‘J’ the author Colby and J only share their sexuality and a common
interest in writing where J’s ‘work was...an interesting snapshot of
life as a gay Latino man with AIDS’.
Meanwhile, Colby writes in ‘Memorial’ that those with AIDS are all
‘witnesses for one another’
but that in telling the story of someone who has died ‘nothing will
so there is the issue of silence. In ‘The Lost’ Steve Smith curses his
loss of memory since he was ‘intended to bear witness...to all those
men’ who had died.
Additionally, the desire to tell stories about relationships comes
across in Christopher Gorman’s ‘Fragment’,
and in Nathan Clum’s ‘The Fragility of Paper’.
People with HIV/AIDS are also
stigmatised and there is a silence surrounding the disease. In ‘The
First Day’ Gramaglia says that he will tell his story in ‘bookstores and
at auditoriums, in publications and on the radio’,
thereby reaching wider society. Gramaglia’s ‘The Photograph’ concerns
the silence involved in someone’s passing: ‘I am still waiting for the
minister to say something about AIDS at this service. Some
acknowledgment of what killed my friend. But there is none’,
‘I think they are brave, his mother and father...They haven’t told
anyone. Never mentioned the fact that their son died of AIDS’,
‘Hold this picture. I tell his younger brother...He wants to know if his
brother had AIDS. I know he already knows...Yes, I say. I am not able to
lie about this. I don’t want to. I want to tell everyone here that he
died of AIDS’.
This is what is being done in this volume.
We saw that in ‘Bathhouse’, there
was a celebration of gay sex and that there was a move, typical of
narrative, from being HIV-Negative to being HIV-Positive. ‘A Letter’,
meanwhile, explicitly revealed that gay sex was contrary to mainstream
heterosexist society’s ideology, which affected the way things turned
out for someone. As Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, amongst others, has pointed
narratives involve events in a sequence with a beginning, a middle and
an end. Kreisworth, meanwhile, points out that there is a ‘bivalency of
narrative’ where there is the time of the told (past events) and the
time of its telling.
For example, it was not known at the time of ‘Bathhouse’ and ‘A Letter’
that events would lead to a person becoming HIV-Positive. Litwak’s ‘Used
To Be’, meanwhile, at first celebrates the past from the perspective of
the present. He states: ‘I used to be healthy. I used to be
stronger...There is a terrible yearning for the past when the future is
so frightening. There is an anger at the present for making me let go of
what used to be...I don’t want to be sick. I don’t want to die. Not
Litwak remarks that there is a ‘judgment’ in this. These people are
apprehensive about the future (and find it ‘so frightening’) because
there is a long wait for HIV to develop into AIDS; no one is sure if, or
when, this will occur. Litwak does conclude, however, by suggesting that
the past is idealised and is ‘not how it really used to be’.
For example, as seen, writers, including Litwak in ‘A Pair of Figure
Skates’, have pointed to the difficulties gays faced in growing-up.
We now turn to look at some of the
literary techniques employed in the AIDS narrative. George Lakoff and
Mark Johnson argue that we use metaphors unconsciously all the time in
speech and writing.
Susan Sontag argues against metaphoric thinking about illness
but concedes that we ‘cannot think without metaphors’.
Sontag expresses that there are two main metaphors used for AIDS. One
means by which HIV/AIDS is understood is as a plague. Sontag writes that
plagues are not simply diseases that are fatal but ones which transform
the body into something alienating like leprosy and syphilis
and also that plague tends to originate from somewhere else, somewhere
and is a species of invasion often carried by soldiers.
Sontag details the way in which accounts of HIV/AIDS see it as having
started in the
‘dark continent’ of
The plague is thought to be inescapable
and is not only a judgment on certain groups but becomes everybody’s
The second metaphor, related to the first, is of AIDS as war. Sontag
states that ‘The virus invades the body’ and that ‘the disease
(or...fear of the disease) is described as invading the whole society’.
Sontag writes that before the advent of AIDS ‘Medicine had been viewed
as an age-old military campaign now nearing its final phase, leading to
‘The advent of AIDS’, continues Sontag, ‘made it clear that the
infectious diseases are far from conquered’. However, Sontag ends the
book with a punch by pointing to the problems with the AIDS as war
metaphor stating that we are not being invaded, and that the ill are
neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy.
While it is harmful to see the ill as an enemy invading the whole of
society with a virus, as long as we accept that and do not take the
metaphor too far the AIDS as war metaphor can be acceptable. Also worth
mentioning is that unlike in her discussion of tuberculosis, Sontag does
not give many examples of AIDS as plague and as a war. There are also
other metaphors for HIV/AIDS which add to Sontag’s.
Metaphors and similes can be found
in social histories of the AIDS crisis such as Shilts’ And the Band
Played On. There is a focus on HIV/AIDS as war when a simile is used
that ‘The epidemic would cleave lives in two, the way a great war or
depression presents a commonly understood point of reference around
which an entire society defines itself’.
The epidemic is set against the fight for gay rights,
and cuts short the victories gays were achieving. There is mention of
how gays were shielded from a backlash
but also that AIDS was seen as God’s judgement by some. AIDS was seen as
a new ‘gay cancer’ or ‘plague’, especially by the gay community, but
also, as noted earlier, by the government, but becomes a more general
plague with an epigram of the Biblical Fourth Horseman at the start of a
section of Shilts’ book. There are also other metaphors. There is
personification when Shilts remarks that ‘To be sure, Death was already
elbowing its way through the crowds’ of a gay parade.
We are told that the ‘spectre haunted’ people.
Gay men are also seen as participating in a ‘lottery of death’
and another metaphor is introduced when a doctor says early on, ‘We’re
seeing only the tip of the iceberg’...in what would become the
all-encompassing metaphor for the AIDS epidemic for years to come’.
This is a reference to the Titanic disaster like the book’s title where
the band stoically played on as the ship sunk. It is alongside social
histories like this one that we can see writers employing metaphor in
their accounts in From a Burning House.
In her Introduction, Irene Borger
writes about how she encouraged psyche (spirit) and techne
In From a Burning House there is also the metaphor of AIDS as
war. In ‘What I Have’, Marc Wagenheim notes that his ‘temperature soars
and the chills invade’ his body.
In ‘Chemical Man’, Robbie Hilyard uses the metaphor of another
individual being ‘no longer...human’ but the first of ‘a new race...Homo
and of pills as both smothering, and shielding, him.
In ‘Nothing’ Michael Martin personifies AIDS stating ‘In the world I
live in AIDS is always the villain’
and AIDS is also personified, albeit in a poem ‘Group Photo’, as The
Grim Reaper, killing this community.
This recalls the personification of AIDS as Death in Shilts’ And the
Band Played On. Gramaglia’s ‘Notes While Waiting’, meanwhile, sees
Gramaglia sitting with a friend who is awaiting the result of his HIV
test. Gramaglia has already tested HIV-Positive and describes the room
as a ‘holding cell’ in which he is ‘trapped’ with a ‘wall...at least
fifteen feet high’ and ‘a row of narrow windows at the top...covered
He says that he cannot use the door to escape.
Doug Bender’s ‘Dishes’ concerns time. Bender states that one does not
know how much time one has left and also that others peek into the
unknown like at a horror movie.
This is while one is engaged in ordinary activities.
An example of the two levels of
psyche and techne at work can also be seen in another way in
Hilyard’s ‘Chemical Man’. At the level of what is being said, we see how
the person being described – with AIDS – relies on medication, and at
the level of techne,
this is revealed through non-ending run-on sentences where the word
‘pills’ is used repeatedly, e.g. ‘There are pills to help him breathe,
pills to make him cough things up, pills to smother his coughing so he
can sleep at night, pills to make him sleep when it isn’t the coughing
keeping him up, pills to mask the itchiness when the combination of
other pills causes his skin to erupt in nasty-looking red bumps that no
one can identify...’ etc. etc.
Therefore, the sentence construction mirrors the comment that ‘The line
of pills is like a rope by which he pulls himself throughout the day, a
From a Burning House also contains different forms
including, what Carolyn Forche finds in her investigation of poetry
written in times of crisis: the fragment. This is noted by
The reason for the fragment is that either the writers were busy caring
for sick ones or did not have chance to finish their pieces as the
disease took its toll.
HIV/AIDS prose, then, fits into
the disciplines of Literature and Cultural Studies. There is more work
to do; for instance, it is worth speaking with gay men who are
HIV-Positive and, in a reader-response manner raised by Rita Charon,
finding out their views about the collection as well as determining
whether they would find such a Writer’s Workshop useful. It is also
important to broaden our study of AIDS prose narratives, looking for one
at more work by ethnic minorities like black gay men. It is moreover
worth examining not only film and television widely and more recently
where, for example, the soap opera, as a continuous narrative, is
equipped to tell an ongoing story of a gay character with HIV, but also
film projects devoted to those living with HIV such as The HIV Story
Project from the US, as well as web blogs written by people who have
Amos, W.E., When AIDS Comes to Church (Westminster
I. ed, From a Burning House (Pocket Books 1996)
Hart, P.R., The AIDS Movie: Representing a
Pandemic in Film and Television (Routledge 2000)
Kreiswirth, M., ‘Merely Telling Stories?: Narrative
and Knowledge in the Human Sciences’, (2002) 2 Poetics Today 293
Kruger, S.F., AIDS Narratives: Gender and
Sexuality, Fiction and Science (Garland
Sontag, S., Illness as Metaphor & Aids and its
Metaphors (Penguin 2002)