December 1, 2004, is World AIDS Day, an international appeal for accurate and timely information about the issues surrounding this devastating epidemic. New books are helping to fill that void, including several that address HIV/AIDS in African American communities and on the African continent. We asked novelist Pearl Cleage, who has written on this subject, to assess a handful of the books.
When Ava Johnson, the main character of my first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (William Morrow and Company, December 1997), is diagnosed with HIV, her surprise mirrored that of a generation caught off guard by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
That, of course, was intentional. I wanted to believe that by getting to know Ava, my outspoken, independent, achingly romantic narrator, from the safe distance that fiction allows, some of my readers might be moved to a higher level of sensitivity to the presence of people all around us, meeting the challenge of HIV/AIDS. My book is dedicated to my friend Bill Bagwell because he's the one who made AIDS personal for me. He died of AIDS on June 21, of the year 2000, almost 20 years after news of the virus began showing up in the mainstream media.
HIV/AIDS has become an unavoidable part of our lives, as citizens of a world that now includes more than 40 million people infected with HIV. It is almost impossible to grasp the magnitude of the situation, but Susan Hunter's introduction to her book Black Death: AIDS in Africa gives us an idea:
"HIV/AIDS is fast becoming the worst human disease disaster the world has ever seen. Although still in its infancy, it is clear now that in the next ten to fifteen years, AIDS will claim more lives than any other human epidemic ever recorded. Even if a cure is found tomorrow, AIDS is triggering a disaster worse than any the human race has ever known. By 2010, its death toll will be higher than that of the two world wars combined, and it will soon be worse than the total claimed by all wars put together ... There is simply nothing left to compare it to, no scale of human suffering and devastation against which this terrible plague can possibly be measured.... AIDS is not a future threat, it is destabilizing our entire planet right now and will have far worse consequences than any event a terrorist could ever invent."
Education is the biggest part of prevention, so staying informed is no longer a choice. It is a responsibility. AIDS activists often remind us of two things that...