From A Burning House, published in 1996, is a collection of short stories, fragments, poems and drama written by gay and bisexual men living with HIV/AIDS as part of The AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) Writers Workshop.
The APLA is one of the largest AIDS service agencies in the United States. At the time of this collection, it catered for more than five thousand clients, providing different types of support ranging from psychological counseling to more practical help (with legal and health matters).
The Writers Workshop was but one programme with an estimated 150 people having taken part (p.xxi). As Irene Borger, a journalist and teacher explains, the idea to initiate the Workshop came to her in 1989; the pieces were written to be shared amongst members of the group but nothing in the volume was intended to be published (p.xxi).
The collection is divided into seven sections which deal with topics ranging from the writers’ origins to the rapture of their sexual experiences to different expressions of HIV/AIDS, as it affects them and others around them, and of the writing endeavour itself. The collection, which fits in more broadly with the poetry written in times of crisis examined by Carolyn Forche (p.xxv), and displays a mixture of anger and humour (p.xxxi), contributes to a growing body of literature and film dealing with AIDS.
Indeed, a comparison can also be made with the AIDS Memorial Quilt, since the collection is described on the back cover as a ‘tapestry of writings’. However, the conditions of its production differ: the writing is, unlike some, by those actually with AIDS and was produced as a group endeavour. Under new leadership, the Writers Workshop remains in operation today, having recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, making this review still topical.
The question which presents itself is what value does this collection have?
Although I have obsessively feared contracting HIV, and first encountered this volume in Montreal in 1996 at a point when I was convinced I had the virus, I, like Tony Kushner who writes the Introduction, am actually seronegative. Therefore, although, like many other gay men, who are seronegative, I can identify with some pieces in the volume (the notion of growing up as gay and different in ‘The Humming Story’ and ‘A Pair of Figure Skates’, and of gay promiscuity in ‘Show Hard-On For Blow Job’ and ‘Bathhouse’, for example), I am finally, like Kushner was (p.xi), only observing the predicament of those with HIV.
However, coming from an English Literature/Cultural Studies background, I can see the worth of the book for inclusion in university degree courses through the ways the pieces highlight both psyche and techne (form) (p.xxvii) and the conditions under which they were crafted and read out loud. For example, the publication of the collection raises the key idea of the importance of writing as providing authors with a voice and humanising and immortalising their experiences which combats the public silencing of AIDS (as commented on in ‘The Photograph’). The problem of writing is also raised; ‘Memorial’ deals with the difficulty in finding the right words to act as witness to someone who has died.
Furthermore, examples of techne are evident in prose pieces like ‘The Westbound Train’ and ‘Coyote’ which use metaphors and similes; in ‘Chemical Man’ where the writer himself wonders if he is still human and utilises extremely long sentences and repetition to capture the never-ending stream of pills the person with AIDS must take; and in the poem ‘Group Photo’ which adopts an almost playful rhythm of speech of the Grim Reaper spiriting people with AIDS away. The prose piece ‘The First Day’, meanwhile, raises the importance of members of the Writers Workshop sharing pieces with one another.
Finally, it is essential to note that the more seronegative people (not only students) the collection reaches the better, in revealing the plight of those with HIV/AIDS (by contrast with pieces which tell how the illness is kept publicly invisible). In all, the volume also reveals the tremendous talent of its contributors in writing about their experiences, a gift which AIDS ultimately takes away.
You can purchase ‘From A Burning House’ from Amazon
Andrew O’Day (@AndrewODay1 on twitter)
Andrew O’Day volunteers for THT Oxford. He has also published on LGBTQ Studies and can be found on the web at hrvt.net/andrewoday