The author of the acclaimed book Three-Letter Plague, Johnny Steinberg, explores the scarcity of AIDS memoirs and creative writing on HIV in SA, in an article titled ‘An Eerie Silence’.
He traces the long resistance to an honest reflection on HIV/AIDS and the denial and shame that has curbed this dialogue.
Steinberg writes the “stifling political correctness in the mainstream media” has not stamped out harsh,collloquial references to the diease.
“The commentary about HIV that has saturated colloquial language on the South African street, too, is all about sexual excess and greed,” he writes, having raised the problems with how these themes have been linked to AIDS.
“References to three letters are implicitly understood to mean HIV. If it is said, for instance, that a man drives a BMW Z3, it means that he is HIV-positive and implies that he contracted the virus by living too fast.
“A person with HIV is also said to have won the lottery: If you play enough times, you will get it — a cruel and nasty commentary on the fate of those who have serial lovers.”
Steinberg celebrates Phaswane Mpe’s novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow for chiselling through the silence on AIDS with “great power and originality”.
Mpe broke new ground, writes Steinberg, referring to other novelists who have picked up his legacy.
“When this emerging literature is old enough to be named and canonized, I think it will be said that Mpe was the forerunner, the one who started to give voice to what had once been mute.
“And yet, Mpe’s story, too, is suffused with a difficult silence.
“Three years after his novel was published, Mpe died at age 34 of an illness that was never disclosed.”