Reportback From Fairyland Book Club
November 3, 2013
Steve Abbott was a writer and illustrator who came of age in the 1950s and 60s in Middle America and the south. By the time the 80s arrived he was in San Francisco as an out gay man, a single father, and a person living with HIV. We learn of this American journey through his daughter Alysia Abbott, who wrote Fairyland, A Memoir of my Father.
While the book includes glimpses of Steve's life before Alysia was born, it primarily concentrates on life between father and daughter after Barbara (Steve's wife, Alysia's mother) dies in a car accident when Alysia was a toddler. And then there were two, a father -- yearning to express himself, find love and be a good father -- and a daughter, working to grow up, chart her own path, and hold on to the most precious love she knew -- that of her Dad. Through-lines in the story include San Francisco in transition from hippie Mecca, to AIDS ground zero, Abbott senior's sexuality and HIV status, and Abbott junior's balancing act of extraordinary circumstance, and the reasonable dreams of a life of her own and a father that does not die before her.
At Visual AIDS we use art to provoke dialogue around HIV/AIDS and so we convened a book club around Fairyland to dive into Abbott's life and highlight a topic not often discussed: the lives of children whose parents died of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic when the government was thick with neglect, the public with apathy, and the media with inaction.
Joining us for the first Visual AIDS book club were people living with HIV, people who had lost their parents to the epidemic, those who could remember life before the virus, and those who have only known a world with AIDS. Sitting in a cozy circle sharing snacks and stories at the back of the Bureau for General Services-Queer Division (BGSQD) pop up space, we waded through the book, finding questions, conclusions, similarities, and pieces of ourselves.
A general consensus was the unique space the book took up: an AIDS narrative from a child's point of view, and a story from someone not living with HIV yet forever connected. It was agreed that more stories about AIDS, from various points of view are needed. Who else is talking about the personal and collateral damage of AIDS ongoing? Or maybe it's better to ask after reading Fairyland and thereby meeting a host of ancillary characters impacted by the virus (in laws, bosses, landlords, cafe patrons): Why aren't more people writing about AIDS and its impacts?
In the book club was Jeremy, an artist member with Visual AIDS. He was living in San Francisco at the same time as Steve Abbott, did not know him, but knew the world detailed in the book. It became clear Jeremy too could fill a book of stories about community, culture and HIV. Illustrating how so much of what we think about now around HIV has been shaped by early choices that should be revisited. As a caretaker and intake worker in San Francisco during the early crisis years he remembers how many of the men he helped were both gay and injected drugs, but most often only their sexuality was to be reported. How differently would our understanding of the ongoing epidemic be if we could make space for complexity? If we could, as a culture, hold the truth that we are more than one "statistic" at a time?
Also in the book club was Mathew, who lost his father 2 years ago to HIV, and has begun writing about his family's experiences. By sharing, we had a chance to look at the story of two fathers lost to AIDS, one a gay man living in the halcyon days of San Francisco, the other a man with a sweet tooth who came of age in the 1980s NYC east village needle sharing community. By hearing these stories we can understand there are more stories to be shared, told and heard. What about other fathers, mothers, housemothers, aunties, cousins, and chosen family who have died because of governmental neglect? Where do those who have survived go to talk and remember those who have died? Who listens? As the book club illustrated, there is an audience and a need.
For Hanna, a budding art historian, AIDS narratives have largely been about how the community came together -- a vital story to hear, and one that has become a rite of passage for emerging queers -- but Fairyland was for Hanna the first inside personal narrative about losing someone close to AIDS. What is it to be a daughter, reluctant caregiver -- and then later in life -- a mother? How does one make sense of these journeys? How can we understand AIDS as an intervening ghost alone the way without losing site that begins with a virus that is in people's bodies?
Anger was a reoccurring theme as we discussed Fairyland. Some, like Greg from BGSQD, wondered if there couldn't have been more in the book? Others, like writer and historian Christa, wondered if it wasn't just below the surface on every page, a small rupture of seething. For Esther, from Visual AIDS, it was less of a question of anger, and more of a reckoning that as we get older, we grapple with our past, and the choices we made, seeing them through adult eyes. An example is the scene where a nurse tells Alysia that her father's hours were numbered, and she goes back to work filing. Not until a co-worker intervenes does she go to visit her father. How is for a daughter, now as a writer and a parent herself, to revisit her father's life and the choices they both made? Where is the past? And what can it do now?
Alysia had her father's letters and his journals -- his archive keeps him alive. His stories will circulate -- not dissimilar to the way the Visual AIDS registry ensures the creative output of members find there way into the world. But what about those who don't leave a trail behind? This is what Mathew is grappling with as he begins to reconstruct his father's story for his own survival. How do you tell a story from the past, ongoing, when so much of it is inside of you?
None of us have the answer to that question anymore that we know how to end AIDS. What Fairyland reminds us is, what we have are stories, and each other.
This article was provided by Visual AIDS.
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