A New Testament to the Fury and Beauty of Activism During the AIDS Crisis

Schulman’s political awakening was early. Many family members had been killed during the Holocaust. Her childhood was filled with listening to the stories of neighbours and friends who did nothing. Her work is haunted by the figure of the “bystander”. In the 1980s, her work for the gay media was combined with fiction.

Sarah Schulman, whose new book is “Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993.”Credit…Drew Stevens

The novels are bottled lightning. All grit and guns, cockeyed verbs — and the girls. Imagine Patricia Highsmith not having to hide behind male characters. Djuna Barnes’s hothouse plants had to be at work in the morning. Jean Rhys’s women were seated on a tipped milk crate back in a seedy restaurant.

Schulman’s novel, “After Delores”, remains my personal defibrillator. When I feel myself going numb or complacent from reading too much, too quickly, too professionally, this is the book that shocks me into feeling. It’s funny, lighthearted, and a great AIDS novel.

I tarry here, on the novels, because they are crucial to understanding Schulman. She writes nonfiction as an artist, she insists, not as a historian or academic. She doesn’t measure her success based on the effectiveness of her arguments. But she does evaluate them based on their provocation, plenitude, utility and provocativeness.

The organizing principle behind “Let the Record Show,” is derived from the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, “Enemies, a Love Story.” Schulman was inspired by Singer’s willingness to create virtuous Jewish characters, as if to stress that virtue was not a prerequisite for compassion. “People just become themselves” in times of crisis. She said this in “Rat Bohemia”.

Schulman might argue that the story of AIDS is gentrified. There is an ignoble tradition of keeping straight people at the “heroic center” of the story: See “Philadelphia,” “Angels in America” and “Rent,” which appeared to rip off, and weirdly warp, Schulman’s novel “People in Trouble.”

The other grave misrepresentation she perceives comes from accounts like David France’s 2013 documentary, “How to Survive a Plague.” France gave the impression that it was a few white gay men who sustained ACT UP. Schulman said that he did not consider the contributions of people of color or women activists, and how their experiences in Black liberation movements as well as the labor movement, and with reproductive rights, had profoundly influenced his strategy. Schulman suggests that France’s focus upon a handful of “heroic persons” could confuse current activists from the fact America has a lot more political progress through coalitions.

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