Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dagmawi Woubshet's "The Calendar of Loss"

Dagmawi Woubshet is an associate professor of English at Cornell University. The coeditor of Ethiopia: Literature, Art, and Culture, a special issue of Callaloo, Woubshet has also published his work in Transition, Nka—Journal of Contemporary African Art, and African Lives: An Anthology of Memoirs and Autobiographies.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality, and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS, and reported the following:
The Calendar of Loss illuminates a unique expression of mourning that emerged in the 1980s and early 1990s in direct response to the AIDS catastrophe, as queer mourners grappled with the death of lovers and friends in rapid succession while also coming to terms with the fact of their own imminent mortality. The time, consolation, and closure that allow the bereaved “to move on” were for the mourners in this book painfully thwarted, since with each passing friend, and with mounting numbers of the dead, they were provided with yet more evidence of the certain fatality of the virus inside them. The book thus identifies a particular grammar and timeline of loss that animates queer art and activism of the era, showing also how these outcast mourners employed their sorrow as a necessary vehicle of survival, placing open grief at the center of art and protest, insisting that lives could be saved through the very speech acts precipitated by death; that the bereaved can confront death in the face of shame and stigma in eloquent ways that also imply a fierce political sensibility and a longing for justice.

Page 99 comes from the third chapter of the book entitled “Visions of Loss,” which focuses on how the visual artist Keith Haring reckoned with his own illness and dying alongside other forms of violence that fueled the 1980s. The first time Haring discloses his HIV-positive status is in his diary, relating his impending death to the brutal killing of Michael Stewart, a black graffiti artist, in the hands of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority Police. Haring saw a direct connection between AIDS deaths and the killing of black and brown youth by police in the ’80s, both of which he noted were authorized by the government. Haring also made a haunting painting after the Stewart killing, entitled “Michael Stewart—U.S.A. for Africa,” which I describe on page 99. The painting echoes, tragically, the spate of police killings of black people in our own era. To best appreciate the description, I suggest looking up the painting online. Here is how page 99 begins:
In looking at the disfigured image of Stewart in the painting, one can’t help but recall pictures of Emmett Till’s corpse, or narratives of Sam Hose’s remains, or “Strange Fruit’s” sound and imagery of black bodies, and countless other examples that reverberate in black American psyche. The painting extends its indictment of the U.S. also by troping Africa. Notice how two Xs dot the bleeding globe—one on the U.S., another on South Africa—signifying racial apartheid as their common denominator. And, how the title conjoins two contradictory images of America in the ’80s—American apartheid, exemplified by the killing of Michael Stewart, and American charity, by the famous logo/campaign “U.S.A. for Africa” to bring relief to millions of Ethiopians during the 1984-5 famine—the former belying the latter. Such a critical eye of race is a leitmotif of Haring’s work, a political temperament that distinguishes his work for instance from that of his Pop art predecessors of the 1950s and ’60s. Under the guise of celebration and nostalgia, “the aesthetics of plenty” had turned American optimism of the postwar boom years into a kind of virtue, sidestepping the undercurrents of racial violence and terror in America. But Haring, however much a product of the high commercialism of the 1980s, insisted in exposing the underside of Reagan’s morning in America, having no illusions about the tragic character of an era lived under the penumbra of sudden and protracted deaths.”
Learn more about The Calendar of Loss at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue