My Lockdown Reading: Adolescence, AIDS, Covid-19 Dystopia and Picturebooks

When I began my doctoral project on the role of HIV/AIDS in young adult literature, I never expected to find myself researching one epidemic in the midst of a new one. As Cambridge emptied and the severity of the crisis became clear, I felt more and more like a character in one of the YA novels I write about: trapped in my bedroom, desperate to break free, scared to be intimate (in all sorts of ways) due to the looming threat of contagion. As a gay man, and as someone researching representations of HIV/AIDS, there’s something uncanny about all of this, even though HIV/AIDS and Covid-19 are completely different viruses with inherently different political effects.

Reading the news and watching the deaths rise and rise, I’ve often thought about this quote from Priscilla Wald’s Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative, which really captures the affective dimension of the epidemic experience:

Contagion is more than an epidemiological fact […] The interactions that make us sick also constitute us as a community. Disease emergence dramatizes the dilemma that inspires the most basic of human narratives: the necessity and danger of human contact. (2)

We see this dilemma playing out in real time around us now. In a way, it’s a narrative that YA is already so preoccupied with – the state of adolescence, as a crisis, an outbreak, a disturbance, is so bound up in the ambivalent desire for human connection. As a concept, adolescence helps us to articulate a timeless – and in fact, perpetual – state of yearning. The crisis of wanting to touch or not to be touched; the fear of intimacy and the intimacy of fear; the abject space between past and future, self and Other, isolation and connection, innocence and its transgression. One crucial myth of adolescence is the drama of the first time – that first party, that first cigarette, that first kiss – scenes of rebellion that assure us of new horizons.

In the age of Covid-19, where to be trapped in one’s bedroom has become a weirdly nationalistic form of public duty, the token of adolescent yearning has never felt more pressing to my research, or indeed, to my own mental wellbeing. But putting my own angst aside, today the real-life adolescent stands on the precipice of a future that the biopolitical effects of Covid-19 will forestall, if not foreclose. The fantasies and tableaux of adolescence are suddenly altered – the lost school days, the cancelled prom, the backseat desires unachieved, unsated, unstated. These images of adolescent life were already unreal clichés, but even more so now: young people are grieving, recovering, even dying, subsisting and surviving, supporting family members, trapped in violent homes – the list goes on and so does the pandemic. On a political level, the future that these adolescents both deserve and represent has been irrevocably altered; it’s not a question of whether future opportunities are damaged, but how much, with what inequalities, and with what hope of repair.

On that cheerful note, I want to write about the books I’ve been reading (and rereading) since the lockdown began in March. Firstly, the books that constitute my research – YA novels about AIDS, which now have new relevance as reminders that the two epidemics are weirdly resonant of each other, and yet, completely incomparable. I’ve recently argued elsewhere that new representations of the first years of the AIDS epidemic reflects a dubious, but important, nostalgia on behalf of today’s generation of young queer people whose lives are far less likely to be impacted by HIV/AIDS. Scholars like Heather Love and Tamara de Szegheo Lang have shown us how “feeling backwards” and “critical nostalgia” for painful periods in queer history can help us take stock of the more passive politics of the present – but what about when that present is again beset by the threat of mysterious contagion, mass death, and societal breakdown? I’ll then also talk about other dystopian YA novels I’ve reread over the past few weeks, How I Live Now (2004) and Life as We Knew It (2006). I reread these old favourites as light relief from my PhD research, and found new relevance in their symbolic parallels between the crisis of adolescence and the crisis of global catastrophe.

Reading it now, YA about AIDS is evocative in that the affected characters often express a mournful attitude towards lost possibilities and the fear of unknown routes of contagion. Today, I am mourning actual deaths and mourning the abstract loss of ideas and freedoms. I miss being touched, and I miss my local swimming pool. As for fear, I am scared when someone coughs near me in the supermarket, and I hate myself for feeling so afraid when a homeless person asks me for change in the street, but now I see every stranger as an agent of contagion. YA about AIDS, meanwhile, grapples with a world in which AIDS magnified the stigma and hostility towards gay identity and gay culture, and subsequently, works to disengage from it.

In Ron Koertge’s The Arizona Kid (1988), for example, Billy’s gay Uncle Wes describes the impact of the epidemic on the gay social-sexual culture in the 1980s: “’We go to the bars like we used to, we play eyesie-looksie like we used to, we go home with somebody like we used to, but then we just masturbate’” (160). In M.E. Kerr’s Night Kites (1986), the first YA novel to depict AIDS, Erick’s mother blames AIDS on the sexual depravity of gay men: “[…] they grew up hiding what they were, never learning to socialize with each other, except in bars …. at baths. It’s all so sordid!” (161, original emphasis). Meanwhile, in Penny Raife Durant’s When Heroes Die (1992), Gary is so disturbed by the notorious dual news that his beloved, macho Uncle is gay and dying from AIDS that it prompts physical pain – he tries to “blot out all mental images of Rob” until “his stomach churned over and over again” (71). One can only assume that these mental images involve Uncle Rob in acts of sodomy, a psychological assault on the innocence of the young protagonist, who is then able to claim his own heterosexual identity in response. (Bizarrely, this last novel was actually the first YA novel to win a LAMBDA award).

As popular culture, YA has the paradoxical purpose of both de-toxifying the fears that surround AIDS and sensationalizing its dramatic connotations. An obvious example is when novels make space to clarify correct information about HIV transmission even while they dramatize the panic and mystery of that era. For example, in Marilyn Levy’s Rumors and Whispers (1990), Sarah’s anxiety about her gay HIV-positive teacher guides the implied reader towards the correct information, while still recognising her uncertainty: “From what she could remember, AIDS was transmitted by sexual contact, not by breathing on someone” (100). If this novel was intended to provide clarity about HIV transmission in an era of – as the title states – rumours and whispers, then today it might remind us that Covid-19 certainly can be transmitted by breathing on someone. To read YA about AIDS as the Covid-19 pandemic develops makes me all the more conscious that epidemics are clear indictments of structural inequality, rife with ritual and blame, but always the hope for change. Their affective dimensions map out similar networks of fear, desire, loneliness, and hostility, fitting backdrops to the weird loneliness of the adolescent.

Maybe for this reason, when the lockdown began I actually avoided reading YA about AIDS for a while. First, I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793, in which a historical look at the yellow fever outbreak becomes a way to think about Black emancipation and women’s rights in 18th Century America. After that, the riot-like scenes in supermarkets reminded me of the iconic supermarket scene in Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life as We Knew It, so I picked that up instead. When the world is devastated by an asteroid which disrupts the Moon’s orbit of the Earth, society breaks down – told by teenage Miranda in this dystopian diary-novel. I’d thought of Miranda already, as references to Covid-19 began to slowly creep into my own daily diary-writing just as references to the Moon do in hers, creating a sense of the uncanny between fiction and reality.

In the supermarket scene, Miranda runs around the store grabbing as much food as possible in competition with increasingly desperate people, who become less like shoppers and more like looters as the scene plays out. In fact, it’s striking how often apocalyptic scenarios in YA resemble orgies of capitalistic consumption, all too similar to the frenzied panic-buying that was extensively reported in the UK as Europe transformed into an epicentre of Covid-19. Although Miranda is at first mainly annoyed that her exams and prom will be cancelled, things go from bad to worse. She and her family proceed to slowly starve in their house as food supplies dwindle and a new Ice Age begins, eventually sharing the one warm room in the house (the sunroom). It seems to me that you can read Miranda’s decline as a nightmarish fantasy of girlish hunger, where her extreme self-control over her food intake becomes the marker of her eventual survival. That survival is contrasted by her best friend Megan, whose anorexia and religious fervour is eventually fatal.

In this way, the novel works on similar ground as another old favourite of mine that I’ve found myself returning to during this period, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. Living with anorexia, Daisy is sent to stay with her cousins in England just as World War Three begins and the country breaks down. The crisis means she must step up to a position of responsibility and look after her youngest cousin, Piper, foraging for food together in the wilderness in the midst of death. For such a radical book, the plot is actually quite corny, even dare I say problematic: it’s only through being pushed into a situation of genuine starvation that Daisy is cured of her anorexia. As she says towards the end:

Somewhere along the line I’d lost the will not to eat. Partly I wouldn’t be good old Daisy if I didn’t get my appetite back just when everyone else in the world was learning how to starve, and partly the idea of wanting to be thin in a world full of people dying from lack of food struck even me as stupid. (172)

It’s intriguing that both novels – each published in the aftermath of 9/11 – are so similarly pessimistic about the ability of society to protect its citizens, and within this, depict girl heroines whose maturation involves the endurance of deprivation. Thinking about it, both novels do feature epidemics – in How I Live Now, rumours of a smallpox epidemic are used to control the population to keep them inside their houses; whereas Miranda is deterred from leaving the house due to reports of an epidemic of West Nile fever. Rereading them now, I actually found it strangely calming that neither of the two novels ends with an easy restoration of society, just as there are no easy solutions for the horror of Covid-19. In both cases, it is clear that everything is irreversibly altered, but not without hope for transformation. In its final pages, Miranda hopes her diary will be useful “for people 200 years from now, so they can see what our lives were like” before imagining “a time when I am no longer in the sunroom” (337).

Reading this blog back, I’m not sure why I started writing it! YA novels about AIDS have obvious, if deeply imperfect, parallels as expressions of fear and anxiety about contagion and stigma that prioritise adolescent experience. It is safer to make comparisons between Covid-19 and speculative dystopias than other epidemics (epidemics which are nowhere near over) and so it’s unsurprising that this meandering blog has ended up so far from where I began, talking about asteroids hitting the Moon and World War Three (well, perhaps the latter isn’t all that far off). And to be sure, it’s going to be interesting to see how YA authors make use of Covid-19 – as a record of tragedy and injustice, and as an imposition of isolation and deprivation on the adolescent experience in these times.

I’ll just end by saying that the most valuable book I’ve read since this lockdown began is not YA or critical theory, but a wimmelbook – a large, wordless book full of panoramic town scenes for younger children. This is fitting, given that I am so frequently lost for words, that language so often fails me every time I check the news. Last year I gave some copies of Rotraut Susanne Berner’s wimmelbooks to my friend Joanna for her two-year-old daughter Selma to read, and Joanna messaged me last week with pictures of Selma reading them and said how nice it is to pore over these large, happy, summery panoramas in the midst of a shutdown, locked-down, terrified world.

Photo used with permission.

That night I put down whatever YA novel about AIDS I was reading and looked over my own copy of one of Berner’s wimmelbooks, and could immediately see why Selma – a small child trapped inside – had gravitated towards them. The large, wordless panoramas show bird’s eye views of happy towns, happy times, busy markets, crowded restaurants, people strolling side by side and hand in hand – the world I took for granted and now crave from the vantage point of my bedroom! Importantly, these wimmelbooks even contain glimmers of crime — burglars and broken windows — signifying that innate dilemma of human contact that Priscilla Wald describes so well. I’m indebted to Selma for reminding me of the power of pictures as I pore over my oceans of words (including the new resource of digital children’s picturebooks about Covid-19). If today’s crisis draws stark attention to the constant violence of everyday inequality, then the transformative potential of children’s literature and YA is as genuine and as necessary as it has ever been.

Gabriel Duckels is a Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholar at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge.

Photo used with permission.

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