“Because of the lack of education on AIDS, discrimination, fear, panic, and lies surrounded me” ~Ryan White
If you think medicine is the only way to heal HIV/AIDS then Dr. Lizzy will make you think again. Through her book “Blood on the Page”; The Literary Responses to HIV and AIDS from South Africa and Zimbabwe from 1990-2005; her collection of interviews with the first writers to write about HIV and AIDS from South Africa and Zimbabwe published in 2010; she effectively used Literature as a tool to raise awareness about this disease and generated ideas on ways to fight it.
A mom, sports fan, and avid reader; Lizzy holds a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and she’s currently the Administrator of Africa’s leading Literary Prize—the Caine Prize.
We talked about HIV/AIDS, her book, her future plans; and she also shared tips on what the judges will be looking out for in awarding the 2014 Caine Prize. For World AIDS Day, here’s my stroll with Lizzy;
Ebenezar: It's a pleasure having you on the stroll, Dr. Lizzy.
Lizzy: Thank you Ebenezar, happy to do this with you.
|(Image Credit: ifsw)|
Ebenezar: Today is World AIDS Day, and it's one of the biggest days on the International Observance due to the kind of awareness raised about it on the media. But my question is do you think this awareness is enough? Can you say we've done enough to educate people--the present and upcoming generation--on AIDS?
Lizzy: People should be aware of AIDS every day of the year, but December 1st is a good day to focus everyone’s mind on the issue and also assess what progress has been made in prevention and treatment each year. I think that particularly in the UK we have fallen very far behind other countries in terms of education on HIV/AIDS, safe sex and responsible sexual behaviour. Some young people do not know of the dangers of contracting HIV and no longer use condoms with every sexual partner. The push in terms of education has occurred in African countries where there is an urgent need to tackle the disease that has affected so many people. In the UK infection rates are rising and I believe safe sex education should be a focus for students in secondary school to ensure that the spread of all STDs does not continue to rise.
Ebenezar: Your book, 'Blood on the Page' is a collection of interviews with authors who wrote about HIV and AIDS from Zimbabwe and South Africa. What got you interested in writing about AIDS?
Lizzy: I grew up in the 1980s and 90s when HIV/AIDS was first discovered and began to be understood, so I was part of a generation who experienced the surge of British public health campaigns including the advert with a giant tombstone in it that warned us “not to die of ignorance”. It must have had a big impact on me. I also have friends who are infected or affected or who have died from HIV/AIDS, so there has been a personal impact too. As I got more and more interested in literature from southern Africa I tried to link the two subjects as AIDS was fast becoming the biggest killer in that region, I felt sure it was having an impact on the psyche of young Africans and therefore writers. I wondered why there had not been an equivalent cultural, literary and artistic response to the epidemic in Zimbabwe and South Africa, as there had been in the UK, Europe and the USA. So my research began and took me from Joburg to Cape Town and Harare by bus initially.
I met some extraordinary people and some brave, interesting writers and felt that I could not leave their stories untold, particularly when Phaswane Mpe died so soon after I interviewed him. The world has AIDS,” writes Adam Levin in AIDSAFARI “And if you give a shit about the world, you have it too.” I suppose these sentiments, very bluntly, explain how I feel. HIV and AIDS are terrible afflictions and are preventable and now treatable, I (perhaps naively) hoped that literature could open people’s minds and change the terrible stigmatization that has prevented effective treatment in southern Africa for so long. So I attempted to research and write about the subject as best I could.
Ebenezar: Wow, that’s really great, but what did you discover after interviewing these authors?
Lizzy: I discovered that authors have struggled to find a way to write about this devastating disease. That it is a difficult disease to write about in the first person and that black African men in particular have struggled to tell these stories. I also learnt how painful it was to put the emotions, grief and love in to words and how passionately the authors felt about the subject and of course the people they knew or still know who have suffered from the disease. I learnt that there is a difficult line to tread between real experience and fiction and that it is important that the academic’s role remains one of vigilant activism, as well as impersonal critique. In the process of trying to walk this line I learnt a lot not only about myself but about the double lives people lead, and about the difference between personal and public truths.
Ebenezar: Medically, so much is being done in trying to find the cure for AIDS, and from time to time we hear about discoveries by different scientists around the world. But will we eventually win this war against AIDS in our lifetime? Do you think we can totally eradicate it?
Lizzy: I think it has been a long time since any disease was completely eradicated. Even smallpox has only recently disappeared. Plague and polio reappear from time to time. Nature does not stop evolving and HIV is evolving all the time. I think it will be possible to treat and even vaccinate against HIV in the future, but I also believe that new strains that are arising because of variations of drug resistant TB for example, will make this a continually difficult disease to deal with in future. That is why prevention through education is such an important element in the fight against the spread of HIV. Part of the story of HIV/AIDS is also the fight against gender inequality, and sexual violence against men and women. So we must tackle these issues simultaneously, as well as the medical research required to treat patients.
Ebenezar: Let's talk about you a bit now. You're the administrator of the Caine Prize, and you help organize tours for writers in Africa and around the world. Does that give you any time for yourself? Because, it seems you've not published a book since 'Blood on the Page'.
Lizzy: I have time for myself and I love to read, but I also have a young son, so I am quite busy raising him at the moment. I hope to write other books in future but I’m happy to read and observe for the time being.
Ebenezar: Last month I strolled with Tope Folarin—the 2013 Caine Prize winner—and he’s really grateful to be listed among the greats who have won this prize. What do you think about the growth of African Literature in recent times? Do you think this recent generation of writers will be able to live up to feats set by Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi…?
Lizzy: Of course! I think this generation will be as great as the previous generation. They may not make such a massive impact, as they will be many, and perhaps therefore as individuals might not stand out in quite the same way as the first writers who broke the moulds. African literature has become more widely recognised and published since the Caine Prize began, indeed since Soyinka, Achebe, Ngugi, Emecheta, were writing, and yet Africa is such a vast continent that I feel that we have only begun to hear stories that have the potential to enthral the world. I have been so proud of NoViolet Bulawayo, for example, since she won the Caine Prize in 2011, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. It is a joy to be part of the process of rewarding writers and seeing them begin careers that go far beyond the Caine Prize.
|The 2013 Caine Prize Shortlisted writers|
(Image Credit: Caine Prize)
Ebenezar: Yeah that’s true, talking about the Caine Prize; we are all eagerly expecting the announcement of the 2014 Caine prize winner next year. Do you have any advice for writers who plan to make submissions for next year's prize?
Lizzy: My only advice is MAKE YOUR SUBMISSIONS!
Ebenezar: (hahaha) as simple as that…
Lizzy: Yeah, encourage your editor or publisher to enter you in to the Prize and enter the most original story you have written. READ THE RULES. And don’t forget that stories from the last 5 years are eligible. Jeanette Winterson had a neat quote in The Guardian about Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker Prize win, that I have carried around with me recently: “There is a simple test: ‘Does this writer’s capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?’ ” I think that’s what every author should aim for.
Ebenezar: that’s very insightful; I’m sure applicants will take that seriously. Okay, you've been around a lot of great writers in course of your career—in fact, you're a great writer yourself—and I’d like to know, what are some peculiar traits great writers possess that you feel young writers can learn from?
Lizzy: All the writers I know work very hard, they read a lot and they don’t give up. I think a good editor is an enormous help too.
Ebenezar: What is your life like without pen and books? Do you have other hobbies and projects you're involved in?
Lizzy: I love music and film, I love playing with my son and working in the garden, growing flowers, fruit and vegetables. I am a lapsed yoga lover and a terrible but enthusiastic runner, and quite a good cyclist and swimmer – swimming outside on a sunny day in open water is my idea of heaven. In terms of projects, I would one day like to make a film of Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera and I have a much neglected idea to write a book about the lives of African footballers in the UK Premiership.
Ebenezar: Thank you so much for strolling with me Dr. Lizzy, I wish you success in achieving your set goals.
Lizzy: The pleasure was mine.
For more about Lizzy, you can follow her on twitter @LizzyAttree or find out more about the Caine Prize at Caineprize.com
Talking about literary responses to HIV/AIDS, my friend, Mr. Senator Ihenyen recently published a collection of poems in honour of people affected by HIV/AIDS.
‘Stranger in the Mirror of my life: Poems for everyone affected by HIV/AIDS’ is a must read, and reading it will be a good way for you to mark this year’s World AIDS Day. Click here to get your own copy
‘My people perish for lack of knowledge’, most of the AIDS-related deaths globally were due to ignorance. We need to spread the word about AIDS; you cannot get HIV from hugging an infected person, or even shaking hands; so why the stigmatization? I believe we can leave a HIV-free world for posterity; only if we agree to come together and fight it. Let us come together; let us #CrowdOutAIDS.
Till my next stroll on December 11 (International Mountain Day); when I’d be talking with Mr Barry Finlay about mountains and how he was able to climb the Kilimanjaro even after retirement; Be good, lest I forget, Happy Birthday to my fashion designer; SMBI--wishing you all the best dear--Jesus Loves You.
WORLD AIDS DAY
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