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Issue 218

How to Write in a Pandemic

Writers Gregg Bordowitz, Pamela Sneed, Sur Rodney (Sur) and Lynne Tillman discuss how the AIDS crisis changed art writing, and what lessons writers might carry over to the Covid-19 pandemic

BY Gregg Bordowitz, Lynne Tillman, Sur Rodney (Sur) AND Pamela Sneed in Features , Roundtables | 23 MAR 21

Evan Moffitt How did your writing change in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic? 

Pamela Sneed Everything accelerated. Everyone had to grow up fast and say whatever they needed to say quickly, because some of them didn’t know how long they would be around. So, that produced a plethora of writing by men of colour. The Other Countries collective started publishing zines and anthologies in 1986. 

Sur Rodney (Sur) I have many of the early publications of the Blackheart collective, which predate Other Countries. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, Black, gay men felt an urgency to get their stories and their words out. That boomed for a while into the early 1990s, then dissipated. 

Lynne Tillman There were manifestos being written. There were people like David Wojnarowicz, whose anger not just at having AIDS, but at how AIDS was treated in the US, fomented a very emphatic writing. There’s nothing like that now. Anger is not the emotion that’s impelling writing about COVID-19. 

Gregg Bordowitz The earliest writings about AIDS that I read in the early 1980s were in New York Native [1980–97], a gay paper that very early on addressed what was then called GRID, or ‘gay-related immune deficiency’. At that time, community newspapers addressed the informational needs of their readership. It’s important to start there. The first advice about safer sex came from the gay community: How to Have Sex in an Epidemic [1983] was not provided by the US Centers for Disease Control but was written by activists Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz in consultation with Dr Joseph Sonnabend. It was distributed within the gay community.  

Other Countries, Black Gay Voices, A First Volume, 1988, book cover. Courtesy: Sur Rodney (Sur) Archives, New York

LT What you’re saying, Gregg, highlights the many differences with what’s happening now, during COVID-19. The AIDS epidemic primarily affected a group that was already stigmatized. The stigma of being homosexual or queer was so great that the sense of persecution carried through in terms of how the disease was experienced. 

PS I absolutely agree. There are some parallels to COVID-19 but not many because of the scorn we experienced. In Funeral Diva [2020], I tell a loose history of the Black queer migration to New York, instigated by Audre Lorde and James Baldwin. Black lesbians and gays moved away from their families and churches and came to discover themselves in the Big Apple. Donald Woods, from Other Countries, studied with Lorde; a lot of people were tutored by her. And then, in tandem, came the epidemic. So, you were finally able to name your sexuality, and then you were hit by this disease. Not only were you burgeoning as a human being; you also had to fight for your right to exist on a whole other level. 

SRS During that period, in the media, there wasn’t any sensible thinking about how gay people are part of the broader community. The thinking was: if you had AIDS, you had to be queer. They weren’t looking at how stigmatized groups socialize within the larger world; if they had, it would’ve been clear we were all at risk.

GB In 1989, the legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ in an article about how Black women in the court system were viewed as either Black or women, but not as Black women. That idea spread widely into political communities. I have lived my life as a bisexual and have had sexual relationships with people of many genders. In the gay and lesbian community in the 1980s, you were considered a traitor if you were bisexual, while in the straight community, you were characterized as a threat and a vector, because you weren’t staying in your small communities that – as Sur pointed out – were fictions anyway. 

Other Countries, Black Gay Voices, A First Volume, 1988, book cover. Courtesy: Sur Rodney (Sur) Archives, New York

LT The COVID-19 pandemic is not at all inspirational to me. There’s nothing about it that makes me want to write a novel, whereas I wrote Cast in Doubt [1992] because I was trying to imagine a time after AIDS. Until protease inhibitors, pretty much every person who had AIDS imagined they were going to die. In 1994, Bill T. Jones did a ballet, Still/Here, with people who had AIDS. The dance critic Arlene Croce wrote a furious piece in The New Yorker, asking: ‘How can I review this? How can you ask me to criticize a piece in which there are people with AIDS?’

PS She specifically called it ‘victim art’, right? 

LT Yes. The work was very much about these dancers not being victims but living people. Yet Jones was told by a critic that she couldn’t respond to it, which really makes you question what the role of a critic is.

GB Pamela, Funeral Diva is a tremendously important contribution that encompasses both the history of the AIDS epidemic and links to the current COVID-19 pandemic. I read it as a map to find my way from my past into my present. Can you tell us about your amazing poem from Funeral Diva, ‘The Tale of Two Pandemics’? 

PS The newspaper had just announced that there were shocking inequities within the healthcare system because of COVID-19. Which made me just gasp: shocking to whom? We’ve lived through another pandemic, so it’s not shocking that this is a damaged and broken system. Even prior to AIDS, Black people did not have access to healthcare. The system is not accountable to women at all. I say in ‘The Tale of Two Pandemics’ that I’ve waited for this moment, this time of a ‘medical #MeToo’. The whole system needs to be brought to justice. 

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Still/Here, 1994, performance documentation. Courtesy: BAM Hamm Archives

I hate to say what a writer should do. I feel I have to address the times, but I don’t know that everybody needs to take on that responsibility. Some people who have privilege don’t want to. 

GB One of the amazing things you do in your poem ‘8 Minutes 46 Seconds’, Pamela, is that you draw a parallel between the murder of George Floyd and the death, two days later, of the writer and AIDS activist Larry Kramer. Then, in ‘A Tale of Two Pandemics’, you identify not only the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic as having some relation, but also talk about the epidemic of state-sponsored violence against BIPOC folks. That’s significant because it goes to the issue of what we consider to be an epidemic, and the issue of what you can do in poetry that you can’t do in, say, journalism. 

PS It bothered me when I went to Kramer’s memorial that there was no mention of Floyd. We talked about activism, yet no one said anything about this Black man who had just been murdered and galvanized the world. 

GB Racism against BIPOC communities is the cause of unequal access to healthcare and violent, murderous policing. This was recognized in 1980s HIV activism and continues to this day. A great many of us who are still alive with HIV had flashbacks when we saw Anthony Fauci standing next to yet another stupid Republican president who limited what facts scientists could share to address an urgent healthcare crisis. Pandemics are part of the history of settler colonialism, enslavement, industrialization and the increasing smallness of the planet due to air travel. HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 are part of a continuing history of pandemics related to our current environmental and ecological crises bound up with enslavement, human trafficking and mass displacements of growing numbers of people. 

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, Still/Here, 1994, performance documentation. Courtesy: BAM Hamm Archives

PS Early on, I was really frightened about the language around COVID-19 and those who are infected and those who are not. The hysteria and stigmatization reminded me of AIDS. There hasn’t been enough writing about the racial politics of masks: I live in a very gentrified neighbourhood in Brooklyn and, when white people pass me in the street, they put their masks up. 

EM You all interweave fiction and fact in your work to varying degrees. Given the informational capacity of writing we’ve discussed, and the post-truth atmosphere we’ve been living in these past few years, has your attitude towards the role of fiction changed at all? 

LT No. I don’t think fiction is untrue, and I would never pose fiction versus fact. I don’t think that’s a credible duality. Fiction is about verisimilitude. Different people have different realities within the larger so-called reality. A true story is not necessarily based on fact. What is true is different for each of us.  

PS I’ve always been influenced by fiction. Toni Morrison is my absolute favourite writer. In Beloved [1987], a woman haunted by the ghost of slavery becomes a metaphor for a society that’s haunted by the ghost of slavery. Fiction is such an important mechanism. It can be a protection. 

SRS I don’t read a lot of fiction. But I’ve written a novel about my experience of the art world in the 1980s. I write more from my personal perspective on how I’m feeling about a situation or object. It seems like it’s fiction, but it’s actually real. The personal is as good as fiction, in my opinion. 

Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied, 1989, film still. Courtesy: Signifyin’ Works

LT Gregg made a turn from certain kinds of writing into performance. He did lectures, but then he created a character through which he would perform. I think that was a tremendous move for him to make, to use a fictional character through whom to speak. It gave him a lot of latitude.

GB Thank you, Lynne, but you attribute too much talent to me! I haven’t invented a character – I’m not an actor – I just amplify versions of myself. I’ve always been working through this notion of intersectionality and trying to present myself as a multifaceted and self-contradicting figure. I believe very much in drawing from my own body, but I realize that in writing or in performance, or whenever I use the first-person singular, I still believe the contention that ‘I’ is a place in language, not the person speaking necessarily. So, I play with the notion that the first-person pronoun is a shifter. 

LT Indeed, it is. 

GB In art criticism, a central figure for me – and many others – was Douglas Crimp. Many of us were influenced by his 1987 ‘AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism’ issue of October magazine. AIDS also produced a vast literary culture, from Paul Monette to Edmund White. And, in art, there was the activist movement, which led to a tremendous amount of politicized, direct address, agitprop work. 

At the time, in the 1980s and ’90s, I was also looking for comfort, understanding and solace, so I drew closer to the Other Countries writers – Woods, Craig Harris, Colin Robinson, to name a few. Also, Essex Hemphill’s work was enormously important to me. ‘Now we think as we fuck,’ to quote a line from his eponymous 1989 poem. Marlon Riggs’s writing and videos, such as Tongues Untied [1989], were also significant – direct responses to the epidemic that were as manifold as Sur describes in terms of their understanding of identity. There was also poetry that I’ve come to appreciate that I did not in the ’80s, because of my anger, like Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats [1992]. 

Gregg Bordowitz addressing a crowd in front of the US Food and Drug Administration, 1988. Courtesy: the artist

Some speculated that the epidemic would be good for art, the way that diseases like tuberculosis in the 19th century might produce a great novel or opera. That upset us deeply. Crimp took that up polemically, and rightfully so, by saying that there is no silver lining to this. It’s not worth having an epidemic to produce great art. And he opposed the romantic notion that disease could result in some kind of epiphanic or revelatory art. 

EM When I first read Crimp’s essay ‘Mourning and Militancy’ [1989], his use of the first-personal singular in a work of art theory really shocked me. Do you think the personal tragedy of the AIDS epidemic necessitated that formal shift?

PS I read that article yesterday and I was thinking that, again, Black people have lived with this sense of grief, in terms of our identity, for a long time. Prior to the AIDS epidemic, there has been state-sanctioned violence from slavery to segregation. So, the idea of ‘Mourning and Militancy’ goes way back. We have lived with this awareness and this duality for a very, very long time.  

LT When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, I remember hearing that now we should all write poems against the war. I thought that was ridiculous, and I still think so. It’s one thing to be against the war, to protest it, but it’s another to imagine your art is able always to respond to a present moment. To paraphrase the film theorist Laura Mulvey, everything between art and so-called ‘reality’ is not in lockstep. 

But it’s not just about privilege. It’s important to distinguish people who have the capacity to write about something, no matter where they’re from, and people who don’t. We used to say the personal is political but, more and more, I’m thinking the political is personal. We live our lives shaped and formed by politics, in the broadest sense, and we can’t always respond to it with art. 

Gregg Bordowitz, Fast Trip, Long Drop, 1993, film stills. Courtesy: the artist

PS I hate this idea of being obligated to address something. But then, sometimes I’ll look at my work, as a woman of colour, and the things that I’ve had to contend with – I’ll see none of that in the work of a white counterpart. They’re not struggling. And it bothers me because they do have the freedom to not address anything. So, that does happen with privilege. 

LT You are a very good writer and thinker. You are able to take the material that’s happened in your life and shape it into art. But not everyone who has suffered what you’ve suffered and, like a phoenix, has risen from that, can make the same kind of work. 

PS I agree, but sometimes it is political that certain people are shielded from having to address anything while others are expected to address everything. As happy as I am that we’re starting to address slavery in art, I’m just so tired of Black pain. I was watching Watchmen [2019] recently and, within the first few minutes, a Black man is lynched and set on fire. I don’t want to have to go through that just to be entertained. 

SRS Gregg, what you said about there being no silver lining to AIDS made me think of Wojnarowicz and how AIDS brought something out of him that wasn’t there before. Pandemics make things happen that might never happen otherwise. I created a whole body of writing during the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic because of that isolation. Maybe it’s just me, but I think there’s some silver lining in everything, whether it’s a lesson to be learnt that you wouldn’t have learnt before, or something you create that you otherwise wouldn’t have created. 

WWHIVDD, What Does a COVID-19 Doula Do?, 2020, zine cover. Courtesy: ONE Archives Foundation

GB I identify with that, Sur. I have contradictory feelings. I remember being angry with journalists and others who were looking for some romantic meaning in the crisis, because I was trying to mobilize from a place of anger. I tested positive for HIV when I was 23. Now, I’m 56. I also can’t review my life any other way, as if AIDS didn’t happen. I found my voice as an artist and a writer. Personally, I think that we need a COVID-19 activist movement. The reason we don’t have coordinated, widespread access to vaccines is because the government is honouring patents and relying on the production and distribution of formulas that it has largely funded. This resonates with the AIDS activist movement, which fought against patents during an epidemic. President Joe Biden has now invoked the Defense Production Act to compel US industry to produce PPE and deliver extra equipment to drug companies to produce more vaccines. That’s great! I worry, however, about the proprietary nature of drug development and the inhibiting role of patents. Idealistically, I hope for a marshalling of resources to expand into the production of cheap, high-quality generics.    

So, the writing also has to catch up. Personally, I am even more compelled to write and produce work about COVID-19, being a person with HIV and diabetes who’s terrified and has lived in lockdown. I have not been on a subway since last March. I don’t take buses. I’m privileged as a college professor who can work from home. I’ve started wearing double masks when I go out, because I’m afraid of the variants. This affects my daily writing. I’m fortunate that I’m having a retrospective of 30 years of work that’s been travelling over the past three years and is going to MoMA PS1 in May. It’s called ‘I Wanna Be Well’. It’s now turning into 30 years of HIV work and COVID-19 work.  

SRS I’m part of a collective called What Would an HIV Doula Do? We’ve been producing a lot of zines around HIV/AIDS, and now COVID-19 has entered our concern. A number of our group are ‘long-haulers’ who have been dealing with the after-effects of COVID-19, and that’s gone into a lot of their writings. Some of the visuals are very creative and funny. We’ve put out a couple of zines on

our website. 

Gregg Bordowitz, ‘I Wanna Be Well’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Art Institute of Chicago

GB I’m very proud of a project I organized for MoMA PS1, an online poetry reading called Heard Immunity, which has six poets – Pamela, Samiya Bashir, Dolores Dorantes, Joy Ladin, Fred Moten, Cathy Park Hong – and images by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, who has been taking photographs all through the pandemic and of the Black Lives Matter protests. So, I have been actively interested in creating platforms where contemporary writers and artists can make work specifically about COVID-19. It’s available on MoMA’s website and also as a free e-book. 

LT You are very well set up, Gregg, in terms of your whole body of work, to write about COVID-19 in this way. My first books were about female identity and, in different senses, how girls’ lives are hard. In Haunted Houses [1987] and, later, in Motion Sickness [1991], I asked how much room a woman has to roam. So, the personal is political, the political is personal. Morrison wrote about the burden of having to respond to things that are said about you or to you – the stereotypes you have to fight against or resist. So, in a sense, we deal with what is right in front of us, what we can’t get around, what our obstacles are.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 218 with the headline 'How to Write in a Pandemic’.

The piece is originally accompanied by a Pamela Sneed poem, available here

Main image: Rosa von Praunheim, Silence=Death, 1989, film still featuring David Wojnarowicz. Courtesy: Rosa von Praunheim Filmproduktion

Gregg Bordowitz is an artist, writer, teacher and director of the Low-Residency MFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA. His retrospective will be on view at MoMA PS1, New York, USA, from 13 May to 11 October.  

Lynne Tillman is a writer. Her most recent title is Mothercare (Soft Skull Press, 2022). In 2025, Soft Skull Press is publishing a book of her selected stories titled Thrilled to Death.

Sur Rodney (Sur) is an artistic collaborator, activist, writer and archivist. He is a participant in Other Countries and What Would an HIV Doula Do? He is currently archiving the work of his late spouse, Geoffrey Hendricks, as well as that of Lorraine O’Grady for the Fales Library, New York University, USA.

Pamela Sneed is a poet, writer, performer, artist and the author of several books, most recently Funeral Diva (2020). She is online faculty in the Low-Residency MFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA, and adjunct associate professor at Columbia University School of the Arts, New York, USA.