At 35: Writing the Viral Bildungsroman[1]

Ricky Varghese

Memory resides somewhere between the neurotic insistence of something akin to truth, and the uncanny, vertigo-inducing vagaries of fiction. The past is undoubtedly easily forgettable and yet we persist, at least at times, in remembering it, despite how anachronistically stained our gesture of remembering it is—stained by splotches, hues of forgetting, in spite of how much our remembering this it of the past might be anarchically wounded by forgetting. Both remembering and forgetting, in this sense, exist in the time it takes to write a history, within the very temporality that informs the historicity of what is written, the story—a story of the coming of age of a person, an object, a narrative strand, one that attempts to capture the essence of the loss of time implicit in this very fragile experience of coming of age. In writing such a story, a history, in attempting to capture the essence of a time given over to the imperceptible ruin—perhaps, on occasion, necessarily—of forgetting and forgetfulness, then might we ask, as the Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi did, ‘is it possible that the antonym of “forgetting” is not “remembering,” but justice?’[2] Is it possible that at the heart of every desire for narrative recuperation—the ghost of Walter Benjamin hovers overhead, plaintively whispering its imperative: ‘awaken the dead’[3]—there exists a desire, as painstakingly difficult as it may be, and justice for the forgotten, for those no longer present, those who exist as non-presence in the time of the present? How is justice possible, then, in the writing of a story about HIV/AIDS? What would the act of writing such a story look like? As the official story of HIV/AIDS in the Global North/West turns 35, can we ask how a virus came/comes of age and how might we come of age alongside it?

In his 2011 essay ‘Bareback Time,’ psychoanalytic queer theorist Tim Dean suggests that ‘[the] one thing we thought we knew for sure about infection with HIV – that it is invariably fatal – has become, in recent years, even more uncertain’.[4] Similarly, in an article published in The Guardian on September 4, 2015—written to counter the possible stigmatization that might result from the accidental leak of 780 patients’ details from a clinic in central London—Tom Hayes, editor of beyondpositive.org stated, ‘life with HIV has changed enormously. It’s time public perception followed suit.’[5] What, then, has changed in our certitude regarding the ‘invariably fatal’ outcome of an HIV infection? Perhaps following the suggestive title of Dean’s essay, this issue of Drain attends to the category of time, or temporality, as it relates to the practices attuned to the task of remembering the AIDS crisis. What has happened to the temporality of this memory of HIV/AIDS? Are there multiple such temporalities to the crisis? If so, what temporalities had it occupied historically? What temporalities might it occupy presently and/or for l’avenir, the future still to come? How have socio-cultural experiences of HIV and AIDS shifted over the course of time since the first cases were reported in 1981, nearly thirty years before Dean would write his essay? What is occluded in thinking that 1981 is the beginning of the story of HIV/AIDS? How does traumatic loss—the losses incurred by the numerous AIDS-related deaths—and its commemoration become accounted for as the many temporalities of the crisis continue to shift? What sorts of aesthetic practices and choices make such remembering both possible and simultaneously challenging?

The early story of HIV/AIDS is inscribed with what could only be recounted as an unimaginable sense of loss—the inestimable loss of time, the incalculable loss of bodies, the unstoppable loss of time by the bodies lost to the crisis, the irretrievable loss of loved ones/objects, objects of our affections, the impossibility to admit loss as such, what might be imagined as the ‘loss of loss’[6] itself. There are, however, as will be seen throughout this issue, many temporalities inscribed into how HIV/AIDS came to be known, imagined, experienced and remembered. I want to close my comments here by telling one such story about how the virus came to inform the experience of a life coming of age.

I inherited Judaism from one grandfather. And from the other, I inherited the story of AIDS.

In 1975, my young father would take his slightly older bride-to-be—my mother—to see his dying father in Kerala. His father would die, a year later, in 1976: the same year that my parents would marry. I was born, three years later, in 1979. Many years later, in recounting the experience of meeting her then future father-in-law that one and only time, my mother could only recall one aspect from that meeting: how ill my grandfather was, how frail and weak he had appeared, how his body presented a patchwork of purplish hued lesions. The standard party line posthumously told and fervently upheld by extended members of my father’s side of the family was that my grandfather had died of a kind of skin cancer—the only person in our family, in living memory, to have ever suffered such a malady. My mother, a trained nurse, believed otherwise, insisting on her version of the story. But, then again she always had a difficult and complicated (to put it politely) relationship with my father’s side of the family.

Years later, on my psychoanalyst’s couch I would find myself recalling this narrative to think through how queerness for me became informed by—and enmeshed with—this strange tale of my inheritance of the story of AIDS.

I do not know if my grandfather died of AIDS-related complications, but then again, I don’t know for certain that he didn’t either. I don’t know if my mother told me an impenetrable truth, or forged a fictive narrative based on her own experience of the event of encountering my grandfather, coloured by her complicated experience of my father’s family. In a way, it doesn’t matter at all whether this story is true or false. I will never know, and I can’t ever prove it to be one or the other. What is true, what can be stated with an adequate amount of certitude, however, is that my own coming of age as a queer man in the mid-to-late 1990s in relation to HIV/AIDS in the Global North/West—flanked on the one side by a generation that had lost so much to crisis and on the other side by a generation, generally speaking, determined by its fantasies of claiming to experience a post-AIDS era—took me back to a memory that was neither mine to claim nor remember, but still mine nonetheless because it was told to me as such. Every experience I would have in those formative years, every choice I made, would take me back to a time that I wasn’t even around for, to a place—Kerala—that I could not feel any further distant from, back to a scene of a Freudian family romance of sorts, of my mother’s memory of encountering her future husband’s father, a man I would never know: frail, weak and with a body splotched with purplish hued lesions. Is this not how historical trauma experienced—as a relationship between disparate temporalities, between the memory of a time in the now-long gone past that never belonged to one in the first place and in the time of a present life riddled with questions regarding that past?

As such, what philosopher Rebecca Comay has suggested appears to ring ever more true: ‘trauma marks a caesura in which the linear order of time is thrown out of sequence [and that we] compound this temporal disorientation every time we try to quarantine trauma by displacing it to a buried past or a distant future.’[7] In such a scene, my eternal return to that time and place, in my own coming of age, as a sort of queer Orpheus—if only—trying to awaken the dead of the past for the purposes of living in the present speaks to a desire for wanting to think of queerness, memory, history, consanguinity, and viral life and death all in the same breath.

Finally, turning back now from this inheritance of a story about AIDS, to a story about Judaism, I am moved to end here with a contemplation by Yerushalmi himself on the complicated word ‘Zakhor’:

The Hebrew Zakhor – ‘Remember’ – announces my elusive theme. Memory is always problematic, usually deceptive, sometimes treacherous. Proust knew this, and the English reader is deprived of the full force of his title which conveys, not the blandly reassuring ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ of the Moncrieff translation, but an initially darker and more anxious search for a time that has been lost. In the ensorcelled film of Alain Resnais the heroine quickly discovers that she cannot even be certain of what transpired ‘last year at Marienbad.’ We ourselves are periodically aware that memory is among the most fragile and capricious of our faculties.[8]

This issue on AIDS and memory was conceived and organized with memory’s fragility and capriciousness always already in mind, if only to assuage, even if for only a brief moment, the incumbent anxieties that both remembering and not remembering simultaneously awaken in the name of justice. If only, to live, to cohabit, perhaps even a little convivially, with scenes of historical trauma from the now-distant and fading past.


[1] The immediate context for this editorial is a larger project that I am working on that attempts to address the relationship between family history and trauma.

[2] Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 117.

[3] Benjamin, Walter. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,’ in Arendt, Hannah (ed.). Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 257.

[4] Dean, Tim. ‘Bareback Time,’ in McCallum, E. L. and Mikko Tuhkanen (eds.). Queer Times, Queer Becomings (Albany: SUNY P, 2011), 75.

[5] Hayes, Tom. ‘Life with HIV has changed enormously. It’s time public perception followed suit.’ The Guardian. 4 Sept. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/04/hiv-positive-leak-patients-stigma?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other>.

[6] Comay, Rebecca, ‘The Sickness of Tradition: Between Melancholia and Fetishism,’ in Benjamin, Andrew (ed.). Walter Benjamin and History (London: Continuum, 2005), 88.

[7] Comay, Rebecca. Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2011), 25.

[8] Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 5.


Ricky Varghese received his PhD in Sociology of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto in 2014. He serves presently as an advisory editor for Drain: A Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture and has been the lead editor for a special issue of the journal on the theme of the “Ruin” which came out in October 2014. He also serves on the advisory board of Critical Distance Toronto, a new centre for curation and curatorial practice in the city. Presently, he is in the midst of preparing a manuscript for an edited collection of essays, an anthology, for the University of Regina Press, Sex at the Limit: Essays on Barebacking. Trained as a social worker, with both his BSW and MSW, he has a private practice as a therapist in downtown Toronto.