I remember writer and journalist Adam Levin in the late nineties. We weren’t friends, but he was often out and about on the Joburg gay scene and I briefly worked with him on a documentary in 1996. Then he disappeared.
I heard gossip that he was sick with Aids. When I briefly spotted him at party a few years later, I couldn’t reconcile the frail looking man with the person I remembered. Soon after, I heard that he was at death’s door.
But this stubborn “dead man” kept popping up every now and then to prove that he was quite alive, thank you very much. I’d hear him on the radio promoting his book on African crafts, or read an article he’d written in a magazine, and now more recently he’s once again taken to appearing at clubs and parties. And to further emphasise that he’s not quite done with life, Adam’s gone and won South Africa’s most prestigious literature prize. Not too shabby for a dead man.
The award-winning book is Aidsafari, a memoir of a two year chunk of his struggle with the HI Virus. Written along the lines of a diary, it’s an affecting, horrifying and also humorous account about the life of a South African gay man with Aids. I read it in two intense sittings.
The judges for this year’s Alan Paton Non-Fiction Award couldn’t choose between Aidsafari and Judge Edwin Cameron’s tale of his own HIV journey, Witness to Aids. And so, last month, they awarded both books the shared prize, stating that “…Levin and Cameron displayed exceptional integrity and bravery in laying bare the intimate details of their experience, their struggle and the resolution of their personal crises, as public testimony.”
When I asked for the interview through his publisher, the reply was that Adam would be very excited at the prospect. I later discover that he knows Mambaonline well, having met his boyfriend through Meet Market. After the interview, he e-mailed me to add that he thinks that perhaps his book “won for guts”. I think I’d very much agree with that.
How is your health?
Jesus, if you saw me a year ago! In terms of how abundant my life now is – that’s my barometer of how I am doing. My feet are still ‘eina’ but I’ve yapped on enough about that. My CD4 is climbing slowly. When I was living at my parents’ house, not having a life, it was climbing faster. But now it’s climbing slower cause I’m going out, living a life, traveling a lot…
How do you feel about being tagged as an “Aids writer”? An award-winning one at that…
I wanted to be seen as an author living with Aids rather than a person living with Aids who decides to write a book. It sends out a mixed message on some subconscious level – that people who are grappling with safe sex issues might very subtly think it’s okay to get infected ‘cause you get awards and you get into the papers and it’s fine. It’s not fine! It’s the single most important thing that people who are negative stay negative.
Is there a sense that being HIV positive is not really ‘so bad’ anymore?
I have a friend who is alarmed at people spending all day at Virgin [Active] getting their bodies perfect, then bare-backing at the Factory. I think there is a perception from people that it’s easier just to get it, “and then I don’t have to worry about it”. If I had been as educated as I am now five years ago I would have never taken the risks I took. I won’t plead ignorance and be a victim; I got it and I must deal with it. But there is a weird kind of heroism attached to it on some subconscious level in the gay scene and it’s very dangerous. There is nothing glamorous about it, it’s fucking horrible.
As a gay man you already live with one label, by coming out publicly as HIV positive you’ve forever attached an additional label to yourself…
I was careful of how I did that and I am even careful of how I do that when I meet people. At the end of my last book in the inside flap I decided to include, “he’s now working on a memoir about his journey with Aids”. I felt I was ready to talk about that. When I go on dates it’s important for me to disclose this when it gets to a point of intimacy or of any risk. But if they have not been reading the papers I prefer not to immediately talk about it because I’d like to meet people as me and, when it’s relevant, discuss HIV.
And, any luck with the dating?
I am seeing someone at the moment who is HIV negative. It’s a huge responsibility. We are getting sex counseling in London as there is no decent [HIV/AIDS] sex counseling in this country. Which is one of the obvious things that are needed. Try finding a clinic to give you the right advice be it to pay or be it for free…
“I don’t think I have necessarily quelled all my demons of promiscuity. It’s a life-long thing people have to work with.”
Your book and Cameron’s book are both written by gay white men. It seems a little bizarre that there’s little out there about Aids written from a black gay perspective.
There have been allegations that white publishers have been reticent to publish black or rural texts. This is rubbish! They are clamouring for these, because it makes them look PC! My hope is that it [the book] encourages other voices. You don’t need a degree! This book was written very simply. And it was great that this book won, rather than my other more eloquent books, ‘cause I think that the judges were saying that it’s voice that matters.
That’s what I appreciated about the book; it has a clear and engaging voice and it’s not just a compendium of events and facts.
My aim was to write a personal story. Middle of road, conservative and even homophobic people have come back to me and they’ve told me that they could not put the book down. For me that’s amazing ‘cause I have reached people who I thought were so far away.
Do you think gay men are more open to exposing ourselves to potential stigma, by for example writing these books, because we’ve already had to deal with coming out?
Not from evidence. There’s a lot of denial in the gay scene. Camille Paglia wonders why gays are so creatively prolific, and her answer is that perhaps because we don’t have kids that we reproduce in other ways. I think of my books as my kids. That is maybe why gay men are writing these books first.
A few cynics I’ve discussed the award with have dismissed it: Remarking that it was probably given on the basis of the “PC subject matter” and not necessarily the quality of the writing. What’s your take on that?
I think yes and no. There were very strict criteria for the award; like clarity of voice, illuminating an aspect of truth that is surprising and in a new form. I think the award might have been a strategic prize but if you read my book, do you think it’s PC? I was shocked at the fact that the academic panel got through my drag folk songs and all my exploits and still said, “Okay we’ll take this guy as a winner”!
In the book you don’t shy away from the fact that you were promiscuous, that you do drugs. At what point did you prepare your parents for this?
I am so blind about things! I don’t think about the implications. I gave my parents a manuscript to read and they said nothing. A few months later we were watching TV and my mother says, “there were some things about your past that we didn’t know about”… Look, it’s hard for them; I have imposed that on them, but they have been amazingly supportive.
To what extent does promiscuity still play a part in your life?
Promiscuity’s not something that makes me happy and not something I can ignore. I