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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The turn to sacred address in transnational HIV/AIDS writing Giffen, Sheila Jane


The Turn to Sacred Address in Transnational HIV/AIDS Writing argues that authors from the U.S. and South Africa reach for spiritual figures in literary responses to pandemic to create space for liveability faced with death’s nearness. I show how writers respond to AIDS as a biopolitical crisis with roots in longer histories of colonial disease and racialized medicine through forms of sacred expression. Guided by anti-colonial and feminist approaches to subjectivity, politics, and power, I theorize “sacred address” as a relational scene of speech and writing that enables possibilities for life and survival from within conditions of modern biopolitical subjection. Methods of literary analysis are conditioned by frameworks of secular modernity and the AIDS pandemic is marked by troubling histories of religious stigma and violence. In these contexts, the spiritual dimensions of AIDS writing are often elided or rendered unintelligible. I propose how listening to “sacred address” can reframe our understanding of literary method, race, and sexuality in ways that are attentive to the materiality of spiritual life-worlds. In chapter one, I explore how South African writer K. Sello Duiker’s novel The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2000) attends to the psychic imprint of racial and colonial subjection through the evocation of divine cosmologies. In chapters two and three, I scrutinize the impulse to read AIDS writing as a form of truth-telling through a comparative reading of American artist and writer David Wojnarowicz and South African writer Phaswane Mpe. While Wojnarowicz’s films, photography, and writing (1989-1991) contemplate the entanglement of eroticism, spirituality, and morality, Mpe’s novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001) responds to the crisis of AIDS and its silencing through a spiritual meditation on life, death, and illness. In chapter four, I show how Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Almanac of the Dead (1991) casts AIDS within the evils of capitalist colonialism and imagines forms of spiritual anti-colonial dissent. In my conclusion, I analyze the Black gay poetics of Haitian American poet Assotto Saint as a queer contestation of secular modernity that threads between abjection and transcendence toward an alternative form of empowerment.

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