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Rebbeca Makkai talks about why she set her novel “The Great Believers” in Chicago, who she wrote ...
2020-12-01 09:00:00

A Genocide of Neglect
An Interview with Rebecca Makkai

A Genocide of Neglect
Read in 12 minutes

Paulina Małochleb: Chicago doesn’t have the aura of an artistic city. Why did you decide to set your book there?

Rebbeca Makkai: Chicago is actually a major artistic centre! The Art Institute of Chicago is easily one of the best two art museums in the country; there’s a long and vital literary tradition, including the very important Poetry magazine – and I’m always telling people that it’s the best American city for working artists and writers right now. I’ve lived here most of my life, and in part I wanted to set The Great Believers here because I was writing outside my lived experience in so many ways, but I know Chicago intimately and could write about it with great authority. When we tell stories about AIDS in the US, they’re almost always focused on coastal cities. As a writer, it’s of course much more compelling to do something that hasn’t been done before; that isn’t the first thing people would think of.

Although I lived in Chicago in the 1980s, I was a child then and I really didn’t know much about Chicago’s unique AIDS history. That was a learning curve, and it was something I had to research intensively. Each city’s AIDS story is different, because of culture, the governmental response, and just plain circumstance. AIDS hit Chicago a year or two later than it hit the coasts, for instance, and that made a lot of difference in the ways people were able to organize and respond.

Do you think the AIDS epidemic is well presented in literature? Which books are the most important for you? Because in Poland, your book is some kind of novelty – we don’t have many titles that are about AIDS.

We do have some important works about AIDS, but there aren’t nearly enough – this isn’t just a Polish problem! I’ve been particularly influenced by some of the works of theatre that have processed the epidemic. Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart was written right in the thick of the early crisis, and Tony Kushner’s two-part play Angels in America came along a bit later and is, to me, the pinnacle of art about AIDS. We’re starting to get more memoirs now from people who lived through the height of the AIDS crisis – even something like My Own Country, a memoir from the novelist Abraham Verghese about being an infectious disease doctor in a small town in Tennessee in the mid-1980s.

When I think, though, about the fact that globally around 35 million people have died of AIDS since the start of the epidemic, the amount of literature about AIDS seems shockingly small. At least in the US, people seem to have an endless appetite for novels and movies about the Holocaust – there are mountains of them published every year – and yet these same people keep asking me: “Why are there so many books about AIDS right now?” I think they mean mine and maybe one or two others. That, to them, feels like ‘so many’.

There was a silence surrounding the early years of AIDS, and that silence lingers… I think we particularly need more of these books right now, while people who remember the earliest days of the epidemic are still able to tell their stories.

As I ask you these questions, in Poland we have a big, conservative campaign against LGBTQ people. How is this community functioning in the US? Does it still register some kind of oppression, or did that end in the 1980s?

In the US right now, the situation is quite geographic. If you’re living as openly gay in a major city like New York, you’ll still likely find some isolated incidents of harassment, but you’d have the opportunity for a relatively safe and secure and happy life. In contrast, if you’re living in a small town in Alabama, you might have a hard time just getting through school in one piece. Certain religious groups, certain families, certain areas and certain states are stuck in the norms of 70 years ago. As a result, you still see the movement of people that I depict in The Great Believers – LGBTQ people coming from all over to a city like Chicago to find each other and to make chosen families and chosen communities in place of the ones that never supported them.

In general, it feels as if the tide has turned for good on public policy for LGBTQ rights in the US; gay marriage is legal and protected, and it’s hard to see us going back on that. But as in Europe, we have conservative groups and conservative politicians (a minority, but one good at cheating its way into power) still trying to enact regressive policies. I do think they know, though, that it’s a losing battle, and right now they’re more likely to focus their efforts in other areas.

How do people with AIDS function within the LGBTQ movement?

I should add that there are still 1.1 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS, and the number of new infections is growing, particularly in Southern cities, and particularly among people of colour. This is something that has been utterly ignored by both the Trump administration and the media, and in fact at the end of 2017 Trump quietly fired all the remaining members of the HIV/AIDS Advisory Council. It seems he knew this was something he could get away with, something people weren’t paying much attention to. There is still, in many ways, a very slow genocide of neglect.

Could we read your novel as a memorial for AIDS victims?

Sure, I do think it turned into that. This is my only book that isn’t dedicated to someone on the first page, because when my American publisher asked for the dedication I just didn’t feel I could do anything without being cheesy. I couldn’t dedicate it to someone unrelated to the AIDS crisis, and I couldn’t pick out one person to commemorate. In the end, I felt that the book itself stood as its own dedication; that I didn’t need to add anything to that.

Did you feel authorized to write on behalf of LGBTQ people? Did you experience any kind of pressure as a person from outside of this community? Who can speak in the name of its members?

I was tremendously concerned about writing as an outsider, not only about LGBTQ identity, but also about the very real lived trauma of AIDS. I’m writing as a straight woman, but also as a healthy person, and as someone who was only seven years old in 1985, the year The Great Believers begins. I knew that if I was going to do this at all, I had to get things right, to represent both details and psychology accurately. And in order to do that, I had to spend a huge amount of time talking to people who knew this time and place and experience intimately.

But in addition, I decided early on that this wasn’t just the story of Yale, my main character. I included shorter chapters from Fiona, a character who (at least demographically) is more like me. It helped too that the novel is not only about AIDS; it’s about art history and museum donations and cults and many other things. The more polyphonic the novel could be, and the broader it could be in scope, the less I felt that I was trying to be some kind of ventriloquist and just tell one specific story that I hadn’t been there for.

Was it difficult to conduct research for this book?

One of the great difficulties was that there is very little about AIDS in Chicago in book or film form. Almost all I could find initially was about San Francisco or New York City. Early on, I turned to archived issues of gay weekly newspapers, and managed to get a good education that way, but it was also hugely important to me to get a sense of the less tangible details: the way a certain bar felt, the fear surrounding testing, etc. I first reached out via Facebook to my own network of friends, asking people to connect me with anyone who’d been affected by AIDS in the early days. Every time I met with someone, I asked at the end of the conversation who else they thought I should talk to, and whether they were willing to introduce me. I ended up talking to doctors, nurses, lawyers, activists, historians, journalists, survivors… absolutely anyone who was willing to sit down with me. Once I got connected, the research was easy and abundant, because almost everyone was willing to share. But, of course, it was also emotionally difficult. I became close friends with almost everyone I spoke to, and in some cases, as we met three or four times, it almost felt like I was falling into a sort of therapist role. I didn’t mind this at all, and I was honoured that people were willing to open up so much.

In The Great Believers, there are two themes. Which came first?

Yale’s 1985 story came first, and in particular, the story of his relationship with Nora, a woman who’d been an artists’ model in Paris before and after World War I. That was really going to be the book for me initially, the story of these two parallel eras of art and loss. At first, I imagined we’d know just as much about Nora as we know about Yale. But Yale’s story really became the centre of gravity very quickly.

I had written about 100 pages just following Yale when I realized, as I mentioned above, that I wanted another voice besides his. Simultaneously, in my interviews with people, the question of memory kept coming up. We were talking, in many cases, about things that had happened 30 years ago – and I was becoming fascinated with questions of long-term survivor’s guilt, or what it would mean to be given a death sentence at the age of 25 and then to still be here 30 years later. I knew I wanted to bring the story into the present day, or what was then the present day. (2015 feels like ancient history now!)

How did you want to connect them? Did you have this link in your mind from the beginning?

Once I knew I wanted a modern story line, Fiona (who had, up until then, been a minor character) felt like the right person to follow. I wanted to write about someone whose life was still subsumed by the AIDS crisis, and by the losses of her youth. It was important to me that Fiona not be a straight saviour character (despite her best efforts!), but be someone profoundly flawed and damaged. The particular coincidences of her life – the way she became a mother just as she was experiencing loss – were something I had to write my way to and discover along the way.

For me, The Great Believers is about fear and its different forms. We have the AIDS crisis, and in the modern part of the plot, the fear of terror. Are these fears similar?

I don’t know that there are any neat parallels, but it did feel that they could coexist in the same book; the same echo chamber. I was writing Fiona’s sections (which are set in Paris in 2015) during the actual fall of 2015, when the Bataclan attacks happened in Paris. I had to think for a long time about whether to include them or whether I should maybe move Fiona’s sections to another year. Ultimately, I realized that thematically this was a book about the intrusions of history into our lives, and here was another one, one that Fiona would be living through if she were real. I hope it’s clear that I’m not equating these crises in any way, but just letting them coexist.

Can society learn to live with constant fear? And what about families? Many relationships in your book are damaged, and there is nobody who can show some frankness.

I do think that in the end, Yale learns to live without fear. He’s someone who at the beginning of the story would never have gone to a demonstration, and by the end he’s lying down in the street, willing to be arrested. I needed his arc to have that upward swing at the end; I needed him to find his courage. And I do think there are also families that stick together. Charlie’s mother and Julian’s mother both come through in major ways, and Fiona, for all her flaws, does provide family for many people. What happens throughout the book is that the more fickle relationships fall away, and the deeper relationships are strengthened by crisis. I think that’s true of real life as well.

How did you plot the story of Fiona? She is a person who passes from one community to another. And you didn’t compensate her for her commitment to Nico and Yale, instead you gave her a dramatic relationship with her daughter.

Fiona’s broken relationship with her daughter is partly the manifestation of all the ways Fiona hasn’t dealt with trauma, but it’s also simply a matter of the individual people involved, the ways her daughter is simply a difficult human. It’s important to me as I write that not everything be thematic, that some things just be a matter of chance of the idiosyncrasies of individuals – because that’s true to life.

In your book there are few differences between chosen family and biological family. If there is a difference, it’s in favour of the chosen family. Why?

This is a matter of realism when we’re looking at gay communities in the 1980s. There were certainly some nuclear families that were supportive or that eventually came around, but really these are people who needed to build community and family on their own.

Ultimately, my job as an author isn’t to hand you an easy answer but to complicate the questions. In this case, I did want to poke away at the questions of blood family, chosen family, the things we owe each other, whether because of who we are or because of promises we’ve made. I do think that for every example in the book of people being a certain way (the way Nico and Fiona’s parents give up on them, for instance) there’s a counterexample (the way Fiona won’t give up on her own daughter despite everything).

I also see a difference between artists and non-artists in the book, the basis of which is self-awareness. Non-artists have little contact with their feelings, they can’t understand themselves, as in Fiona’s case.

Certainly most people who aren’t artists are still in contact with their feelings, and artists can be tremendously out of touch or delusional, so I don’t mean to suggest that this isn’t the case. What’s true is that Fiona doesn’t have a ready way to process her grief, and some other characters – Richard, for instance – do have a place to pour their memories and trauma. In the end, Fiona does find a moment of revelation and peace through Richard’s art, and I think that’s important – the way that art can be catharsis not only for the artist, but also for the observer.

Against whom or what did you write your novel? Heteronormative society, the dis-remembering of AIDS victims (and today’s victims), a culture in which a gay person can only be the friend of a main character?

Yes, all of those – and I love the way that you’ve asked that question. We are always writing against things, in addition to writing towards things. Some of my best writing has been reactionary, whether to a moment of stress or to other art that I don’t think works.

You mention stories in which gay characters are sidelined, and that was very much something I wanted to avoid. In particular, I’ve noticed a tendency for people to die of AIDS off-stage, as it were; a death that changes that main character’s life (a lesson that life is short!), but that isn’t the main focus. Early on, when I thought Yale and Nora were going to share the book equally, it felt that this was starting to happen, and that AIDS was going to be just a subplot in Yale’s life. That didn’t sit right with me, and I realized that if I was going to do this at all, I had to look at it head-on. That was terrifying, but being terrified is probably a sign that you’re on the right track.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.


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Paulina Małochleb

is a literary critic and the secretary of the Wisława Szymborska Award. She is a laureate of both the “Nagrody Prezesa Rady Ministrów” award and the “Stypendium Młoda Polska” award. In 2018, she was nominated for the Polityka Passport Award. She sits on the jury of the Julian Tuwim Literary Award. She runs a blog at