Thursday, October 30, 2008

About "What They Carried"

Every year I get informational requests from college students on my short story “What They Carried,” which is included in anthology Making Literature Matter. Here is some background on the story.

The story was originally included in my collection Dancing on the Moon: Short Stories About AIDS, published in 1993 by Viking and 1994 by Penguin. The story is also included in Still Dancing: New and Selected Stories, published in 2008 by Lethe Press, which collects 20 of my stories about the impact of AIDS on the gay community written over the last three decades.

The details of “What They Carried” are drawn from my actual experiences while caring for my friend Kevin Patterson who was ill with AIDS — the overwhelming things I and his other friends physically carried to and from his hospital room and his apartment in his final days. In the process, we created our own community, network, family, and support group.

The story was written in March 1988 in the week following my friend’s death as part of my grieving process. It is one of the most truthful stories I have ever written, and is as close to being nonfiction as it is fiction. I always approached this story as a sort of personal therapy and a story I had to tell, not a story that would ever be published. Even though I wrote this story when I was 32 years old, it is still the story of a “young man.” At the time, I had only had published two short stories with gay themes and a handful of essays on being gay — and felt I was still learning how to write fiction. This story is also one of the few works that I have written that I cannot be objective about because it holds so much truth for me. And it is one of the handful of things that I have written that can instantly bring me to tears when I pick it up to read it again.

The meaning of the title resonates on several levels to the story. It refers to the physical things carried to and from the hospital by Adam’s friends. It refers to emotional and mental states, attitudes, and adjustments each of these friends carry through the process of helping take care of a gay man with AIDS. It also refers to the belief in the early years of the AIDS epidemic that a gay man might be “carrying” the HIV virus, whether he knew he had it or not.

The story was written in the late 1980s and during a time when there was a great deal of uncertainty felt by gay men over the status of their health — the HIV test had been introduced and there were both internal and social conflicts on whether or not someone should be tested for the virus — a positive test result could lead to potential discrimination and, in those years, a HIV-positive diagnosis was regarded as the diagnosis of a fatal illness. As the story says, “It’s the fear every gay man carries today.” — which means internally they carried a fear — that somewhere in his past, without knowing it had happened, they might have contracted the virus, too.

The writing style is realistic and naturalistic and slice of life; it has also been called similar to cinema verité, and the story's style is an outgrowth of what was once considered minimalistic fiction, which was popular in the late 1980s when the story was written.

In structural terms, the story is a simple accumulation of details. These details, by the end of the story, reveal character, tension, conflict, action, and plot — all of the necessary elements of a successful short story.