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Pickle Me This

May 21, 2007

28 by Stephanie Nolen

The one thing of which I am certain is the power of story, and Stephanie Nolen’s 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa is a testament to this power. I’ve been reading this book for a few weeks now as it was too much to take in all at once. Not that it depressing, or overly bleak, but rather there is just so much here. Unsurprisingly, as each of Nolen’s 28 stories is to represent one million people in Africa with HIV/AIDS, a structure which does something toward making 28 million a comprehendable number– no small task. The subjects of these stories come from a variety of backgrounds, and their situations are different: the young Ethiopian girl whose parents have died of AIDS who supports her younger brother; the Congolese doctor who braves civil war violence to keep her clinic operating so patients can continue to receive their antiretroviral drugs; the South African activist who refused ARV drugs, coming close to death, until they were made widely available for those in his country who needed them; the twelve-year-old who began taking ARV drugs and became healthy for the first time in his life; the Ugandan doctor working toward an HIV vaccine; the HIV-immune prostitute who must work to support her family; she who wears the crown of Botswana’s Miss HIV Stigma-Free.

Stephanie Nolen is a phenomenal writer, as anyone would know who has read her work in The Globe and Mail. She allows her subjects dignity and writes with sympathy, making extraordinary stories out of ordinary lives. Nolen has been reporting on AIDS in Africa since the late 1990s, and is equipped with both knowledge and the skills to impart it. I found her introduction to this book fascinating, as I learned of the origins of AIDS in Africa, and how it spread. Nolen’s insight that, “The problem with HIV is that its transmission, in blood and sexual fluids and breast milk, preys on our most intimate moments,” seemed to me a wonderfully straightforward expression of so many complicated issues, and informed the way that I would read her book. And as much as 28 taught me about AIDS, it also showed me Africa: AIDS is the story, but in the background is political upheaval and Civil War in various countries; ordinary lives amidst all this, and in more peaceful places too; the societal constructs and family units. Nolen gives us many of the notorious stock-characters of the AIDS epidemic: the truckers, prostitutes, cheating husbands, betrayed wives. And these characters are never true to type, perhaps the very point. Their situations are far more complicated (and in some cases sensible, in their own contexts) than they are usually portrayed. And as readers, we come away with an understanding– the proof of stories’ power, and Nolen’s stories in particular.

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