HIV/AIDS in Jamaica: A Poet Responds

Illustration for article titled HIV/AIDS in Jamaica: A Poet Responds

As HIV/AIDS continues to spread across the globe, one project, "Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica," commissioned by the Pulitzer Center, aims to show the full lives of people who face the disease daily.


Poet Kwame Dawes, who has written several books and is a champion of the arts, traveled to the place where he was raised and listened to the stories, shared in the lives, and witnessed the resiliency of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. The result is a multimedia project that combines Dawes' poetry and reporting with music, video, audio, a website, and an upcoming performance at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The poetry derived from his travels is featured in the collection, Hope's Hospice.

With Books on the Root, Dawes elaborated on his journey, the people he met, the face of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, and how he was able to articulate it all through poetry.


Books on the Root: How did "Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica" come about? And can you talk about your role in the project?

Kwame Dawes: About two years ago, I got a call from Jon Sawyer from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, who told me that he was collaborating with the Virginia Quarterly Review to do a long form article on HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. I made it clear that I was not a journalist and I would come at the story as a writer—as a poet. Jon said this is what they wanted and they felt strongly that I would be the best person for the job. He also told me that as part of the project, there would be an effort to create an interactive website around my correspondence work—my essays and reporting via video and audio. I saw a site that the Center had produced on Haiti, and I found it engaging and fascinating.

BOTR: Why use art to bring attention to this issue?

KD: I am sure there are many good reasons why art can bring a powerful level of attention to issues of all kinds. But I am not so sure that the making of art can effectively be driven by the desire to bring attention to an issue. There is a fine distinction between the two things. I did not set out to write poems to bring attention to the issue of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. I wrote these things as a way to work out what I thought about the experiences I was having as I discovered so much about the disease. I wrote the poems because I found poetic moments in the lives of the people I met and the stories they told me. I wrote the poems for the same reason I write any poem. I write to harness language so that it can capture the thoughts and feelings that come to me as I engage the world around me. My greatest desire was to ensure that I did justice to the images, the ideas, the feelings that I experienced as I met people and grew to be moved by their lives, and by the way Jamaica started to look to me. The poems are about the way rain changes the texture of the island in the last months of the year, as much as they are about the stories I found as I did this work.


Once the poems were written, it became possible for us to start thinking of them as tools, as a way to make people think about these experiences differently. It began to make sense to see the poems as a way to humanize the lives of those I was writing about. Poetry offers the detail of emotion and thought, the detail of space and the detail of image. The best poems are not always making a case. They are simply seeking a truth about experience.

BOTR: Did you find it difficult to write poems that reflected what you saw and experienced?


KD: Not at all. Writing poems is the answer to difficulty. The difficulties are: the fear that I will forget, the fear that I will somehow lose the beauty of what has been given to me by people who have told me their stories and have allowed me into their lives, the fear that no one else will know their story, the fear that I won't find the right language to tell of what I have seen and heard and felt. Poetry helps me overcome those fears.

BOTR: It's important to note that the title of the project is "Living and Loving." Often, we forget that many people with HIV/AIDS continue to do both. How important was it to humanize the lives of those featured in this project? Was it at all challenging?


KD: I can't say that humanizing the lives of the people I met was challenging. Indeed, my experience of meeting people, seeing their worlds, and becoming friends with them, was as human an experience as I could have. No, for me the entire project was about people; about the way the world impacts people, and the way people respond to the challenges they face, and the love they encounter. I arrived at that title because it became clear to me that one of the distinctive things I experienced in the people I met was the fact that they lived full and complicated lives. They lived, they loved, they hated, they grew bored, they were amused and entertained, they teased, they cursed—in other words, people lived on despite their circumstances. And the challenges of loving with HIV/AIDS are not small. There is also the attitude that once a person knows themselves to have the disease, somehow their entire emotional life is drained of all thoughts of romance, sexual affection or desire. Well, this is the furthest thing from reality; and more critically, this assumption is often quite dangerous as it can lead to behavior that is secretive and marked by shame—behavior that can endanger others. I also wanted to talk about love and its complex and beautiful nature as it helps shape the way people deal with the disease.

BOTR: Was there one story from any of the people you came across that you found memorable?


KD: It is impossible to pick one story. But perhaps because of his sudden and unexpected death in a home fire a few months after I interviewed him, I have cherished greatly the stories that John Marzourca told me, and his own story. John Marzourca was the director of Hope's Hospice, a facility in Montego Bay that cared for the terminally ill—many of whom were living with HIV/AIDS. John remains quite alive to me—a gentle portly man with a soft voice and a tenderness that impressed me. His sense of humor, his ease with the people living at the hospice, and his commitment to the work he was doing, continue to stay with me. It was John who told me about the little girl who came to the hospice to die of a disease that she had contracted from her stepfather, who raped her for revenge against her mother who he claimed had given him the disease. The girl was eleven years old. John told that story; the story about her energy, her laughter, her childlike hopefulness and resilience, with tears in his eyes. You see, I had asked him the same question you just asked me. He said she was the hardest. It was hard to see such a beautiful child die; and it was harder to see how she handled it all, the knowing, the pain, with so much grace.

BOTR: Do you think Jamaica, as a whole, is doing enough to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS?


KD: This is a tough question. I think the answer has to be yes. But it is a yes with reservations. One can't do enough. That is the simple truth of it. As long as people are dying of the disease and people are continuing to contract the disease, enough is not being done. Nonetheless, a lot is being done and people are committed to this work.

Much has changed since the days when doctors and nurses were reluctant and often unwilling to treat patients living with the disease. There is better knowledge about how the disease is spread and how to prevent infection. Much credit should go to the government and the workers who have labored to bring about these changes. Yet some of the larger problems of our society seriously mitigate against the work to end the spread of the disease. Not the least of these is the level of stigma that is attached to this disease. Jamaica's high level of homophobia has driven the gay community underground in many instances, and has not made it easy to ensure that testing happens or for people to be candid about their status. This has to change. So, too, must the many myths that still exist in the society about HIV/ AIDS. As long as people still believe that a way to be cured of the disease is to have sex with a virgin, we will continue to be in trouble. As long as people believe that they can look at someone with the disease and know they have it, we will continue to be in trouble. As long as people are beaten and ostracized from their community because they have the disease, we will continue to be in trouble. We will be in a bad state as long as the religious community—it is important to point out that Jamaica is a very conservative Christian society for the most part—does not somehow come to accept that young people, even those in the church, are sexually active and making dangerous choices in their sexual behavior, many of the young people will not use protection because they think that carrying protection betrays their idea of holiness. As long as these kinds of things continue, it is hard to see how we can say enough is being done.


BOTR: Overall, what do you hope we take from the project?

KD: I think my hope for the project is quite basic. I want people to learn more about the disease. I want people to leave the website not imagining that the disease belongs somewhere else, somewhere exotic, and outside of their experience. I want them to understand that this is a disease, like all diseases, about humans and about how we relate to each other as people. I think the website achieves this and I am grateful for the impact it has had.


Felicia Pride is the book columnist for The Root and the author of books for adults and youth. Her most recent book is The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop's Greatest Songs.

is a writer, speaker, author of books for adults and youth, and the book columnist for The Root. Her most recent book is \"The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs.\" Visit her at

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