Archive for April, 2014

The Blood of Yingzhou District – Documentary

This is a short documentary on the lives of children with HIV in Anhui province, China. The film is the Winner of the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary – Short Subject at the 79th Academy Awards. The piece can help us understand the context of Dream of Ding Village. It shows a similar topic as the book does – the issues of family relations, ancestry and inheritance for people with HIV. I advise you to watch at least a part of the movie because it feels more authentic than Love for Life.

Yan Lianke: Censorship and Self-Censorship

Despite Yan Lianke’s self-proclaimed efforts to have heavily self-censored his own book as an attempt to evade censorship and reach out to the wider Chinese population, “Dream of Ding Village” was soon banned after it was first published in Hong Kong in 2006 by the Chinese government. As the Washington Post quotes, Lianke claims to have “crafted [Dream of Ding Village] as a fantasy and so clearly fictitious that he hopes it will escape the censor’s veto.”

In an interview with the Guardian, Lianke expresses his apprehension towards his own self-sensorship, stating that “[his] greatest worry is that self-censorship has drained [his] passion and dulled [his] sharpness.”

Lianke perceives his book to be a social commentary on the rapid development of China and its toil on the wellbeing of the Chinese people, a tradeoff the people have made in the name of progress.

“Dream of Ding Village” has caused other problems for Lianke, such a legal dispute between him and his publisher “for failing to pay a promised advance on his royalties and a donation to the village where the book was researched.”

It’s a loaded book with a history of its own, and what we’re reading may be the regrets of Lianke of his failed efforts to self-censor himself for the sake of avoiding censorship. Ultimately, he implies to have lost both the quality he could’ve offered with his detail in writing, let alone a wider reach to the public.

Reality of being AIDS infected in Africa

In the novel Welcome to our Hillbrow Mpe discusses the issues of AIDS, xenophobia directed toward West Africans and black migrant workers in general, witchcraft, and the sometimes devastating consequences of gossip. As I was reading the book, I was constantly recalling my experience in Africa. During the recent Public Health seminar in Ethiopia we had an opportunity to work with Maiden centre that provides social service to the underprivileged, and AIDS/Leprosy/Tuberculosis infected people. I had a chance to interview three women, to learn their stories, and to know how does the Centre assist them with their burden. Here is a narrative of one of the women that I would love to share with you:

“My name is Alimtu (Seasye). I am a single mother with three kids from a small village – Agaki. I learned about Maiden center from Alert Hospital. Thanks to the Maiden center for bringing me back to life. I was almost on the edge to death that even my funeral arrangements were discussed couple years ago… But now I am a happy woman, and feel blessed for everything I have. And this is my story of renaissance:

After I gave a birth to my third child terrible things started to happen with me in a sequence: my husband passed away, I had the first signs of the mysterious disease on my legs that made the whole community to avoid me: they had a prejudice that my injured leg is a sin from God, and also the fact that I am “contagious” might be a reason as well. Nobody knew what was the reason of the skin-rush exactly, and the only treatment I received was the holy water from the church. My health condition even worsened within a time; I was terribly sick that stayed in bed for almost six months. I couldn’t walk; doctors in the village were discussing to do amputation of my leg. But it was not the worst thing I heard, I was more heart-broken when my native brother screamed at me once, saying that I am sick and not like others, hence I shouldn’t live with them anymore.

It hurt my feeling a lot, so I decided to run away from my home. I walked miles and miles with my injured leg caring my six months old baby with me from my village to get to the nearest bus station. I made it to Addis Ababa, and Maiden center did it best to provide me medical, financial, and moral support. They found us a place to stay, gave us nets, beds, mattresses, and all other commodities. I learned the diseases that I had were AIDS along with leprosy, and I was consulted with the ways it can be treated. My children were supported as well with all the essentials for school, like uniforms and books. Both of my daughters, who are 13 and 5 years old, go to school here in Addis, while my other son who is 9 years old decided to finish school in Agaki. All of my children are obedient and outstanding students. I want them to receive full education, be independent in the future, and be able to take care of themselves. My elder daughter wants to become a doctor, and the younger – a teacher. Thanks to the treatment that I received at Maiden center: I can walk and make some profit for my family by selling soaps in the streets.

I believe in and love God. I know everything is in God’s plan, and I pray that he will cure me. As long as I live, I will make sure we take the pills. Everything is the will of God; pills are the will of God. I think about what will happen to my daughter if I die, but thoughts are nothing. Everything is God’s will. I am grateful beyond measure, and I am grateful also to speak about the experience.

Sweet Dreams

  The fever hid in blood; Grandpa hid in dreams.                                                                           The fever loved its blood; Grandpa loved his dream.

Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village is a novel about the struggles of Ding Village in the years of facing an AIDS epidemic. It introduces us to a very different side of AIDS and AIDS infected societies; different, that is, from other representations of AIDS we’ve encountered in our previous readings. The novel takes place in Ding Village in China, a direct allegory to the Henan province where, between 1991 and 1995, the plasma economy campaign coerced individuals to sell their blood. Yan Lianke presents insight on these years through the story of Ding Village, more precisely, through the ideas and longings of its people.

In one of the scenes in Dream of the Ding Village, the Grandpa calls the people to a musical performance with a promise of a cure in their minds, leading them to forget the grim reality of the disease. At this point we remembered the theatre scene in Camus’ The Plague, which presents us a similar scenario: people going to the theatre to sidestep the horrible reality of

the disease. In both novels, however, the scenes come to a close with the performer slipping into afterlife, shaking the audience and waking them up from their somewhat naive dreams. The audience in The Plague are forced to face the disease even in a place they thought they could forget it and the people of the Ding Village learn that the promise of the cure was in fact a lie


As the name of the novel, Dream of Ding Village, suggests, dreams are an all encompassing theme in the novel. This idea initially sprung into our minds when we first read  the short emphatic sentence the novel presents. At 6first, they read like arbitrary forms of emphasis presented at the end of certain passages. However, as we progressed through the novel, we found out that they pointed to the overarching themes of dreams, prophecy, and imagery. These sentences often read like the Grandpa’s optimistic dreams: vivid, feverish, and fragmented, with various allusions to nature. For example, in one of his dreams, Grandpa finds himself in a peaceful version of the village in the time of spring. In this dream, Grandpa’s imagination presents the village with hard working, happy, and smiling people.

“Ding Village was alive with flowers, blanketing the earth with colour and filling the sky with their perfume. The villagers waded through this sea of flower, some digging in the ground with spades and shovels, others carrying loads on their shoulders and backs.” (91)

However, it is apparent, that Grandpa lives in a dramatically different reality, where:

“The villagers became indolent and indifferent to everyday life. With death camped on their doorsteps, no one could be bothered to till the fields or do any planting.” (14)

Spring does in fact eventually arrive to Ding Village, but not with the hope and prosperity the dream alludes to. Instead, the spring only brings about more pain, with the destruction of the Uncle’s family and the rising deaths in the village.

“Ruin had come early this year, with the spring.” (169)

The various dream sequences present throughout the novel almost govern the progression of Ding Village’s story. In fact, literal dreaming isn’t the only instance where the notion of dreams plays a role in the novel. It can be said that the strive for prosperity and the villagers’ dream to escape poverty and enter a world of wealth and happiness also embody the theme of dreaming.

One of the most powerful literary devices the Lianke makes use of in the novel is strong imagery pertaining to blood. Throughout the novel, the author uses the color red to stimulate our visual perception of Ding Village and the plasma economy campaign, which consequently helps emphasize the presence and importance that blood and AIDS suddenly had in Ding Village. For instance, the “ruin” that comes with arrival of spring flowers is metaphorically described as “blooms of red and white”, and the red “stood out bold and strong against a blur of pale yellow and smudges of green” (169). Similarly, in the musician’s death scene, “The schoolyard filled with the stench of blood” (57). The emphasis of blood and redness only strengthens the role that blood plays in the novel. And, to relate this notion with the overall theme of dreams, the Grandpa’s dreams and the short emphatic sentence presented in the novel also include a lot of blood imagery.

Even clothing, sunrises, marriage certificates, and of course, blood, are vividly depicted through the bold and bright descriptions of the color red. Just as the author’s writing is positively dripping with bright red blood, the lives of the people of Ding village are just as heavily tainted with it.

One of the last points we wanted to discuss before we ended is the role of the narrator. In the opening pages of the novel the we learn that the book is being narrated by the 12 year old dead son. Even though knowing this helped us relate to the book, we failed to connect the language used in the book to a 12 year old. Furthermore, the omnipotence of the narrator made us question the line between a Godly narrator and the 12 year old ghost.

Some other questions to consider for our class discussion involve the role of family and search for prosperity. The institution of family is very important in Chinese culture, which is emphasized in the novel. Does the definition, image of family change in the year of epidemics? Does it change once a family member got sick and had to leave his home? The downfall of the Ding Village begins after their visit to Cai province, a temporary artificial utopia in the peoples eyes. How big a role did the peoples desire for wealth played in their downfall?

Sweet Dreams! (Oh, and doesn’t this sound like the hymn of the novel?),

– Batu, Sarah and Victoria

Mpe’s Obituary

Hey All,

I came across Mpe’s obituary, provided by The Guardian, and I must say it was really telling. I won’t say much, because it will become very apparent once you read it. Its also pretty cool to think about how an Mpe’s book can even be seen as an obituary; a short concise text that  attempts to retell a person’s intricate life.

Phaswane Mpe


Wings of Worry

I always enjoyed listening to religious stories while growing up. Maybe because they carried such an important role in the structuring of the world we live in. When I was introduced to Bethesda in Angels in America and listened to the stories in class I decided to learn more about her hoping it would aid us with wrapping up the text.

(Courtesy of

Interestingly enough the majority of the sources that I found did not point to the biblical representation of the angle, but rather to the ironclad monument in New York. The very place where our play comes to an end. My search directed me to the official website of Central Park.

“The angel herself carries a lily in one hand while the other remains outstretched, poised in the action of delivering a blessing on the water pouring from around her feet and into the basin at the bottom of the fountain. This is to commemorate the 1842 opening of the Croton Aqueduct, which supplied New York City with fresh water.”

In the excerpt that was explaining the stance of the angel something caught my attention: The lily in her hand. When I looked into other sources describing the statue I kept being reintroduced to the lily figure which pushed my interest a bit further. Maybe lilies themselves have a biblical meaning?

I checked some biblical sources looking into the meaning of lily in the bible. What I found was Matthew 6:25-34:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

According to people who know a lot more on of the subject than I do, this passage talks about the worries of the people and how worrying is futile and something condemned by god.

With all these new found information I want to loop back to our discussing during the last minutes of the class. As I have said in class I believe that the play ends in an optimistic tone. Maybe in Angels in America Bethesda plays this role of radiating calmness. I believe this definitely can be seen in the characters that are present in the closing scene. They are ready to leave their worries behind and move to the millennium.


Even with all of Prior’s encounters with the Angel, an active character in the play, his favorite stands as a statue in Central Park: the angel Bethesda.

Two scenes take place at Bethesda Fountain, and in each we are given some background on the fountain itself and the angel Bethesda. During the scene where Louis and Belize meet at the fountain, we learn that the statue was built to commemorate the Naval dead of the Civil War. Its connection to the past is a painful one – one of death and destruction. 

Later, in the play’s epilogue, more is said about the angel herself. Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah all describe Bethesda story: Bethesda landed in the Temple square of Jerusalem, and where her foot touched the ground, a fountain sprung. The flow eventually stopped when the Romans destroyed the Temple, but before its end, it was said that anyone who bathed in its water would be “washed clean of pain” (279). Legend has it, the fountain will flow again when the Millennium comes. Hannah promises Prior that once it flows again, they’ll all go and bathe themselves clean. This remark seems to transform the dark and painful past of the statue to a symbol of hope, promising a new beginning for the unfortunate quad.

The contradictory symbolism of a painful past and a hopeful future is reconciled by Prior description of the Angel:

PRIOR (Turning the sound off again): This angel. She’s my favorite angel.

I like them best when they’re statuary. They commemorate death but they suggest a world without dying. They are made of the heaviest things on earth, stone and iron, they weigh tons but they’re winged, they are engines and instruments of flight.


In a sense, Prior identifies with the statuary form of the angel, or at least aspires to become what it symbolizes. Prior, as every other human being, walks with an expiration date, but even with his predicament, he is brimming with life. And even with the weight of his disease and other burdens of life, he believes in hope and change. It could even be said that it symbolizes humanity.

Queue pop culture reference: Analyzing Bethesda’s symbolism actually made me reevaluate one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who. In the episode, titled The Angels Take Manhattan, the main character, a time traveler called the Doctor, loses his companion in the past. As it turns out, however, the loss of the companion was actually the event that allowed the Doctor to meet her in the first place. Her ending was her beginning. Lost in the past, the time she had spend with the Doctor had technically not yet begun.

Many of the episode’s scenes were actually filmed at the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park. I feel like the symbolism of Bethesda applies here as well: an unfortunate and painful event in the past is eventually transformed into a hopeful future.

Meh, time travel can be hard to explain, but then again, so can literature!

– Sarah

Uncovered Wires and Fake Beard

While reading Angels in America by Kushner, I couldn’t help but relate to my experience when acting in the play inspired by Moby Dick, written by H. Melville.
Although that experience was very unique, I realised that both Kushner and the director of Moby Dick (Dan Safer) had somewhat similar staging directions.

“The play benefits from a pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly (no blackouts!), employing the cast as well as stagehands — which makes for an actor-driven event, as this must be. The moments of magic […] are to be fully realised, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion — which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do…” 

These “Playwright’s Notes” definitely aren’t like any stage directions that would exist in a regular play, where the magic happens behind the scenes, the stage hands are never seen and blackouts are one of the most popular tools to transit from scene to scene.
In this play, the author wanted everything to be seen, to be natural. The magic is there, but it’s real life magic, with uncovered wires and all the other imperfections that come with it.
This reminds me of myself acting in Moby Dick
“Stop trying hard. Don’t straighten your back like that. Walk like you usually walk. Don’t make this very important, because when you don’t make it important, that’s when it looks good, real”, the director would tell us.
And it did look more real, when we didn’t “try hard”. When we were fully ourselves, with our ways of walking, our own ways of speaking.
The uncovered wires of Angels in America remind me of the fake beard in the Moby Dick play. Right in front of the audience, a person would put on a fake beard and, all of a sudden, turn into Captain Ahab. The magic was there, but just like in Angels in America, it was real life magic with its’ imperfections.

Why would Tony Kushner and Dan Safer have these kind of stage directions?
We can only guess.

What I can say from my experience is that, thanks to exactly these stage directions, the action on stage was more real, more genuine than it could ever have been. The fact that the magic wasn’t hidden destroyed the wall between the audience and the actors. There were no secrets, there were only our real selves driving an event called Moby Dick.

Here is a scene from Moby Dick where, hopefully, you will recognise what I was talking about.

Set Sail Scene, Moby Dick


Your crazy actor Victoria 


Welcome to Our Hellbrow

This AIDS, according to popular understanding, was caused by foreign germs that travelled down from the central and western parts of Africa. More specifically, certain newspaper articles attributed the source of the virus that caused AIDS to a species called the Green Monkey, which people in some parts of West Africa were said to eat as meat, thereby contracting the disease.

There were others who went even further, saying that AIDS was caused by the bizarre sexual behavior of the Hillbrowans.

How could any man have sex with another man? they demanded to know.

Those who claim to be informed – although none could admit to having seen or practised it personally – said such sex was done anally. They also explained how it was done – dog style – to the disgust of most of the people of Tiragalong, who insisted that filth and sex should be two separate things.

Surely, this large group argued, it was the shit that the greedy and careless penises sucked out of the equally eager anuses, that could only lead to such dreadful illnesses? (3-4)

In Welcome to Our Hillbrow, people speculate about the origin of AIDS. As seen in the passage above, people of Tiragalong believe that AIDS came from different regions of Africa or from aberrant sexual behavior, anything differing from the norm.  Mostly, AIDS was linked to bad behavior, as seen when the migrants discuss the story of the a young man who died of AIDS and ask, “after all, was he not often seen roaming the whorehouses and dinghy pubs of Hillbrow?” (3). But this bad behavior is automatically linked with one’s national or cultural identity. Refilwe, for example, reasons against Refentse’s relationship with Lerato and says, “We know what Jo’burg women can do to a man … !” (90). Simply because of her identity as a Johannesburg citizen, Lerato is judged as a loose and dangerous woman, even though her father Piet came from Tiragalong. Refentse’s mother also highly disapproved of Lerato’s relationship with Refentse, simply because of prejudices against Lerato’s identity, as a girl of the city.

Refilwe who makes the same accusations, finds herself at the other side of the coin. When she goes to Oxford, she has to deal the xenophobia of the English. “She learnt there, at our Heathrow, that there was another word for foreigners that was not very different from Makwerekwere or Mapolantane. Except that it was a much more widely used term: Africans” (102). For Refilwe who sees the distinction between different tribes and cultures in Africa, the discriminatory term of “Africans” is absurd. And yet, here the analogy works to show Refilwe how her own discrimination has been unfair. In addition, just like how the Tiragalong and villagers have their ideas about the inhabitants of Johannesburg, Refilwe’s classmates have their own set views about the city of Johannesburg. “For [other people], the cities were all white, while Soweto was black. Black in human skin color, but also black in morals” (103). As she nears her death, she realizes she is “a Hillbrowan … An Alexandran. A Johannesburger. An Oxfordian” (122). Through her difficulties and her different experience in Oxford, coming into conversation with people from Greece, India, Nigeria, and others, Refilwe engages in cosmopolitanism, and thus, upon her arrival back, realizes that she is no longer just a girl from Tiragalong. 

For Refilwe, she realizes at the end (or perhaps the narrator just tells us) that “no one in particular can be blamed for the spread of AIDS” (123). She (or the narrator with his judgey voice) tells us that really, Tiragalong is not much better than the other cities, with its witch trials and family betrayals. The deaths of Refentse, his mother, Lerato, Bohlale, Piet, in addition to all the members of the society who were not lucky enough to be mentioned by name in the book, are proof to this. As cheesy as it would be to tell us the moral of the story at the end of the novel, the narrator sort-of does do that, but to an extent, it can be justified as he has been doing that the entire novel, sending Refentse on a guilt-trip for his suicide and making him realize the consequences of his actions. And at the end, Refilwe realizes how her xenophobia kept her from realizing the own faults of Tiragalong, and her existence can now only serve as a warning. When she dies, she enters with Refentse into heaven, “the world of [their] continuing existence, located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with [them] and after [them]” (124).

How has there not been a Freddy Mercury reference yet…

Freddy Mercury, lead singer of the band ‘Queen’, found himself getting weaker and weaker after being diagnosed with AIDS. This, however, had not been made public. His denial allowed him to ignore the shadow of death that threatened to swallow him and avoid media speculation. Despite growing extremely ill, Mercury continued to perform for his fans. In 1990, 1 year before his death, he recorded the song ‘The Show Must Go On’ which fits the themes and characters of this play perfectly. Much like some of the characters of the play, the disease had completely invaded Mercury’s body such that he was barely able to walk. Even so, he continued to perform. His story and ‘shows’ are not very different to those of the characters in ‘Angels in America’.

Watch either the Music + Lyrical video or the Angels In America Version

 The song, when heard in the context of the play, gets us thinking about AIDS, the implications of the disease, what it means to be a homosexual in our society, etc. Moreover, it asks us questions about performance. Despite the fact that this is a play, to what extent are the characters performing even within the play?

“Behind the curtain, in the pantomime

Hold the line. Does anybody want to take it anymore?

The show must go on,

The show must go on.”