Archive for November, 2019

Angels in America

Angels in America revolves around the story of two struggling couples: Louis Ironson and his lover Prior Walter, and lawyer Joe Pitt and his wife Harper. Louis Ironson comes from a very stereotypically confounding background: he is a jewish gay man in mid 1980’s Brooklyn. A product of his circumstances, Louis is found in a constant state of guilt, yet to factor out his conflicts he is remorseless. Prior informs Louis that has AIDS, but only after they have been together, which sets the tone of what opinions the reader can form about Louis, as he leaves Prior lying alone in a hospital room soon afterwards. Prior finds himself in the midst of a prophetic experience while he lays sick in the hospital bed, as he is visited by an “Angel of God.” The Angel offers Prior the status of a prophet, but Prior asks for the gift of surviving instead. 

Meanwhile, Joe Pitt, although married to a woman, is a closeted gay man. Pitt eventually leaves his wife Harper, to pursue Louis. The infamously hated Roy Cohn takes Pitt under his mentoring, which exacerbates his conservative and seemingly intolerant reputation. Pitt’s relationship with Cohn leads to Louis abandoning his attraction to Pitt, as Cohn displays disturbing, hateful qualities of homophobia, although he is himself a closeted gay man. Harper Pitt, who was previously struggling with a valium addiction, ends up making the biggest character leap in the novel, moving from a weak, broken woman to enjoying her newfound confidence and lust for life. Each character in the story has an important role in the play’s development, as they rise or fall, and each of their stories represents a moral perspective for the audience to acknowledge.

A character in Kushner’s play who allows us to explore this further is Roy Cohn, based on the real-life controversial New York lawyer known to have worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy led the vociferous campaign against alleged communists in the US government whereby targeted people (including those he wanted out of the way) were blacklisted and lost their jobs, although most were innocent.

The act of accusing others of treason without proper evidence, later known as McCarthyism, plays into the political themes Kushner develops in Angels in America. His reference to the anti-communism movement of the 1950s connects well with the portrayal of the 1980s AIDS epidemic as both explore the idea of confinement and a sense of “quarantine.” In 1980s U.S, when the story is set, some residual anti-semitism still exists and homophobia runs rampant, especially as the AIDS epidemic begins to unfold. The U.S. government targeted the gay community in particular as it associated AIDS with homosexuality and deemed it the “gay plague.” 

Kushner goes beyond simply portraying Cohn as an evil character and explores his conflicted nature as an anti-semitic Jew and a gay homophobe. 

As a villain, yet also a victim of his own bias, what role does Cohn play in Kushner’s overall representation of the society and politics of the time?

“Now to someone who does not understand this, homosexual is what I am because I have sex with men. But really this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through the City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout.”

    (Roy Cohen,  page 51)

Roy, a power-hungry politician, refuses to acknowledge his disease, which at that time would have meant acknowledging his sexual orientation and eventually dying a painful death. His struggle with his own identity almost makes readers sympathetic toward him, which Kushner uses as a strategy to reveal to what extent American society and government had marginalized homosexuality. Roy, by eventually dying of AIDS, inadvertently forges a connection to the very community he did not want to be affiliated with in life.

Kushner won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his two-part work. While the play is set in the 1980s, its descriptions of issues such as LGBT rights, religion, political minorities, the environment, drug use (I mean Valium is still a drug…), conservatism, and more remain directly relevant today. This is especially true in the current political and social environment, in which minority rights of all types are being recognized even as the American political environment creates and perpetuates deep divisions between various social groups. Its opening acts, where the Rabbi mourns the death of a migratory generation, is especially noteworthy in its ironic incorrectness as America remains as a nation that is driven by change and immigrants. Perhaps the play is best understood as a discussion of identity: national identity (democracy vs communism, a dichotomy that is still employed to divide American politics), sexual identity (at times in conflict with religious identity), professional identity (politician or a lawyer), and public identities that sometimes contradict what happens in private life. Most if not all of these identities and labels are social constructs, existing due to a social need to categorize and understand people with a small number of descriptors; they are perpetuated both by society and by individuals so that they may find others with similar beliefs and values. Whilst this play no doubt calls into question the debilitating and destructive ability of labels and stigma related to them, it also raises the question of how useful an ‘identity’ can be to an individual. 

On the topic of individual and group identities, a previous convener’s post raises the questions of individuals having a “say” in their own lives. There are certain truths provided to characters by the society about who they are and how they ought to behave. These restrictions then translate to a taboo in one’s thoughts and expressions on an individual level.

Is it human instinct to distinguish oneself from others? Where do the social stigma against certain labels even coming from? Why are there some identities that are, by nature, at complete odds against one another?

From a literary point of view, the author’s packaging of these themes into a ‘fantasia’ is a fascinating choice. The elements of ghosts, angels, and hallucinations which escalate the tension in the play are certainly useful dramatic techniques — but why are these fantastic elements employed? After all, there are sufficient pre-existing social pressures in the setting to drive the plot. Perhaps it is a commentary on religion, with American people and politicians often characterising the nation as ‘Christian’ even though it is specifically defined otherwise in its constitution. Perhaps it is a commentary on the LGBT community, who might be thought of as ‘dreaming’ a fantasy where they are accepted as a member of the society without any stigma. Perhaps it is a commentary of the author’s work itself – that escapes of reality such as his play are not truly ‘escapes’ as fantasies and realities are inherently intertwined, often with as significant corporal impact as seen in the play. Whatever the author’s original intent was, the impact of the fantasy elements is significant enough for the audience to ponder. After all, the divine is often associated is being all knowing and all good — while in this play there is certainly no such entity which can claim such characteristics.

A lot has progressed since the AIDS epidemic and the time when the play was written. Although it has been decades since the AIDS epidemic was primarily identified as a “gay” disease, Angels in America remains relevant. As an ending note, we can ask what about Angels makes it resonate with us today:

Is it the political and social dimensions portrayed? Does it have something to do with how the U.S. government handled the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s? Do we see similar management of authority in pressing issues today?

Xenophobia at an All-Time High

Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow is a post-apartheid narrative that is circled around three main subjects: Aids, Xenophobia, and Suicide. Although South Africa has come a long way since then, it is apparent by this very recent video that xenophobia within the country is still as resilient as ever. African born foreigners in South Africa, specifically in Johannesburg, are subject to heinous and violent xenophobic crimes. Many black South African locals that were interviewed suggested that these crimes are a result of the ‘Makwerekwere’ – foreigners – who are responsible for low wages and unemployment within the community. The number of crimes committed by locals against foreigners is far too big for the police to take control of. Or, as one commenter stated, it is because “the South African Police [are] one of the silent proponents of Xenophobia”, similar to Refentše’s cousin within the novel.

It is interesting how xenophobia, or cases of “criminality” as police officials from this video have described, are attributed to the facts aforementioned. In the book, however, where the events took place at a much earlier time frame, xenophobia was attributed to things such as the Makwerekwere women being, presumably, sexually loose and open-thighed, or to the claim that all Makwerekwere such as Nigerians were drug dealers and distributors.

How were these theories changed overtime and what caused them to change? Is this current resentment a result of preexisting notions of xenophobia in South Africa disguised as other resentments such as the ones described in the book? 


Our introduction to Hillbrow is during a scene of madness – intense joy and intense pain competing to dominate the hearts of Hillbrowans. The blurb describes Hillbrow as the “microcosm of all that is contradictory, alluring and painful”.

HBC’s hit show Euphoria follows the lives of high-schoolers as they struggle to ground their identities in a world of anxiety stemming from gossip, sexuality and drugs. The title of the show refers to the immense highs and unbearable lows of different types of addictions. The freedom of the characters, from real responsibility and from any figures of authority, allows them to maintain unhealthy relationships – examples of which include an abusive boyfriend, a drug addiction and a dangerous hook-up app. The experiences and the relationships present in the complex and intertwined network of the highschool expose the characters to unbelievable and inimitable highs which are followed, as a rule, by a descent that comes too soon.

The emotional rollercoaster that the show drags viewers onto reminds us of the intimacy of the relationship between joy and grief – when they are in their purest state, they are difficult to tell apart. In Hillbrow, it is difficult to tell whether shouts and cries are from “jubilation” from the victory of the national football team or the last plea for help from a child in danger.

Born a Crime

Welcome to Our Hillbrow lays its foundation in a dark part of South African history. Hillbrow, a town that has recently escaped the Apartheid, still abounds with xenophobia and discrimination, legacies of its dark colonial past. In the attached video, Trevor Noah gives a personal account of his childhood in a comedic manner. During the Apartheid, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act(1949) forbade people of color from marrying white people. The child of a white father and a black mother, he was “born a crime.” Not even allowed to acknowledge his birth, his family had to pretend to be strangers in public, risking arrests when caught. Trevor faced additional discrimination from black people – people he considered his own.

Called a “half-breed,” Trevor was ostracized even from black people for not being entirely black. We notice a systemic discrimination that has permeated even the everyday lives of its victims. Xenophobia becomes commonplace, a mode of life. Such internecine violence and discrimination brings to mind Fanon’s picture of the colonial society. “Whereas the colonist or police officer can beat the colonized subject day in and day out, insult him and shove him to his knees, it is not uncommon to see the colonized subject draw his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive look from another colonized subject” (Fanon 17).

Fanon, Trevor, and Welcome to our Hillbrow all bring a common question to mind. What are the legacies of colonialism, and how do people cope with them?

If Only for a Moment

Welcome to Our Hillbrow opens with the line “[i]f you were still alive, Refentše, child of Tiragalong, you would be glad that Bafana Bafana lost to France in the 1998 Soccer World Cup fiasco” (1). The omniscient narrator continues shortly after, stating, “[y]ou would remember the last occasion in 1995, when Bafana Bafana won against Ivory Coast and, in their jubilation, people in Hillbrow hurled bottles of sorts from their flat balconies” (1). Immediately, the reader is drawn into two distinct components. A relationship with the dead and an event that implicitly extends across boundaries, eradicating the “Us vs Them” tension throughout the book. If Refentše had been alive, the narrator presumes he would have been glad to avoid the hardship, though nonetheless sad that the team had lost. Yet, the loss of Bafana Bafana felt through Refentše is a loss that encapsulates a much larger portion of the population. It is one that, for the most part, brings suffering all around. Together collectives endure the suffering, but if they had won, the collective would have celebrated. Moments such as these point to events that erase boundaries drawn by individuals in society. Winning or losing brings together individuals; categories such as class, race, and economic status no longer matter.

This year, the South African Rugby team won the World Cup, defeating England 31-12. This win, much like the loss of Bafana Bafana, was likely to be felt by most of the nation. If only for a couple of days, perhaps weeks, the endless suffering still existent in South Africa was clouded. It is worth considering similar events across the world that turn our focus elsewhere. When pain continues to persist in our world do we need a distraction from its endless torment? How can/do individuals/communities create fabrications that although momentary, give us rest?

What Happens When We Die?

“What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?”
“I know that the ones who love us will miss us.”

Welcome to Our Hillbrow bring us to the dichotomous world of post-apartheid South Africa, into the neighbourhood of Hillbrow where problems abound and inequality is made even more apparent.

In our previous reading in this course, one of the conflicts that Yan Lianke paints a strong image of in his The Dream of Ding Village novel is a struggling community, that however, possesses a very strong sense of belonging. As demonstrated in the example of Genbao (an unmarried man who contracted the fever) who tricked a girl from another village into marrying him, the community of Ding Village felt no responsibility to protect the “outsider girl” from unknowingly marrying a sick person. They were willing to establish the school quarantine to protect their community, but not a person from outside. 

Such an ‘US versus THEM’ mentality was even more prevalent in the novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow, in which the postapartheid South African society is fractured in polarized groups: the whites, the villagers, the immigrants, the ones who contracted the illness from monkeys, the ones who spread it with active sexual lives, the Johanessburgers, the Hillbrowans…  All of whom have very strict and rigid ideas about each other: “Your mother knew that all Hillbrow women were prostitutes [… but she] had never been to Hillbrow.”(39).

As Bryan quoted Emily Davis in his old conveners’ post: “We are all potentially or already sick without exposure to foreigners; one can become infected without ever leaving home”. Why is it so that we keep coming back to drawing rigid lines of belongs and who does not? Who decides where is this line? Why do we keep looking for external causes of our internal problems? 

“Welcome to our Hillbrow,” intones the omniscient unnamed narrator. But who’s the “our”? What people own Hillbrow, this mass of “drug use and misuse, the grime and crime” (25)? Hillbrow, as a big-city neighborhood, is often put in juxtaposition with the village of Tiragalong. The village is home for the book’s central characters, Refentše and Refilwe, and at the beginning it’s clear Refilwe clearly demarcates between Tirangalong villagers and Hillbrowans, yet she gradually comes to share Refentše’s opinion that “the people of Tirangalong were, in fact, no better or worse than Johannesburgers…Hillbrowans were not merely the tiny section of the population who were born and grew up in our Hillbrow, but people from all over the country, and other countries — people like herself, in fact — who entered our Hillbrow with all sorts of good and evil intentions” (96).

When people from all over come to Hillbrow, what does it mean to be Hillbrowan, to identify as part of this community? Are these people banded together by their Hillbrow identity? What does it mean when “Welcome to our Hillbrow” becomes “Welcome to our Alexandra…Welcome to our Tiragalong in Johannesburg” (79)? What does “Hillbrow in Hillbrow. Hillbrow in Cape Town. Cape Town in Hillbrow. Oxford in both. Both in Oxford. Welcome to our All…” (104) signify? What are the differences between these communities? Is there a difference? 

On the other hand, another thing we can consider, too, is how heaven plays a significant role within the narrative of Welcome to Our Hillbrow. The omniscient narrator addresses Refentše in heaven and over the course of the novel, many more characters join him in this abode beyond earth. In the novel, heaven is described as a place that ‘afford you the benefit of retrospect and omniscience’ and a ‘world of our continuing existence located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with us and after us.’ Thus, this is different from the typical notion of heaven and hell as a final resting place for the righteous and wicked respectively. Rather, heaven exists in the minds of the living through the stories that are told about us. Refentše loses his agency to impact what’s happening on earth from his vantage point in heaven, showing us the lack of control we have over the stories that are told about us. Once it spreads it is not under the control of any one individual but the story itself becomes a living, growing, changing entity unto itself which lives on long after we’re gone. 

Chernobyl Intentions

The convener’s post mentions that Dream of Ding Village explores the theme of authority and morality. The above post is a short clip from the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, based on true events. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 occurred due to an error made during a safety test of an RBMK-type nuclear reactor. The spread of radiation could have been greatly decreased had the people in charge been more open to understanding the gravity of their mistake. Seen here is a meeting among the plant director, chief engineers and their deputy engineer. Deputy Engineer Sitnikov explains to them the presence of Graphite, meaning the exposure of the reactor core resulting in full exposure to radiation, which they refuse to accept. 

I felt this scene resonates with what we see in page 22, where Ding Hui refuses to listen to his father about the damage he had done in the village. His ego would not allow him to accept his mistake, much like how the Chief Engineers were denying theirs. This is “authoritarian personality” coupled with the fear of exposing the Soviet Union as weak contributed to the decision to “quarantine” Pripyat (the city of Chernobyl) to prevent news from spreading, instead of evacuating people. As a consequence, more people were exposed to radiation. 

One of the questions asked by the convener’s was, “Is it righteous to boost the overall economic growth of the country while inflicting some unintended regional sufferings?”The actions of the people in charge during Chernobyl makes us ask a similar question as , in this case, the overall image of the nation and those in authority mattered more than the safety of individual citizens.


Warning: 31 minute podcast. Majority of content includes details not required for the post. Only watch if you’re reeeeally interested.

“We are born of blood, made men by blood, undone by blood. Fear the old blood.” – Provost Wilhem’s adage
Bloodborne, a action-horror game developed by FromSoftware, has a reputation for its brutal difficulty and obscure storytelling, and many pass it off as a niche game for those with masochistic tendancies. However, those who truly imbibe in its secrets will discover the greatest modern re-imagination of Lovecraftian horror, as the game invites you into an uncaring, senseless world filled with monsters both grotesque and divine. In this world, both the players and the characters in the game attempt to understand the rules of the game and secrets about the world, only to be faced with events and creatures that become more and more incomprehensible. Whether you are driven mad to discover more, or sulk away defeated and forgotten is your choice to make – but again, the game will not care what you do.

The game takes place in a Victorian-esque city of Yharnam, renown for their use of ‘blood transfusions’ which can cure any and all ailments. Many visitors from around the world come to Yharnam seeking their miraculous cure and pay tribute to the Healing Church, which control the blood used in the transfusions. As one can imagine, this made the Healing Church and the city extremely rich, and pungent smell of blood became the norm in the streets.

What is the source of this divine blood? It is that of Ebrietas, Daughter of Cosmos, a Great One (kind of… not really, but that’s going into too much detail). Great Ones are hardly understood, but the priests of the Healing Church say that they are beings that exist in a great plane of existence, whose physical forms are merely projections to interact with our world. We don’t (and can’t) know their motives or reasoning, but taking their blood into our own seemed to cure every illness. They also look like this:

How to Kill Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos in Bloodborne ...
… should I wash the needle?

As scholars and priests of the Healing Church attempt to understand more about the Great Ones and try to enter the ‘greater plane’ of existence, they soon hear rumors… that turn into cases, that turn into an outbreak. It is soon discovered that those that have taken the blood transfusions eventually become addicted to it and turn into inhuman beasts, scouring the land for blood – of any type.

Some priests take up arms and become Hunters to kills these beasts, healing their wounds with more blood transfusions. Some capture healthy victims to conduct experiments in an attempt to try to find a solution (Ethics? What good are morals when people are dying?). Others use this opportunity to test their theories on the Great Ones’ truth, line their brain with eyes, and attempt to see beyond their own petty existence.

It is unknown how much time has passed since the madness began, but by the time the player reaches Yharnam to cure their own illness, the city is filled with Beasts and eldritch beings alike, and you are forced into a contract to become a Hunter. Becoming a hunter allows you to become immortal, as every time you die you reawaken in the Hunter’s Nightmare, a realm not quite real, but a place you visit so often that it becomes your home. Becoming a Hunter makes you powerful, far more powerful than any other person in the game by drinking the blood of those you defeat. Becoming a hunter makes you a prisoner, bound by duty to kill the beasts… but then again, the person who forced you into that contract dies immediately after. The only thing that drives you forward and deeper into the mad city is your own curiosity.

And if curiosity merely killed the cat, then that cat would be very lucky indeed.

Bloodborne's Hidden Backstory Explained - Page 6 of 9 - Geekle
Currency in the game called ‘insight’, gained upon finding new areas or meeting new people. Higher insight leads to reduced frenzy resistance for both the character and players themselves.

Bloodborne is truly a great piece of literary work, primarily exploring the theme of knowledge. What is knowledge, really? Why do we attempt to gain it? Can we possibly know the consequences of knowledge? What about those who lack it? Almost like the Dream of Ding Village, everyone in Yharnam is blinded for a thirst, not of economic gain but of knowledge. Instead of drawing blood they consume it, and chase after the Great Ones regardless of consequences. People who try to help the sick are driven insane by the smell of blood. People who hunt down beasts become great beasts of their own. Higher-ups isolate themselves in safe havens, drinking ever more blood to gain more knowledge, only to become lose their touch of reality when they approach the Eldritch Truth. In a video game fashion, you are the hero of the story, gaining more and more knowledge and insight about the Eldritch and the Great Ones and the blood. Oh how sweat the smell of blood! Oh the eyes! Where is the next chalice and gems and hearts filled with the blood to consume!

Yes, you are the hero of the story.

In face of all this, what is the purpose of life? Camus’ existentialism discusses the notion that life is truly absurd, and men have to find some meaning to their life no matter how meaningless that is. Bloodborne’s absurdity is much more tangible and visceral – after all, no matter what you do there is some eldritch creature looking down at you. At some point, you wake up in the Hunter’s Nightmare and question why you play the game. Why not let this nightmare be over? Why continue to reawaken in this game world?

Well it’s simple. Because you have to.

Dream of Ding Village

Dream of Ding Village
is a storyline, but also an assessment of the spread of the disease in a given space. Through the journey of a man and a family, Lianke takes the readers through the process of discovery, healing, and cooperation within a society. But also, through a process where factors or boundaries such as elites, government, rigid economy and decision-makers play a role in deciding the fate of many small villages and communities at large. 

The first interesting characteristic of the novel is that the narrator is dead. He is the grandson of the Ding family, who is poisoned at the beginning of the novel by the village people in retaliation for his father’s transgressions. His father was the main bloodhead within the village who set up his own private blood collection practice within which he did not follow health and safety measures, and therefore he caused many of the villagers to get infected by HIV and AIDS. Going back to comments from the April 2015 convener’s post on this novel, they mention how this narration and the insight provided by this relates to works previously read on this class.

In other words, he got what he ‘paid’ for and his son died for him. Once again, a son is punished for his father’s sins, does this sound familiar? After Ding Qiang’s murder, the boy lingers over Ding Village as an observer watching over his father and grandfather. His omniscient narration gives us an insight on the daily life of the infected Ding Village and serves to illuminate the thoughts of his grandfather, who tries to care for the sick villagers while carrying the shame of his son’s actions. 

As seen, by relating it back to Oedipus’s story and the play Ghosts, the idea of the sins of the father being passed on to the son remains a general theme in these types of tales, especially when it is used to provide an explanation for who gets sick in mass contagion. However, what this convener’s point fails to mention is how the sins go both ways, as the father (the Grandfather) also pays for the sins of his son (the Father).  As mentioned in this previous post, the omniscient and morbid narration of the death child serves to provide insight to the thoughts of all the main characters, from the Grandfather to the Uncle, and also to remind us how the child died for his father. However, this omniscient, ghost-like narrator also serves as a constant reminder to the Grandfather of what his son did and how he is the one who has to deal with the consequences. While the son (the Father) continues rising up and ignoring his mistakes, the father (the Grandfather) takes upon himself to take care of the dying, one of those being his own younger son, and cleaning up his older son’s mess. He is paying for the sins of his son. Moreover, the Father’s mistakes are also reflected on the rest of his family, from his wife to his younger brother, further proving that the idea of “the sins of the father” goes in fact many ways.

Thus, should the idea of the “sins of the father” remain as it is? Or should it be expanded to include all family members, in this case? 

Not only are people affected through the actions of their family members, but they are also affected by their fellow villagers. The role of society within this novel is strongly represented and used to show the intimate nature of village life. The villagers are driven in part by commerce and monetary gain, but also by the fear of judgement from others. Whenever anything happens within the novel, there are always spectators. When Uncle’s wife, Tingting learns about his affair, an entire mob of villagers follows her in interest as she marches to the school to confront him. The gossipy and judgmental nature of the village suggests a society which follows strict social guidelines (mannerisms, conformity), but one that is also easily swayed by crowd action. Once Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin take power in the town, they let loose with their influence and soon, the villagers are stealing everything from the school, the desks and black boards and beds. The villagers, sick and healthy, cut down all the trees in the villages to make coffins, tables, shelves, etc. They sacrifice the future of the village in these moments of ransack, sacrificing the school and the trees- representations of growth and learning.

These leaders are weak to suggestion and convenience, not considering the long-term welfare of the village, maybe because they themselves are dying of sickness? 

Some questions a previous Convener’s post raised, which are useful here

Should leaders conform to popular opinions to maintain popularity, like Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin? Or should they prioritize the overall sustenance of their people even if such acts would incur discontent, as in the case of Grandpa and former village head Li Sanren? 

Is it righteous to boost the overall economic growth of the country while inflicting some “unintended” regional sufferings?

Are they becoming better off defending their rights to coffins or are they digging their own graves by tearing down their own shelter and environment?

One may then ask, did the crisis lead to such degenerations or did it only bring out the dark sides of people?

The question of how to live in the face of inevitable death is one which recurs throughout the novel. Most of the characters we are presented with are dying from disease and they regularly use the excuse “I’ll be dead soon anyway” to justify their actions. At least the father, the one who made everyone sick, did not try to make up excuses for what he did, he simply does not apologize. While the sick villagers lose themselves to the ‘freedom’ and almost lawlessness which their inevitable death seems to allow them. This raises questions such as, how do we change when we are faced with death? Do people have the right to neglect the future if they know they will not be in it? How fragile are our social and individual values when faced with mortality, changing political structure, mob mentality? 

Another way of dealing with the sickness and possible death is quarantine. Early in the novel, we learn that “the higher-ups wanted to quarantine all the sick people in the village so that they wouldn’t spread the fever to the healthy ones.” Realizing that no cure is available, the government wants to contain AIDS. Grandpa acts on this directive by opening up the school as a place for the sick to come and stay. This is a zone removed from the main local community. Unlike other representations of quarantine in texts we have read so far, like Camus The Plague, where quarantined Oran suffers from “the ache of separation”, in Ding village, the sick village-folk find life in the school superior to even paradise. In the beginning, at least, it is “a paradise beyond compare” (70). Even later, Uncle says that people are eager to move back into the school (131). There is something about this “quarantine” that appeals to the sick masses.One reason for this might stem from how becoming a resident of the secluded school is presented as a choice for the ailing villagers. Grandpa says, “anyone who is sick can come and live in the village school. Now, I know the village hasn’t had a cadre in years, but if you’re willing to put your trust in me, I promise that I’ll take care of you.” (56) Prior to this, he asks for forgiveness for having played a part in facilitating the spread of AIDS. Grandpa’s guilt leads him to create a place that feels like a resort for the sick, not a barriered zone of exclusion. Initially, people can come and go as they please. So, it is a failed quarantine. Grandpa seems to believe a non-oppressive, magnanimous atmosphere can prevail in the school as everyone – already condemned to eventual death – will cooperate to enjoy their last days. Of course, thieving, and then blackmail grows in the school, and soon new constraints are put in place – a more quarantine-like quarantine is established. This raises questions about how people react to sickness and spaces created to host diseased people. Also, is there a middle ground between strict, authoritarian policies that stifle all freedoms for the sake of preventing infection and complete freedom to move and interact with people, which risks large-scale infection?

Also, in the text, blood-selling is also linked to nationalism and masculinity, while also being institutionally validated. Li Sanren, the former mayor of Ding village says to a blood-merchant, “what’s a few drops of blood, if it’ll help my country?” (88) showing the way he links his bodily fluids to his nation’s success. Earlier, however, when he was reluctant to engage in such activities, his wife asked him, “What kind of man gets scared by a few drops of his own blood?” (83). In developing China invested in realizing the “plasma economy”, the path to wealth, which is linked to the role of the male ‘provider’, is most easily accessed through blood-selling. The prosperity of many counties, like Cai, rests on it. A narrative of success and progress has been created to promote this activity. The government, for example, awards stars to display the best families – houses with more stars are better blood-sellers (35). Of course, the negative side of this is the spread of AIDS. While people give blood, coaxed by the wonderful future it promises for the individual and the collective, the eagerness to achieve the dream of a prosperous China blinds people and institutions involved from taking adequate precautions. In pursuing the infectious dream, one manufactured to be desirable, of money and development – a dream that leads to people like the narrator’s father to disregard health and other factors – a country leaves its citizens’ well-being behind. Socioeconomically motivated contagion triggers biological contagion, and dreams of homes on New Street lead people to infections that leave those houses empty.

How do the social, the economic, and the biological interact in the novel – in terms of contagious ideas, diseases, etc.? Why do you think economic development in a capitalistic mode, often come at the cost of disregarding the health of communities and interpersonal relationships?

An interesting element of the novel is how AIDS, the terrifying new disease, comes to be introduced to the infected people of Ding village. Grandpa says “what they told me is that the fever is really AIDS, and that it’s a contagious disease, like the plague” (57). The narrator goes, “some said that the government was planning to send trucks and soldiers to round up people with the fever and bury them alive in the Gobi Desert, like they used to do with plague victims long ago” (18). In both cases, AIDS, an unprecedented disease, needs to be contextualized in comparison to some other illness, so that it can be adequately communicated as a threat. The choice of plague links nicely with many of our other readings – from Bocaccio to Defoe to Camus to Stearns. Plague has been historically devastating, so, using it as a means to locate AIDS in the gamut of potential contagion serves the dual role – of familiarizing the public to the kind of sickness they are dealing with and also reasserting the uncontrollable danger it poses.

This raises questions relating to language and how it is used to share knowledge, especially about disease. What can a simile do, when comparing the treatment of AIDS victims and plague victims? What are the histories get evoked in the way something new is first presented? 

One notable image worth investigating is that of the “coffin factory” from an involuntary dream Grandpa could not escape (from page 116 – 122). How does the provision of mass-produced coffins for those who die of fever work in relation to the spread of AIDS? For a disease whose prevalence in Ding village stems from the authorities pushing the blood-selling/plasma economy agenda onto rural populations, how can the governmental response stop at just helping with the funeral? The issue of curing the victims seems to be conveniently pushed aside. The narrator writes of a dream, of a hope that “the government would have to do something for the people of Ding Village. It couldn’t just ignore them. It couldn’t stay silent, blindly doing nothing. Because who ever heard of a government that saw and heard nothing, said and did nothing, took no action and showed no concern? (114) Except, in reality, only coffins were forthcoming – little concrete aid for those suffering in the village.

What more could the government have done? Where does it fit into the novel, in relation to the blood-selling, the blood-merchants, contagious diseases and ideas, “the past, the future, the development of a ‘plasma economy’ and the need for a “strong and prosperous China”.

And finally, what significance does the most intricately fashioned casket hold? The most beautiful one, called the “finest model” (120), which seems to stand for a critique of the “Chinese Dream” – along the lines of an “American Dream”, which are contagious fictions constructed to idealize a dream of what a nation represents (to its citizens and the peoples of the world).

How does the startling discovery that “this vision of paradise”, meticulously carved on the casket, “[was] filled … with a television set, washing machine, refrigerator and an array of gadgets and household appliances that my grandfather had never laid eyes on” mean?