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The Calendar of Loss

, 192 pages

19 halftones

March 2015



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The Calendar of Loss

Race, Sexuality, and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS

His world view colored by growing up in 1980s Ethiopia, where death governed time and temperament, Dagmawi Woubshet offers a startlingly fresh interpretation of melancholy and mourning during the early years of the AIDS epidemic in The Calendar of Loss.

When society denies a patient's disease and then forbids survivors mourning rites, how does a child bear witness to a parent's death or a lover grieve for his beloved? Looking at a range of high and popular works of grief—including elegies, eulogies, epistles to the dead, funerals, and obituaries—Woubshet identifies a unique expression of mourning that emerged in the 1980s and early 1990s in direct response to the AIDS catastrophe. What Woubshet dubs a "poetics of compounding loss" expresses what it was like for queer mourners to grapple with the death of lovers and friends in rapid succession while also coming to terms with the fact of their own imminent mortality. The time, consolation, and closure that allow the bereaved to get through loss were for the mourners in this book painfully thwarted, since with each passing friend, and with mounting numbers of the dead, they were provided with yet more evidence of the certain fatality of the virus inside them.

Ultimately, the book argues, these disprized mourners turned to their sorrow as a necessary vehicle of survival, placing open grief at the center of art and protest, insisting that lives could be saved through the very speech acts precipitated by death. An innovative and moving study, The Calendar of Loss illuminates how AIDS mourning confounds and traverses how we have come to think about loss and grief, insisting that the bereaved can confront death in the face of shame and stigma in eloquent ways that also imply a fierce political sensibility and a longing for justice.

Dagmawi Woubshet is an associate professor of English at Cornell University. The coeditor of Ethiopia: Literature, Art, and Culture, a special issue of Callaloo, Woubshet has also published his work in Transition, Nka—Journal of Contemporary African Art, and African Lives: An Anthology of Memoirs and Autobiographies.

"The Calendar of Loss powerfully evokes the act of mourning in the AIDS era. It poignantly captures the tone of urgency, desperation, fatalism, and activist rage that characterized the 1980s for those touched by the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic. Dagmawi Woubshet performs an incredible balancing act: he offers respect to the dead and dying by truthfully rendering the ways in which they responded while somehow training a strong critical eye on the queer and racialized forms of AIDS mourning. Stylistically, the manuscript is brilliant in how it elegizes its subjects even as it rigorously analyzes a cluster of techniques deployed by AIDS mourners in a diverse array of high, popular, and mass forms, both traditional and experimental, including poems, short stories, funerals, eulogies, obituaries, epitaphs, memoirs, graffiti, protest speech, photography, film, dance, and art. Woubshet's writing is poetic without abandoning any heft of critical acumen. This is the smartest text on race and mourning or on the artistic response to AIDS that I've encountered. An extraordinary achievement."

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