Author reads about the AIDS epidemic in Chicago

By Olivia Montes

Elm Staff Writer

Screen Shot 2019-09-10 at 12.52.56 PMAccording to a review by Michael Cunningham in The New York Times Book Review, “Rebecca Makkai’s “The Great Believers” is a page turner… among the first novels to chronicle the AIDS epidemic from its initial outbreak to the present — among the first to convey the terrors and tragedies of the epidemic’s early years as well as its course and repercussion.”

“An absorbing and emotionally riveting story about what it’s like to live during times of crisis,” he said.

Makkai’s book caught Washington College’s attention with her captivating words, timeless characters, and respectful approach to an often overshadowed and misrepresented subject in history.

“My friend, the poet Aaron Smith, read Makkai’s latest novel, “The Great Believers,” and recommended it in the most thrilling praise he could muster: ‘It’s beautiful. It broke my heart and made me want to write at the same time,’” Dr. James Hall, associate professor of English and director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, said.

“I knew immediately that students would get a lot out of hearing Makkai’s brilliance, too,” he said.

After a brief introduction from Professor Roy Kesey, visiting assistant professor of English and creative writing and associate director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, Makkai read three sections of her novel. She tooking listeners on a journey from the autumn of 1985 in Chicago to Paris in 2015, chronicling how the AIDS epidemic affected her characters and its lasting impact.

“Makkai’s visit highlights our commitment to contemporary literature, and to the liberal arts,” Dr. Hall said. “Makkai’s novel is part history erased by politics and recovered by the imagination, part art history, part biology, part geography, part politics, built by a humanistic imagination that models for our students what it means to be writing now, today.”

Through her extensive research, Makkai depicts how relationships, behaviors, and actions were affected by AIDS, and how it continues to resonate within our society over thirty years later.

“The Great Believers” explores the sober reality of people suffering from AIDS, as well as how it impacts the lives of those around them.

“Makkai’s great theme is about how art can help us hold each other, how literature can be a kind of saving grace,” Dr. Hall said.  “Makkai’s writing takes emotional and structural risks, and she writes with empathy and intelligence — and a whole lot of research — about experiences she doesn’t necessarily have.”

Upon its initial release, “The Great Believers” received high praise from critics for its honest, realistic depiction of the AIDS epidemic, extending its timeline into the present day, where the aftermath continues to sound and spark emotion within its readers.

According to The Book Review, “Her intimately portrayed characters wrestle with painful pasts and fight to love one another and find joy in the present in spite of what is to come ­—Makkai carefully reconstructs 1980s Chicago, WWI-era and present-day Paris, and scenes of the early days of the AIDS epidemic — a tribute to the enduring forces of love and art, over everything.”

Among other achievements, Makkai’s novel was a finalist for The National Book Award, picked for the New York Public Library’s Best Books of 2018, and was selected on the list of Best Books of the Year by The New York Times.

With this reading, Makkai provided an experience that brings readers together as a united front in learning about the events that have shaped us into the world — and people — we are today.

“The reading showed us that literature has power to create social change in its hearers,” Dr. Hall said. “I think students found it inspiring to think about how they can situate their own imagined stories in the sweep of history.”

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