On the line between appropriation and allyship: A review of Rebecca Makkai's THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Becca Rose Hall

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"...we are responsible for what we create, and for how we write about what we write about, especially when we write about trauma and tragedy that is not our own."
 

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It starts with a party. A funeral party. It is Chicago, 1985, and a young man named Nico has just died of AIDS. His homophobic parents exclude his partner and friends from the formal funeral, so they throw their own. Despite the Cuba Libres and cute boys, no one exactly feels like partying, least of all Nico’s sister Fiona and friend Yale. But still, it starts out so fun, despite the occasion. And then.

This is the world Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers drops us into as quickly and completely as if we also had stepped from a dark street into a hopping funeral party. The book alternates perspectives between Yale and Fiona: Yale in 1985 as AIDS sweeps through his circle and he works to secure an incredible art acquisition from 1920’s Paris, Fiona in 2015 as she heads to Paris to look for her estranged daughter, the wounds of her thirty-year-old losses still with her. This simultaneity of tragedy and survival lets the crisis and its aftermath unfold in tension, the crisis always in the present the way traumas are. Makkai manages information deftly so that the whole tragedy is a slow-moving train wreck you can see coming, know how to dodge, but that still hits you sideways. And it hits you hard. There is dread and grief, anger and disbelief, fatalism and magical thinking, and a fierce resiliency and love of life in this novel. The characters get in your mind and become imaginary friends. Reading their stories, I felt the magnitude of loss the arrival of AIDS brought in a way I, a straight white lady who was just learning to read when these men were dying, never had before.

As far as I know from Makkai’s author bio and from our slight acquaintance (she was the fellow in my workshop at Sewanee in 2011, and we’ve stayed in occasional touch through social media), Makkai is a straight woman, married with kids. If she has a personal connection to the AIDS crisis, or to the subculture she writes about, she doesn’t disclose it. Despite the vividness of the world Makkai creates, her outsiderness shows. For instance, the mid-eighties gay scene as Makkai describes it is just as I would have imagined it. I don’t know if that is because her portrayal is extremely accurate, or if it is because she is writing outside her own experience (as I am reading outside mine), and so the novel leans on generally shared stereotypes of what that life was like. In any case, I wasn’t surprised by anything in Makkai’s world, real as it felt. Nothing was weird. It was as if she worked so hard to get the characters right that they became predictable. They felt like real people, but just the real people I’d expect to show up to that particular party.

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Reading The Great Believers also made me think about what it means to write stories outside our own experience, stories that we may care about but are not our own. It is extremely important for writers to write across lines of difference, to write characters of different races and genders and sexualities and classes and worldviews. For one thing, we’d have too many books about MFA students. Too many books set in New York. We would also have too many books that don’t have people of color in them, or don’t pass the literary equivalent of the Bechdel test, or don’t get inside the minds of Republicans. In other words, that don’t reflect the fullness of the world. If one of the superpowers of fiction is the creation of empathy, then writing about people other than ourselves is critical.

Writing is an act of imagination, and imagination doesn’t follow social codes. However, we are responsible for what we create, and for how we write about what we write about, especially when we write about trauma and tragedy that is not our own. It’s easy for that to become appropriation for the sake of plot drama, which is icky. It’s easy to become an authority without knowing how something felt to live. This is especially complicated when you write a story that belongs to a group of people who have struggled to be heard on their own terms, like the men in Makkai’s novel.

To be fair, Makkai is aware of this, and writes in her afterward about the subjective line between appropriation and allyship. And Fiona’s story, which is the story of the witness, the survivor, the ally, makes the book also about those things. Fiona carries the weight of surviving even more than the surviving HIV-positive men. Her grief has directed her entire life: her work, her own recklessness, her relationship with her daughter. One of the most interesting scenes in Fiona’s story is when she is reunited with a man she thought had died of AIDS, but who had managed to hang on until the “good drugs” came on and had made it through. How strange, says Makkai, that this man could have “a second life, a whole entire life, when Fiona had been living for the past thirty years in a deafening echo. She’d been tending the graveyard alone….” It’s a conversation that helps the book reach its end, and one that seems like instructions for healthy allyship as well. Yes, witness and imagine and empathize and grieve and offer a hand. But also live your own life. Don’t let others’ pain be your plot.

Making art out of pain is wise and human; making art out of other peoples’ pain is vampiristic. Makkai’s novel raises enough questions and makes me feel deeply enough that I believe she has honored her material. Others likely feel differently. There are great novels about American gay life during the peak of the AIDS epidemic that are written from the inside. (In the City of Shy Hunters by Tom Spanbauer comes to mind.) They should not be left out of the conversation.

In another way, this story does belong to our whole culture, because we are all survivors and witnesses, though most of us are crappy, inattentive ones. AIDS has brushed us all, at least in our fears; half my 1990’s sex-ed class was about AIDS: which bodily fluids and not toilet seats and through lambskin but not dental dams and even Magic Johnson and safer not safe because no guarantees and anyone anywhere maybe even me. No one I knew ever died of it. We need to hear and feel this story.

The extent to which people outside the gay community ignored the AIDS crisis then and forget about it now is wrong. Wrong like ignoring the trauma of war is wrong. Even my AIDS-obsessed sex-ed class didn’t spend time humanizing the devastation in the gay community as much as convincing us heterosexual kids we should be worried about ourselves. These are the things I thought about, some for the first time, when I read this book. Clearly, we need the empathetic entry points that fiction gives us. We need stories to come to life so we can feel them. The Great Believers does this and does it powerfully. But the question remains: does Makkai’s book add to an important conversation or hog the mic? Or both?

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Becca Rose Hall lives, reads, and writes near Seattle with her husband and daughter. She is the director of Frog Hollow School, a children's writing program. Her novel, Salt for Salt, is currently out on submission and she is working on another novel. She studied writing at Stanford University and the University of Montana. Her work has appeared in Contrary Magazine, High Country News, Elsewhere Lit, Smokebox, The Bellingham Review, and elsewhere. Check it all out here, and follow her on twitter at @beccarosehall.


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