It’s World Aids Day and the 20th anniversary of the debut of What Looks Like Crazy on An Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage. The bestselling novel humanizes the experience of a professional Black woman discovering she is HIV positive and what comes next. After Oprah Winfrey shared the powerful read with her audience, it sold close to a million copies. For the special anniversary, Cleage has partnered with the Red Pump Project to encourage every Black woman to read the book and join the #RedPumpReads discussion with the international non-profit focused on HIV/AIDS awareness for women and girls. We caught up with Cleage on Spelman’s campus to talk about the incredible success of the book (and what Oprah said when she called), why it was important to have a character who found love and had great sex after her diagnosis and how this book is still a necessary read 20 years later.
When did you know this was the book you wanted to write?
PEARL CLEAGE: AIDS was just starting to be something that everybody had to deal with 20 years ago but people were dealing with it mostly out of fear and were very ignorant. What was disturbing to me, was the idea in the Black community that we don’t have to think about this because that’s just for gay white men. I wanted Black women to be conscious that we could get it and created a character who wouldn’t scare us and would be just like us, building a business, having a life out in the world and having fun. She’s taking care of business and discovers that she’s HIV positive.
What was your inspiration for Ava, the main character?
I had a friend who was HIV positive. She told me about a woman that she knew who assumed when she got diagnosed with HIV that she was going to be dead in like two weeks. So she went to her job, cussed out everybody that she had ever had a problem with and went to her landlord and told him what he could do with himself. And then she didn’t die. The medication kept her alive for a long time. So she had to go back to people and say, “I was terrified. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it.” She did mean it. My friend was saying that a lot of people would instantly assume they would be dead when they got the diagnosis. In the book Ava thought her life was over. She was going to move to San Francisco because they had the most progressive healthcare for HIV. But she was going home to see her sister first in Idlewild, Michigan, a little all black town. She lives on and finds the stuff that she likes in her life, but also was able to find a man who could love her and desire her in a sexual way, even though she was HIV positive. That was always the big thing. Well, will anybody ever love me?
Talk about the moment Oprah calls to have it as her book club pick.
The book had been out for a little while, and it had done well. I had actually just written a cover story for ESSENCE about Oprah and thought she was calling about that. So I said, “Hey, is everything good?” And she said, “Yup, it’s perfect. That’s not what I want to talk about.” I said, “Okay, what do you want to talk about?” She said, “We’re going to pick your book for the October Book Club.” It was a complete surprise to me, and just a real sweetness because it had already done way more than I ever thought it would. I’m trained as a playwright and this was my first novel. It had sold 30,000 copies, and my publisher and I were happy. This was an unexpected blessing. And the way that What Looks Like Crazy got into Ms. Oprah’s hand was Susan Taylor, former Editor of ESSENCE. We all love Susan. We had been friends for a long time and she really loved the book. She didn’t tell me she was going to do it but she put it in Oprah’s hands and said, “You need to read this.” So it’s full circle to talk about the book with ESSENCE now. After Oprah shared it with her audience, the book sold close to one million copies. It was great so many people were talking about HIV.
Sadly, you were ahead of the times and in the last 20 years HIV did become a real reality for Black women. Though rates are declining we are still one of the most at risk populations.
What was interesting was how many Black women were in complete denial about us being at risk. Like any venereal disease, it will go through the population because most of the people in the population are having sex. The book bumped up on some things we didn’t want to talk about. The fact that we knew that there were men who were on the down low. We were busy trying to act as if we were just sweet little girls who really didn’t have sex, and if we did, we had very limited partners, and missionary. We did a lot of stuff just like every group of women, men and people. So we have to get over the judgment. The discussion that I was trying to be a part of was for Black women to admit we are fully human, and fully engaged in every aspect of our lives – emotional, sexual and professional.
Now, you know what the danger is. And I’m not saying you have to have abstinence because I’m giving a scene where you get to see somebody with HIV have sex with a man who is not positive. And it’s going to be really sexy, affectionate, safe and wonderful.
It’s 20 years later. What would you want people reading the book now to get?
I want people to enjoy a great story and see what has changed and what is the same 20 years later. At the very beginning she talks about being on the plane and white men not wanting to sit in first class next to a Black woman, and stuff that we all know happens. When I wrote this I was concerned about my friends and the people I knew who already were HIV positive. 20 years down the road, you’re much less likely to find the same ignorance. The ignorance we find now is, “it’s not a problem anymore. So, I don’t need to use a condom.” Atlanta has high HIV rates for young people. I appreciate the Red Pump Project bringing attention to the 20th anniversary of this book. This organization is doing the work that I hoped this book would help to spur. We need to help people live with HIV/AIDS and learn how to be compassionate to people living with that struggle. We need to give people information.
To learn more about the Red Pump Projects’ virtual book club with Pearl Cleage head to http://www.theredpumpproject.org/reads/ and share your reading journey on social with the hashtag #redpumpreads.
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