Do You Remember the Era of AIDS?

‘Take Me To Paris, Johnny’, by John Foster

For Juan (and John)

In 1993, Minerva Books published a memoir written by Melbourne academic, John Foster, which immortalised the life and death of his partner. A generation later, we are experiencing another pandemic, and this book – subsequently reissued by Black Inc. in 2003 and most recently in 2016 by the Text Publishing Company – is something of an overlooked classic. Given its literary merit – Peter Craven (1994) praises this writing as “unparalleled in Australian letters” – it is surprising that John Foster’s book has not received wider acclamation.

The answer, it seems, might be found in the historical context of the times. A generation has now passed since the arrival of AIDS, and much of our societal ignorance, fear and hysteria have dissolved into the calm of complacency. AIDS, which was once loudly denounced everywhere from pulpit to Parliament, has instead succumbed to the ultimate stigma: that of being generally forgotten and invisible. Foster’s novel is both a victim of, and a challenge against, such invisibility. It reminds us that HIV/AIDS is still here – and that we are greatly diminished when we overlook the courage of its heroes.

Take Me To Paris, Johnny is the real-life story of Juan Céspedes, the Cuban refugee and US emigre who arrives in Melbourne in 1986 to begin a new life filled with love, cautious hope and limited possibilities – only to be struck down with AIDS. Foster’s affectionate testimony to Juan’s resilience transforms the young man into the human personification of John Donne’s call for compassion: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind…” Juan’s Cuban mother and grandmother – whose distant lives interweave a mixture of both compassion and heartbreaking tragedy – are also transformed by Foster into figures who, through their suffering and loss, are evocative of the mother of Jesus. Such religious allusion subtly enriches Foster’s writing at different times throughout the novel.

Foster’s devout religious convictions might puzzle anyone who believes the term “gay Christian” to be potentially oxymoronic – even more so in the 1980s, when religious-based vilification was aimed at many people with AIDS. Such contradictions, however, are apparently not unusual for John Foster: an administrator who hates bureaucracy (Robertson, 1994) and an academic who falls in love with a self-educated dancer. Most paradoxically, Foster is an historian who teaches his students about the horrors of the Holocaust whilst conceding in his book that history holds a callous disregard for mere mortals: “Mostly it neither absolves nor condemns; it simply forgets”. Like his teaching, Foster’s personal memoir is a protest against such oblivion – this latter being a tribute to his partner, Juan, whose deathbed exclamation of heartbreaking despair, “I have accomplished nothing”, sparks Foster’s determination to document his life and death (Rickard, 2003).

The story is large and literate in scope, evocative even of a Shakespearean epic. Foster’s star-crossed lovers battle both society’s disapproval of their relationship and a deadlier ‘plague on both their houses’. Whereas Shakespeare’s fictional characters die in suicidal despair, Foster’s real-life lovers find consolation within their relationship: “We made it, Johnny. Didn’t we?”

John and Juan’s relationship can also be seen as an Australian story because it is the embodiment of multiculturalism and diversity. Their potentially intergenerational partnership – common enough in the gay community (Wilde, 2008) – is complicated by differences of race, education, class, culture and language. Foster nevertheless demonstrates unconditional love and acceptance, for example by accepting Juan’s infidelities either by choosing wilful ignorance or through a dismissive attitude akin to “boys will be boys”. Such is the nature of their unconventional partnership; one which some religions might propound as being symptomatic of the ‘sinful’ nature of homosexuality, but which Foster, as a Christian, presents without apology or reservation – his is neither a tale of political activism nor moral turpitude (Dessaix 1994), but simply a narration exposing a facet of what he considers to be real life.

Despite this implicit documentation of ‘ordinariness’, Foster’s writing also resonates with his personal sense of ‘otherness’ as revealed in his earlier book about WW2 German Jewish refugees when he summarises the effects of war, flight as refugees and subsequent cultural assimilation: “In Melbourne, German Jews have ceased to be a community…It is the memory of a past which is proud, terrible and still problematic” (Foster, 1986). Such mixed feelings and fears are reflected in Take Me To Paris, Johnny when Juan’s difficulties as a refugee and a gay man with AIDS allude to the plight of “pariahs” within Australian society (Baker 1994); they imply a concern by Foster that AIDS might decimate his own gay family just as life’s harsh realities ravaged members of the German Jewish community. There may even be a further parallel concerning the struggle within Foster’s own faith as a gay Christian, a minority within a minority which was under attack from both disease and discrimination. It may indeed be John Foster’s very underlying assumption – that gay men can find acceptance and love within the religious community – which has contributed to the avoidance of this text by some Australian readers.

Artwork used with artist’s permission.

Juan’s more obvious ‘otherness’ exposes different possible interpretations of his life and motivations. Readers might criticise Juan for relying on the financial support of older men in order to compensate for his own lifelong failure to forge a successful career for himself (Dessaix, 1994). A more benign interpretation might see Juan as someone who strives to improve his lot (Hanrahan, 2003) but upon whom fate inflicts many cruelties – until he is blessed through the friendship of John Foster. Williams (1994) evokes this latter alternative in his character description of Juan: “attractively elegant, talented, flawed, and unlucky in just about everything, except his choice of lovers.” As an example of the fickle finger of fate, Juan lies dying just as the “Grim Reaper” campaign is terrorising Australian television in 1987, and this fills Foster with impotent rage. After all, the faceless ‘other’ who is being publicly vilified as someone to fear is none other than gentle Juan. In the end, it matters not whatever might form the course or cause of Juan’s life journey; readers are uplifted by the end of his vigil when he discovers the redemptive power of love.

“Who, in their right mind, would actually want to read a book … about AIDS?” – apparently wrote one reviewer of an early New Zealand AIDS anthology, and was soundly criticised for this comment by Tom McLean, a Scottish journalist who was living and dying in New Zealand at around the same time as the characters in Foster’s book. McLean wrote his own AIDS autobiography, If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, dying three days after its publication (Young, 2002?a) – departing this mortal coil, like Juan Céspedes, on a Good Friday (Young, 2002?b).

The vexed question remains: “Who would want to read a book about AIDS?” – particularly in this decade when AIDS is seen as being barely newsworthy. Perhaps the answer is obvious: Everyone, because in learning about John and Juan, we are learning about ourselves. Why?

Indeed, why did the world find Anne Frank’s diary about the Holocaust to be so compelling and personal? It is an endearing coincidence that Anne Frank and Juan Céspedes share a childlike optimism despite imminent disaster; moreover, both their testimonies resonate with a mix of inner personal voices and external human truths which echo poet Walt Whitman’s decree: “I am large, I contain multitudes”.

Robin Grove (1994/1995) summarises another parallel in Foster’s book: “JUAN is JOHN, John Juan, each in the language of the other…” and this is the first of many parallels which are replete within and without the memoir. Juan receives almost identical care at the start and end of his life; his compassion for the friend who probably gave him HIV is shown through his caring support as the other man lies dying of AIDS – and mirrors the care he receives in due course from Foster, to whom he probably transmitted the same virus; the lovers both have funerals at Easter (Brady, 2004) and are buried together in Kew Cemetery. Such is the level of connection which unites John and Juan in both life and death; such is Foster’s skill that he can weave together such disparate threads of memory into a colourful tapestry of love and loss.

The book’s original subtitle, A Life Accomplished in the Era of AIDS, was a refutation of Juan’s deathbed exclamation of despair and defeat. This subtitle was deleted for the subsequent reissues, and may reflect the changing face of AIDS in Australia since Foster’s book was first published. The genre of Australian novel-length AIDS life narrative was a transitory and largely overlooked phenomenon; commencing with an autobiography by Eric Michaels (Unbecoming: An AIDS Diary, 1990) and ending with another by Robert Newey (Lessons Learnt, 2005); the arrival of new drug regimes then ended the conspicuity of suffering and death. AIDS now inspires little interest for most Australians; they see it as affecting marginalised peoples who are geographically or emotionally distant from their own lives. This is another tragedy of the pandemic: we fail to recognise noble heroes and role models. As one character comments in Foster’s book: “I sense from your account… that many people are increased in their humanity because of Juan’s presence among them.” A common truism is equally fitting: those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

Most significantly, John Foster’s text is a story of humans and families: individuals, lovers, friends, biological versus adoptive families, religious and gay communities – and indeed the whole human family. In this mix, Juan is presented as both child and adult seeking his way in the world, while John Foster becomes both lover and mentor. The heartbreak of Juan’s biological family as they lose him to refugee flight is counterbalanced with the pain faced by Juan’s adopted Melbourne family as he is fades away with AIDS.

Take Me To Paris, Johnny has acquired extra layers of meaning since its initial publication. Juan originally escaped from Guantánamo in Cuba – a place which has taken on a new resonance around the world in more recent times as the location for other forms of cruelty – and his identity as a refugee also places his story within a more contemporary Australian context of discrimination and alienation. Most pointedly in recent times, the whole world has learn what it means to endure under the spectre of pandemic. Foster could not have envisaged that his book would remain as relevant as tomorrow’s headlines in the decades following his death.

John Foster shows his consummate skill as an author through his realism and compassion: love may not conquer all, but it makes everything bearable. His legacy is a work which echoes with the voice and essence of his departed friend, Juan Céspedes. In turn, readers can only wonder how many other Juans have been forgotten, with their stories left untold. Perhaps Juan’s greatest accomplishment is that, in the pages of this memoir, he speaks on behalf of them all.

This is based upon an unpublished book review written in 2010, related to my PhD Studies on, “A Social History of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne during the ‘Crisis Years’ 1981 to 1997”. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

References:

Mark Baker, 1994. ‘Gentle Critic of the Hills Hoist Culture’, in Michael Visontay (editor), ‘Time and Tide’ (obituaries), The Australian, 18 May 1994, p. 16.

Jim Brady, 1994. ‘Eulogy’, in Baker, Mark, editor (1997), History on the Edge: Essays in Memory of John Foster 1944-1994, University of Melbourne History Department.

Peter Craven, 1994. ‘A Rare Thing’, in Voices, Vol. IV Number 2, Winter, pp. 118 – 122; an excerpted version of this essay was reprinted as the Foreword to the 2003 reissue of John Foster’s book.

Robert Dessaix, 1994. ‘The Dark Rose’, in Meanjin #1.

Stephen Dow, 2003. ‘AIDS, Fragile Love and Dying’, in The Age, 28 September, Agenda section, p. 10.

John Foster (editor), 1986.Community of Fate: Memoirs of German Jews in Melbourne, Allen & Unwin.

John Foster, 1993. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Minerva.

John Foster (reissue), 2003. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Black Inc. (includes Foreword by Peter Craven and Afterword by John Rickard).

John Foster (reissue), 2016. Take Me To Paris, Johnny, Text Publishing Company. (includes Foreword by Peter Craven and Afterword by John Rickard).

Robin Grove, 1994/1995. ‘A Memory’s Shape’, in Island No 60/61, Spring/Summer, pp. 68-71. (Note: this article contains a beautiful photograph of Juan which is not available in any of the other literature).

John Hanrahan, 2003. ‘Loving and Dying’, in Australian Book Review, November.

Tom Mclean, 1989. If I Should Die: Living With AIDS, Benton Ross Publishers, p. 56.

John Rickard, 2003. ‘Afterword’, in John Foster, 2003, as above.

Ian Robertson, 1994. ‘Obituary: John Foster’, in The Age, 14 May, ‘Extra’ p. 8.

Winston Wilde, 2008. Legacies of Love: A Heritage of Queer Bonding, Haworth Press.

Stephen J Williams, 1994. ‘The Personal Will Be History, One Day’, in Overland No. 136, Spring, pp. 84 & 85.

Hugh Young, 2002?a. ‘HIV/AIDS in New Zealand‘, in Queer History New Zealand: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender New Zealand History, Queer History New Zealand.
– – – – – – – 2002?b. ‘A Chronology of Homosexuality in New Zealand: Part 5 – From Law Reform to the Present’, in Queer History New Zealand: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender New Zealand History: Part 5, Queer History New Zealand.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

6 thoughts on “Do You Remember the Era of AIDS?”

    1. Hi Richard,

      Thanks for your comment on my blog.

      There were many heroes in that era, and I hope I have done justice in this instance to Juan and John.

      Thanks again,

      Geoff

    2. It’s an interesting point about why this book you’re reviewing here (so comprehensively and well) didn’t get the attention it deserves. Holding the Man probably got the limelight overall including with the film. The otherness of the central character probably meant it didn’t hit the same chord with the Australian population. I found it overwhelmingly sad like most books about AIDS can be but it’s not a light subject ever

      1. Thanks David,

        Yes, the story was very sad, and I find it a pity that this book has been so overlooked. From a literary viewpoint, I feel it is actually superior to ‘Holding the Man’.

  1. Thanks Geoff for reminding us of the lives of these two men and to bring attention of them to a new readership hopefully. As always, I’m glad we have you to continue to prompt, point out and remind us of our own history – one that we should never forget and one where we must honour those who we have lost. Thank you!

    1. Hi John, thanks for your feedback. I think there were many community heroes during that epidemic and I am honoured to do my bit to remember them and to keep their love alive. The work continues. Geoff

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