Our friend Illya Szilak is a full-time physician specializing in HIV treatment, a mother of two, a world traveller, and, oh yeah, in her spare-time she writes groundbreaking novels. (We both managed to shower today and consider that a huge accomplishment.) Her latest project, QUEERSKINS, is an online multimedia novel that tells the story of Sebastian Adler, a young gay physician from a Catholic family who dies of AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic. The text is presented as experts from Sebastian’s diary, which are full of intimate details, like his “first time” at a truck stop outside of St. Cloud. But in addition to the text, readers also accesses layers of sound and imagery, experiencing the work as a series of multimedia collages. Some of the images of everyday life were culled from the Creative Commons section of Flickr, giving it a feel of authenticity while simultaneously blurring the lines between truth and fiction.
During the last election, AIDS and HIV wasn’t even part of the conversation. Even though, in 2011, 2.5 million people became newly infected, it’s totally off the radar for most people. We are hoping that with Queerskins, and with the networked, collaborative version of the novel that will be launched in 2013, we’ll raise awareness of this global tragedy, and give people with a wide range of viewpoints the opportunity to participate in a creative dialogue about love, sex, gender, faith and mortality.
The novel starts when Sebastian’s mother, still living in the rural Missouri home that he grew up in, sorts through a box of her estranged son’s belongings which had been with his body in Africa, where he died. Perusing her son’s (occasionally explicit) journal, she, like the reader, gradually pieces together the life of this man — by reading handwritten letters, looking at photographs, listening to imagined monologues and music. The below is an excerpt from a “page” of the novel, followed by an audio sample and a video clip (but to experience the novel fully, you’ve got to take a spin around the QUEERSKINS site yourself):
Sometimes, when I had to get away, I would drive out to our (James and my) truck stop, and sit at a booth in the diner and drink cup after cup of cheap coffee. I’d watch the truckers, potbellied men in plaid shirts, jeans and gimme caps. They took up space as if they owned the place. I almost felt sorry for them. They were like the indentured servants of a tyrannical prince who did not even know they were enslaved since none of them had ever tried to escape. They would never be courageous enough to relinquish that illusion of potency. If by some chance, they found themselves face down in the back seat, pants around their ankles, they could not experience it as anything but rape. The irony, of course, was that their wives, androgynously obese, were not epitomes of femininity. They hid their desires and their failures behind the banner of that fabled manse: the nuclear family. I hated them. I hated them all. I imagined slick-skinned warriors in pink tutus bashing their heads into the Formica countertop.
The following audio clip is of Alex, Sebastian’s lover in L.A., talking about the stories he used to write for Sebastian.
The following video clip from Queerskins is actually the activist group ACT UP in action:
The complete project is available for free at Queerskins.com, viewable in Google Chrome and Safari, not yet available for mobile platforms.