Just Like February is, at its heart, a story of lost innocence. The ’80s have always struck me as a time of profound innocence lost in both the personal and cultural realms. They came in on a high and went out on a where-do-we-go-from-here low. Smack in the middle of the decade, my husband’s friend and associate in his interior design practice sparked an idea for a new business venture. Within months of making the decision to move ahead with the plan, our friend was diagnosed with HIV. His progression from HIV to AIDS, and the opportunistic infections that would result in his death, was alarmingly quick. There was no escaping the feeling of walking under a cloud.
Early Days of HIV/AIDS
These were the early days of HIV/AIDS. So much mystery surrounding what would become an epidemic. Fear and misconceptions of how it could be spread, coupled with homophobia, would reach a pitch. I would do my part to raise awareness, first as editor of a newsletter aimed at AIDS education in the workplace and then as editor of the Design Industries Foundation for AIDS (DIFFA) newsletter. I would lose more than one friend. And I would keep asking myself: how did we get from the sex/drugs/rock’n’roll ’60s to the sex-as-death ’80s? And what were the implications for a young person coming of age during the decade that gave us Gordon Gekko, Ronald Reagan, and AIDS?
A Coming-of-Age Story
Coming-of-age narratives take a young protagonist from innocence to experience, often via an emerging awareness of sex or death. The AIDS epidemic gave us both. My story began to take shape, centered on a girl’s relationship with a very special uncle. The opening lines would set the tone for a narrative that, I hoped, would transcend stereotypes: “The summer I was born Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Ted Kennedy put Chappaquiddick on the map, and my parents, along with my uncle Jake and me, set out on a pilgrimage to Woodstock. Only Jake got there.”
The charismatic gay uncle, not the hippie parents, is the one who gets to Woodstock.
Good storytelling is never didactic. It’s a mix of heart and craft, all to the higher goal of authenticity. Archetypes play their part: Rachel’s mother is a social worker, her father a Vietnam veteran, and what better pairing could there be to symbolize the ’60s and their emblematic end? More to the point, it’s Rachel’s voice, in all its innocence, that would bring a fresh perspective to the changing times, not to mention the very nature of love. Playing counterpoint to Rachel’s coming of age would be a very strong-minded grandmother coming to grips with the changing nature of family, not to mention the realization of her worst nightmare.
Writers all have different strategies for jumpstarting a story. It might be a line that pops into our heads, or there’s a thematic underpinning that gets the wheel churning. E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” In the same way that I envisioned a character born in the legendary summer of 1969, I couldn’t help but see the poignancy of her sexual awakening at a time when her beloved uncle was dying. The years between would be threaded by key moments in her life set against a backdrop of events that gave definition to the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Anchoring her through it all is Jake.
World AIDS Day
By no small coincidence, Just Like February would end up being published at a time when the ’80s seem to be back with a vengeance. December 1 marks the thirtieth anniversary of World AIDS Day, and there’s no arguing how far we’ve come in the fight against HIV/AIDS. This year’s theme is #ZeroHIV, a worthy goal that might be within reach if not for the misinformation and shame that keeps people from getting tested and the lack of resources that keeps them from getting treatment. These are the facts: as of 2017 there were more than 36 million people (2.1 million under the age of fifteen) globally living with AIDS. Without facts, without the tireless efforts of people and organizations worldwide working year-round to up the ante in terms of both education and treatment, the numbers of new infections would likely be higher.
Power of Stories
At the same time, over and over again, we hear that facts don’t change people’s minds, stories do. It’s in the telling of stories, fictional or otherwise, that we bring a human dimension to underlying issues. In the way I was personally touched by the early days of the AIDS crisis, I could not help but be moved, even angered, by stories in the news that spoke to the bigger picture of unfounded fear and ignorance.
I was haunted by the photo of a child standing outside his school holding up a placard that read: “No kids with AIDS in our grade.” This was a reaction to the protests against Ryan White, a hemophiliac teenager who contracted HIV via a transfusion, and it took AIDS beyond the perception of a “gay plague,” with its homophobic implications, which were bad enough. Who better than a fictional girl with parents rooted in ’60s activism and a gay uncle who teaches her to see past the obvious to shed a light on how we define heroes?
In commemoration of World AIDS Day, the e-book edition of Just Like February is available via online booksellers for 99 cents through December 1.
Praise for Just Like February
Just Like February was named a finalist at both the American Fiction Awards and the International Book Award and was a Buzzfeed pick.
“An ultimately optimistic and hopeful novel about growing up amid personal and political disarray.”
“Just Like February is a funny, compelling, and heartbreaking read.”
―Susanne Paola Antonetta, author of Make Me a Mother and editor of Bellingham Review
“Just like February is a wonderful novel, beautifully told, that vividly captures the sweet love of a young girl for her charismatic uncle.”
—Celine Keating, author of Play for Me and Layla
By Deborah Batterman (New York)
Deborah Batterman is the author of Just Like February (a novel), Shoes Hair Nails (short stories), and Because my name is mother (essays). She is a Pushcart nominee, and her award-winning fiction appears in the Women’s National Book Association’s forthcoming centennial anthology. Her work has appeared in anthologies as well as various print and online journals. A native New Yorker, she has worked over the years as a writer, editor, and teaching artist. Her blog is an exploration of all the small things, and the big ones, that impact our day-to-day lives.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/deborah.batterman