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Dagmawi Woubshet - "The Feelings of Motherless Children: AIDS Orphans and their Epistles to the Dead"

Wednesday, March 28, 2012 - 4:45pm

Toboggan Lodge, Cornell University

Dagmawi Woubshet (Assistant Professor, English, Cornell University

In an untitled painting, Trevor Makhoba, the late South African painter, captures the havoc wrought by AIDS in South Africa and indeed in many other parts of the global south. The painting depicts a funeral procession, not an uncommon subject of painting; however, what's uncommon about Makhoba's funeral scene is that the persons carrying the casket and lining the burial procession are all toddlers. Not only does the painting conjure up the predicament of millions of orphans who have lost their parents to AIDS, it also urges us to ask what the possibilities of mourning are for this class of AIDS mourners. Can children carry caskets? How do children bear loss? How do children mourn without recourse to adult funerary rites and mourning conventions? These are the kinds of questions that Makhoba's painting raises--questions we can begin to answer by turning our attention directly on the writing and art of AIDS orphans themselves. In this presentation, I will consider the writings of AIDS orphans in Ethiopia, who in a series of letters and diary entries, account for the loss of their parents. Particularly remarkable are their epistles to the dead, which give insight into how children mourn, how they feel loss, and how they imagine the interface between the living and the dead. A close reading of these letters allows us, on one hand, to consider more carefully children's interior articulations of loss; and, on the other, to measure more closely the realities of AIDS and the forms of AIDS mourning in the global south.

Before joining the Cornell English department, Dagmawi Woubshet received his PhD from Harvard University, where he specialized in African American, comparative African Diaspora, and contemporary American literature and culture. His essays have appeared inTransition, Callaloo, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, andArt South Africa. He is also co-editor of a special issue on Ethiopia in Callaloo. Currently he is completing a book-length manuscript entitled "Looking for the Dead: AIDS, Poetics and Politics," a comparative study of AIDS writing in the United States, South Africa, and Ethiopia. A true itinerant, he splits his time among three cities--Ithaca, New York City, and Addis Ababa.

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