Photo depicting Pamela Sneed's headshot against a beige textured background.

Poetry and Loss During the 1980s HIV and AIDS Crisis: Pamela Sneed Talks About Memoir ‘Funeral Diva’

by Amanda Ong

This Friday, Oct. 14, acclaimed poet Pamela Sneed will be in conversation with Shin Yu Pai at the Central Library’s Microsoft Auditorium to discuss Sneed’s memoir, Funeral Diva. The event is free and one of a series guest-curated by Pai, an award-winning writer, poet, and the producer and host of KUOW’s podcast The Blue Suit

Published in October 2020 — at the height of the current pandemic — Funeral Diva reflects on an earlier pandemic: the 1980s HIV and AIDS crisis. The memoir was awarded the Lambda Lesbian Poetry Award last year and marks a literary entry point for Sneed into the narrative of the HIV and AIDs crisis, which has largely been documented and centered around white gay men. Yet, the crisis had ripples throughout the queer community, and as Funeral Diva shows, many of its effects are still being told. 

“As a Black lesbian, I didn’t really have a voice,” Sneed said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “When people did talk about that era it was a lot of white men. And then it became some Men of Color, [but] still white men led the narrative. I think I’m one of the first Black lesbians publicly getting a book published that dealt with that period of time.”

“It was such an important time, late ʼ80s, early ʼ90s,” Sneed said. “You had all of these queers coming to New York to find themselves and find voice, brought on by the work of Audre Lorde and James Baldwin. And so there was a whole movement, a literary movement that was starting, and that ended in a short period of time. And then never really entered into the history books.”

Funeral Diva talks about the HIV and AIDS crisis in literary terms and literary losses, but more than that, it is a memoir. Sneed’s own personal experiences as a poet and a Black lesbian during that time also inform the book, as well as the personal losses that affected her deeply. 

“I was a Black lesbian coming of age with all these gay male poets,” Sneed said. “As soon as we were sort of finding our identity in the late ʼ80s, AIDS hit. Then for all the women who were the leaders, like Audre Lorde, and June Jordan, and Pat Parker, and all of them, they were felled by cancer. And so here, I was this sort of burgeoning poet, I was at the New School. And then I lost like my entire peer group. I lost all of the adults who led me. And so I never really recovered from that.”

Sneed says that she has since always wanted to write about that time and, perhaps more urgently, needed to write about that time. The stories that comprise Funeral Diva have been in the works for two decades.

Funeral Diva actually started 20 years ago,” Sneed said. “I started writing the first story in the book, History. And in Funeral Diva, the title piece, I’m basically writing to survive. I started those stories there. I was in a really dark place.” 

The title of the memoir itself plays on the popularity of the diva identity in the queer community at the time. The morose qualifier contrasts the glamor of the diva, creating a sorrowful incongruity.

“[Queer poets] were so much a part of me coming into poetry coming into community,” Sneed said. “And then to lose them all so quickly … Funeral Diva is a little tongue in cheek, in the sense of just going from one funeral to another. I really wanted to document that.”

Sneed is also the author of Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom Than Slavery, KONG and Other Works, and Sweet Dreams. She is a professor in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and at Columbia University, as well as a performer and visual artist. Her first solo show was this summer at Laurel Gitlen Gallery in New York called “ABOUT time,” about her father’s death, the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, and her daily practice. Her next book is being written in tandem with “ABOUT time” and will be titled 9/29.

For Sneed, writing Funeral Diva came from a need to write, to process, to share her stories and thoughts as a way to move forward with them. But it also resonates now as a piece that not only helped her work through her emotions, but can serve others, especially other Black and lesbian youth, to work through their own.

“Toni Morrison says to write the things that you need, that you need to hear, that you need to read, that you need to see in the world,” Sneed said. “When I first started writing, I guess professionally in my 20s, there were experiences I wanted there to be documentation for. I [realized] I don’t want somebody else to go through this and not have the language for it.”

See Pamela Sneed in conversation with Shin Yu Pai on Friday, Oct. 14, at the Central Library’s Microsoft Auditorium. The event is free and registration is open online through The Seattle Public Library website.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Poet Pamela Sneed will talk with Shin Yu Pai on Friday, Oct. 14, about “Funeral Diva,” a memoir about her experience as a young Black lesbian during the HIV and AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. (Photo: Rafael German)

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