The other day, shortly after reading from my first novel, Mercy, in New York, a sweet looking man came up to me and asked me why the world's largest drug companies should provide millions of dying Africans with affordable AIDS drugs. "They're not Christians, they're not Muslims, they're not religious, period," the man said of the drug companies. And because he was in fact Christ-like in appearance -- meek-eyed, bearded, with a radiant smile -- I took a moment to think.
I've covered every aspect of the AIDS epidemic in Africa so I have standard replies to questions like these. Generally I argue that in the face of the largest loss of life, love, hope and memory in modern history, drug monopolies in Africa constitute a colossal failure of civilization. I point out that millions of people are dying unnecessarily of a disease that has a cure -- that's had a cure for fifteen years now -- for no other reason than they are black and poor. At my most dispirited, my most laconic, I say that we betray our human selves, our human nature, by letting people die like this.
The other night in New York, I thought of Mercy, an African giantess with "the arms and legs of a boxer and the face of an angel." She is the main character in my novel. She comes into my life as I'm spectacularly self-destructing after years of war-coverage. She grabs me by the scruff of the neck and teaches me how to be "like the big people in this world." Then she develops full-blown AIDS.
What would Mercy say? How would she react? She'd take it upon herself to remain calm, to remain civil as she attempted to explain why her life -- and that of millions of others just like her -- was worth more than a patent. But I know her: it would not be long before she lost her temper. To understand one has to see. No explanation, no entreaty, will bestow the gift of sight. "Have you been to Africa?" I asked the man in New York. "No," he said. "You'd be asking all kinds of questions if you had." He cocked his head. "But not this one," I told him, "Not this one."
And this is what it comes down to: we don't see millions of Africans dying in agony in their own excrement, we physically and morally do not see them and that is why they they're dying -- and why the pharmaceutical industry is getting away with murder.
I've seen them. I've cursed my way up and down the continent. Then I sat down and wrote a book about a crazy white girl plagued by addiction and infidelity and her African maid, Mercy. I wrote it so that people could see and, through the process of seeing, who knows, with a bit of luck, begin to change things.
Change takes time. Not much is left.