Christa Biyela asks, “Why should we hide the importance of positive living?”

In her book, “Getting Dirty”, Christa Biyela stresses the importance of getting parents talking about sex with their children in an effort to stop the spread of infection. She spoke to DANA DA SILVA about writing, decolonising the book and the stubborn stigma around HIV and AIDS.

Is it particularly challenging being a vernacular writer in South Africa?
I don’t think so. I think it’s a choice since we’ve got 11 official languages you can choose to write in any language. The only thing that is a challenge is that not all mediums will welcome the vernacular. For myself, I am lucky, I write for radio and I write for television, but for television you have to write in English because of the production team that has to read the script in English.

So sometimes it limits you, but I don’t think of it as a train smash because I still have a radio medium where I can write in my vernacular. I can also write, when I’m writing a book or any kind of script, in the vernacular. So I don’t think it’s limiting in any way. As long as you are exposed you will know where to get your foot through the door, the right door.

Your book “Getting Dirty”, talks a lot about HIV and sex. Why those themes?
I wanted to write about HIV and sex because as someone living with HIV, I thought the subject matter has got such a taboo. I didn’t know what was the big issue, why should we hide our status? Why should we hide the importance of positive living? I saw the importance of educating our kids about sex. But I felt we cannot educate our kids about sex if we as parents don’t know anything about safe sex.

So my book is opening that door that, let’s be honest, first to ourselves about HIV and sex so that we can transfer to our kids. As long as we are honest about sex then we can be honest about our status and talk about it so we can we actually can stop the spread of HIV. I think for me it’s enough now, we know about it there’s no need to get new infections. For us now it is to protect those who are living taking ARVs and protect people that are not infected.

The new infection, it has to stop. There is enough knowledge and information, let’s just spread the information now and find a way of living longer. If I can live for 18 years, other people I’m sure can live for 25 years. So let’s stop being afraid. Let’s just open our minds and open our conversation and be honest in the conversations whenever we talk about HIV and AIDS.

Christa Biyela

Why do you think there is still such a stigma around HIV?
Because of the information, I think first of all we need to understand that when you get infected it’s not because you are promiscuous. For a start, we need to take that away. If you get infected it’s because you didn’t use protection, first and foremost, nothing to do about partners. Once we get that through people’s minds then it’s easier and we don’t need to be ashamed of taking ARVS. In my life, 18 years with HIV, this is my first year taking ARVS, and I shouldn’t be ashamed about it.

It means you need to educate yourself. So the stigma will always be there if people don’t have information, people are judgmental because they don’t know. They think if you’ve got HIV, you’re going to die. If you’ve got AIDS, you’re going to die. But why am I alive 18 years later? That is my question.

What do you think of the theme of this year’s festival?
I think it’s actually decolonising the whole festival. For the first time we’ve got people who write in vernacular and radio drama for that matter, so why not. I think it’s also decolonising the book, I’m looking at it in context of getting more people to reading. Also, for the festival to have accessibility to technology, competing with books and television and all those things.

We need to find a way to get people back to reading books, whether it  be e-books, whether it be hard copies, but just to get people to the culture of reading. I don’t think it’s a theme that could just be looked at in a year. It’s something I think that could be long term to get people back to reading, the culture of reading. Not just as a hobby.

What are you hoping to get out of the festival?

From the festival, I am hoping to get more youth to write about subject matters that matter to people. As much as we write fiction, I think we need to write about things that change the way we think. That can, as we say decolonise the book, let’s decolonise our minds. Let’s talk about things that we are afraid of.

Exactly about HIV, as much as I have been diagnosed with cancer, let’s talk about cervical cancer, which is the new subject that I want to talk about. Let’s stop running away from subjects because we don’t have information, then we turn it into fear. Let’s talk about things that matter, especially to our kids.

Do you have any new books in the works?

Not really. At the moment I am planning to write my second book, but I thought it would be about HIV again. But as I said, I was diagnosed with cancer. So I am trying to do a lot of research about cervical cancer because I feel as women we need to do more pap smears, we need to talk to our kids about it. That is a new subject matter that has squeezed itself. So I think I need to step back and see how I can interrogate two subjects at the same time, HIV/AIDS and cervical cancer.