Review: The After-Death Room – Journey into Spiritual Activism
by Michael McColly
Published by Soft Skull Press
Reviewed by Kevin Franke
Michael McColly is an American HIV+ journalist, yoga teacher and former Peace Corps volunteer. His book charts, through a mixture of journalism, travelogue and memoir, a journey that leads him to search out African-American preachers in Chicago, Buddhist monks in a Thai monastery, traditional Zulu healers, male sex workers in India, and mullahs in Islamic Senegal. He sets out to explore the world of HIV/AIDS activism from the point of view of an HIV+ person.
He starts his rather haphazard odyssey in South Africa in 2000, having been invited to teach a yoga class as part of an international AIDS conference. He has found in yoga a way of keeping healthy and sane since his own diagnosis in 1996, and he finds great satisfaction in teaching yoga to others along his journey. Yoga becomes his way of connecting more deeply with people when the pain of their situations becomes too much for him.
He soon realises that he is unable to separate the journalist from the person, as the various projects he visits in Thailand, Vietnam and India force him to confront his own attitudes towards the illness and his own health. The journalistic begins to fuse with the personal. There are references to his less-than-perfect health as he travels, though this is never fully explored in the book. This is as much a book about the various organisations that he reports on, as it is a journey of transformation for him personally. He has given up much in order to go on this journey; selling his furniture and giving up his apartment in order to fund his travels. Will it have been worth it in the end?
He comes across an inspiring collection of individuals in the countries that he travels to. He meets people that have been driven to activism mostly through being diagnosed themselves. HIV means something very different in these places than back home, still forming a death sentence for most people due to the unavailability of antiretroviral drugs. For most of these people their only option is to keep themselves as healthy as possible, often using alternative/traditional healing methods, but they know that the disease will ultimately kill them. It becomes a constant challenge for Michael to have to face these people, knowing that he has such easy access to the drugs that could keep them alive.
Along the way there are some bizarre episodes, such as the mass vaccination of HIV positive people at a football stadium in Bangkok, with a non-proven and questionable drug claimed to be both treatment and cure. Or the museum attached to a Buddhist monastery, preserving the bodies of people that have died from AIDS in formaldehyde tanks.
The book is not always successful in balancing the reportage with the personal (spiritual) journey. It often jumps too quickly from one country or project to another, and therefore lacks a certain structure. But it powerfully tells the stories of the grassroots activists and unsung heroes of the HIV epidemic, and beautifully charts one man’s journey from the shock of his own HIV diagnosis, and the disconnection from life that can often follow, to the recapturing of a part of himself lost long ago.