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Women in the Grove: Living with HIV and AIDS

What does a middle-class, married, Jewish mother have in common with a comedian living in public housing, women struggling on general assistance, or women dealing with fathers of their children who are in jail, dead, or missing? Author Paula Peterson is HIV positive and recently published a collection of short stories, Women in the Grove. She spoke at Harry W. Schwartz Books about her stories, based on experiences at support groups, activists she’s lobbied with in San Francisco, and women she’s met since being diagnosed with AIDS. Women in the Grove is fiction. The women, the therapists who treat them, the men they party with, the children they’re desperately raising share a common rhythm — their lives are tied in some way to AIDS — but in a strong, smart, beautiful way that gives us hope. The book’s title was inspired by The National AIDS Memorial Grove, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a dedicated space where millions of Americans touched directly or indirectly by AIDS can gather to heal, hope, and remember. “My favorite story is ‘Song of Camille,'” Paula said over bottled water at the Harry W. Schwartz cafe just after her reading. It’s about Camille, a woman who is HIV positive, has a daughter who is HIV positive, and is approaching her one year anniversary of sobriety. And, she’s dealing with so many problems, is trying to keep afloat, and is very funny and witty!” Peterson went on, glowing as she spoke. “Camille is one character I just love! She is a little of someone from my group and women I’ve met here and there.” Peterson’s first book, Penitent, with Roses: An HIV+ Mother Reflects, a memoir, won the Bakeless Prize for Nonfiction from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. When she is not writing she spends time with her eight-year-old son. “My son knows…I told him in very simple terms when he was young, when he was four, ‘Mommy has a bug and it doesn’t go away, but I take pills to keep the bug asleep,’ and he understood that,” she says. “I’m well, I live a normal life. I haven’t been sick since he was a baby. My husband’s been wonderful. In the beginning, I was so sick I was just unable to do anything, and he’d come home after a long day at work and do everything that needed to be done.” Peterson didn’t approach the stories with an agenda. “The stories of these women appealed to me. There was such humor, such rich material, such strength, and I wanted to get that all on paper.” She said she was relieved not to be writing about herself as she had in her memoir. She wanted to write about something else much bigger. “Women in the Grove is really not a sad book,” she said, as we finished our talk. “When people pick up a book and it says HIV, they might recoil from it and they might think that this is something that is going to make them cry or make them sad, but that’s not the case at all… they have a lot of life in them, much more life than death.”
Women in the Grove