This award-winning novel initiates the reader into the complex world of homosexuality and AIDS in the Caribbean
It’s 1978, and Dale Singleton is becoming alarmed as his friend, Ian Kaysen, is afflicted with a mysterious and seemingly untreatable illness characterized by pneumonia, lesions, and dementia. This novel of the first days of AIDS is viscerally affecting, as it conveys the shocked puzzlement of those troubled by Ian’s condition while simultaneously documenting Jamaican society’s struggle to accept the dignity of gay love. Dale’s world collapses, yet his experience of being gay in a middle-class culture circumscribed by church, family, and compulsory heterosexuality is hauntingly memorable-and familiar.
“In Powell’s hands identities that we try to keep separate become intimately entwined . . . the living within the dying, the foreigner within the native born, the male within the female. Her tales unfold like dreams spread out on a table.” -Danzy Senna, author of Caucasia
“Powell combines the same lyrical imagery, piercing insight, and confident narrative sense that made Me Dying Trial one of the most impressive debuts . . . Powell writes with subtlety and craft.” -Boston Phoenix Literary Section
“A Small Gathering of Bones is a rare portrayal of literary fiction as an artistic whole. No other work of fiction presents the trauma and triumph that AIDS engenders. After Powell’s first novel, Me Dying Trial, this is a second step off into the universe of a rising new talent.” —New England Review of Books
Questions for Discussion
- How does the community response to homosexuality in Powell’s
Jamaica compare with how homosexuality is viewed in American society
today? How is homosexuality viewed in your own community?
- “Ian Kaysen, I don’t mean to interfere in your personal
prerogatives, but that rattle in that back of your throat not
any little play-play cold. You going to have to do something about
that coughing” (p.1). Ian’s illness progresses from
this point and we know that he is suffering from AIDS. Discuss
how the foreknowledge of HIV/AIDS shapes our understanding of
- “Nevin didn’t seem to mind the friendship at first…But
after him see how Ian get his own set of keys, how him sleep over
on the couch downstairs in the living room some nights…all
of a sudden Dale notice that every time Nevin come home and see
Ian, a scowl seem to always envelope his face…”(p.6).
What does this passage tell us about Nevin’s character?
- Dale recounts his earlier experience of confessing his homosexuality
to a church elder on page 10. What does this passage reveal about
the conflict between his sexuality and religion?
- “Dale wonder if Nevin was going to strike him. Grab his
head and ram it against the wall. Like the time him come home
sudden and find Alexander. Cause twelve stitches across the middle
of Dale’s forehead…If Nevin lick him one more time,
that was it” (p.24-25). This passage is the first example
of abuse portrayed in Nevin and Dale’s relationship. What
does this imply about their relationship? What does this foreshadow?
- Ian’s blind devotion to his mother is an important thread
that runs through the novel, with tragic consequences. What does
this relationship tell us about traditional Jamaican culture?
Compare this relationship with the other parent/child relationships
in the novel.
- Dale’s dream of a more equal life with Nevin, running
the store together, seems hopeless because of Nevin’s philandering.
Discuss Nevin’s need to hold the power in the relationship.
How does this recur throughout the novel?
- “Nevin was dashing him aside. Like his mother had left
him. And his father before her…For if Nevin wasn’t
there anymore, who was going to believe in him? Who was there
for him to cling to? Who would make him feel safe?” (p.57).
What does this passage reveal about Dale’s character? What
affect might his earlier experiences have on his relationship
- How does Powell’s novel dispel or support homosexual stereotypes?
- Discuss the symbolic significance of Dale’s dream on
- Ian’s birthday party …was a small gathering
(emphasis added). Twelve, fifteen people. Bill paid a local poet
to recite a few poems. Somebody played the piano quietly in the
background. Ian was looking the happiest that Dale had seen him
in a while, except for fleeting moments when his eyes would begin
to glance inwards” (p.125). This passage could serve as
Ian’s living wake and it’s the closest the author
comes to using her title. Discuss why the author chose A Small
Gathering of Bones as the title.
- Considering the society’s views of homosexuality in Powell’s
work, what would you expect the response to the discovery of AIDS
might be? What was the American response to the discovery of AIDS?
How does one’s culture or religion affect their perception