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No Place Left to Bury the Dead (thoughts)

July 28, 2010

No Place Left to Bury the Dead by Nicole Itano is an incredible work of nonfiction, and one that I urge you all to read. Itano is an American journalist who spent five years living in Jo’burg. The book rose out of her time in southern Africa, and the relationships she formed with HIV-positive women and AIDS-affected families in Lesotho, Zululand, and Botswana. She weaves together the personal stories with broader looks at policy (national, international, NGO), the evolution of the AIDS epidemic, and possible ways to approach it in the future. 

One of the things I love is that Itano is upfront with the reader about her own reactions, biases, and involvement. As she says in the introduction:

In writing this book I chose to use a limited first-person narrative, so that I could explain as much as possible the relationship I had with my subjects. I knew that, given the long-term nature of my involvement with them, I would be unable to stay true to the traditional ethic of journalistic noninvolvement, an ethic I have come to suspect, in any case.


Later on, she once again questions this policy:

Many foreign correspondents would think nothing of taking a politician or the CEO of a company out to an expensive dinner, but would balk at giving a bag of cornmeal to a starving family who had shared their story. Too often, we justify leaving our humanity at the door by clinging to the conventions of our trade. I understand the logic, that it is dangerous to create the expectation of payment because then people might tell you what they think you want to hear; that it is not our job to interfere. Yet I think that in the context of Africa these arguments are often weak. The expectation of help is usually there, no matter what we do, and in areas of great suffering that have been well-trodden by journalists there is often a bitterness that the telling of stories has resulted in no tangible improvement in people’s lives.


While most of the book is centered on AIDS in southern Africa, these moments of turning the light on journalism itself really appealed to me. 

Itano also does a marvelous job of balancing cultural sensitivity with an unwillingness to simply accept sexism in the name of ‘tradition’. At the end of a passage discussing an AIDS prevention tactic that, to my feminist eyes smacks of slut shaming (teenage girls are brought to public places in order to be ‘examined’ for virginity…the thinking goes if girls are shamed for having sex, they’ll have less of it and the spread of AIDS will slow), Itano concludes:

Virginity testing censures young women for sexual activity yet ignores the role of men and boys. S’thembiso saw no contradiction in placing the responsibility for controlling AIDS on women without giving them greater social power to control their sexuality. In the old days-in Zulu culture as in Sotho-there were social sanctions against men for impregnating young women before marriage; the man’s family would have to pay a penalty, usually one cow, to the woman’s family. But while many Zulu men are keen to revive traditions that help preserve male power, few advocated bringing back those that ensured men used that power responsibly. In Ingwavuma, as in many areas, the past we remembered only selectively.


All of this is important, because in a book on AIDS in Africa the writer’s background is essential. Let’s be honest…sometimes the way Westerns write about the non-West world is more than a bit condescending (i.e.: compare the way Western news outlets discuss ethnic conflict in Iraq vs the Balkans) or idealising (i.e.: shades of ‘the noble savage’) or forgetful of history (i.e.: seemingly oblivious to the fact that colonialism is at the root of many current problems in former colonies). This is why I’ve never before read a book on AIDS in Africa…such biases get my blood boiling. And they occur more often than ‘sometimes.’ That’s why this book is so important, and why I urge everyone to read it. 

I always have problems reviewing international relations type books, because I read them more as a student than a reader. So my review is less ‘gee, this book was a good read,’ and more ‘listen to all of this information I learned: isn’t it fascinating?’. I want to talk about the way Botswana was the first government to offer free antiretrovirals to its HIV positive citizens, and the fascinating aspects of Botswana’s economy and politics that make it more successful than its neighbours. I want to talk about the downsides to the sudden focus on the international aid community on AIDS, and the problems inherent in Western-run NGOs coming in to try to solve problems in non-Western cultures. I want to talk about all sorts of things, but it would make this post far too long. So instead, I’ll say that Itano is a strong writer; even if you don’t have a lot of inherent interest in the topic or any background in international relations, you will enjoy the book and get a lot out of it. And for those who do have a background, she offers enough complexity and history to make her work convincing. The structure is perfect, and while the book of course has its depressing moments, it’s not nearly as sad overall as I expected…Itano helps this by spending her last section discussing Botswana. This is one of the best and most important nonfiction books I’ve read all year: you should go get your hands on a copy! I’ve also decided to count it towards the Women Unbound list. To explain why, I’ll leave you with another couple of passages from No Place Left to Bury the Dead:

The main characters in this book are predominately women. In part this was out of necessity-it is largely women who are willing to talk about the epidemic-but it also reflects the fact that in Africa it is women who are bearing the brunt of the epidemic. They are caring for the sick and orphaned, and they are dying in large numbers and at earlier ages. For the women I met, the AIDS epidemic was intricately entwined with abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and hunger. It was rarely, if ever, simply a matter of choice.


Today, 59 percent of Africans with AIDS are women. For man of these women, marriage may in fact be the largest risk factor for contracting AIDS, and some studies indicate that the majority of HIV-positive women in Africa may have had only one or two sexual partners in their entire lives. 

How do you review nonfiction books on topics of academic interest to you?

49 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2010 4:47 am

    Like you, when I read books just to learn stuff (quite common in my non-fiction spurts) I just want to share with everyone all the interesting things I’ve learned. I don’t know many details about the AIDS epidemic in Africa; it’s one of those subjects that just feels kind of raw and uncomfortable to read for me. But this sounds like a very informative book and I was already thinking questions while reading your review so now I do want to read it.

    • July 30, 2010 5:29 am

      I usually share facts too; my problem with international relations stuff is that I also want to analyse it and break down the arguments! I should have been clearer in my post. ;)

      I expected the book to be much more raw than it was…I went in really nervous, but in the end I think Itano did a marvelous job of not making things even more miserable then they are, you know? I felt anger more than sadness.

  2. July 28, 2010 5:35 am

    Ok, so normally I don’t read much non-fic for leisure because I read so much of it for school as it is… and I probably wouldn’t have thought to read a book on this topic, but you’ve totally convinced me. This sounds fascinating and eye-opening, and most importantly intellectually provocative. I love the quotes you posted regarding journalism and its double-edged sword… Definitely food for thought! Thanks for bringing this one to my attention.

  3. July 28, 2010 5:40 am

    I review a nonfiction, academic book the same way I do fiction, by relating what I feel about it afterwards. :)

    Given that a handful of my friends have spent time in Africa for volunteer work, I understand that AIDS is a very sensitive topic there and unfortunately, women are treated quite unfairly. And I agree with your sentiments that people from the Western world sometimes treat non-Western world condescendingly. That’s why I admire the way the author is changed by her experience in her travels. While it might be difficult for me to find this book in our stores here, my sister based there in the States (an HIV specialist) might find this book particularly interesting.

    • July 30, 2010 5:30 am

      I’d be curious to see what your sister makes of the book!

  4. July 28, 2010 7:09 am

    I haven’t read a non-fiction book in quite some time, but I always have a harder time explaining it. Like you, its more of a “look at all of these things I learned!” rather than, “You should read this because of so and so.” That being said, I always appreciate a non-fiction book that can deliver material and not be boring. I hate facts listed one after the other. I like a bit of personality and realism as well as the information.

    This book sounds fascinating and yet again, I have to read it at some point. :)

    • July 30, 2010 5:31 am

      I agree…for pop nonfiction I expect the writing to be good. :) With international relations stuff, though, I’m often breaking down the author’s logic/examining their school of thought/etc. so my reading experience is different from the other nonfiction I read.

  5. July 28, 2010 7:49 am

    I usually try and analyze my usual- structure, “story” instead of plot, use of source material, and how well it relays its message.

    This sounds absolutely fascinating, Eva.

    • July 30, 2010 5:32 am

      That makes sense. :) What about when you disagree w/ the academic arguments though? Usually, I end up just never reviewing the book, because I want to demolish the arguments and don’t care about how the book was written. lol

  6. July 28, 2010 7:55 am

    Thanks for focusing on this. Social issues are so important to me; yet, it’s difficult, as you say, to find resources that aren’t condescending. And I absolutely cannot stand that. AIDS in Africa, particularly, is such a complex problem. The book sounds informative and fascinating. I hope I can find it in my library.

  7. July 28, 2010 7:57 am

    This sounds so interesting! I do tend to read alot of non-fiction about things that interest me–travel, Edie Sedgwick, business, historical events, etc.

    Great review!

    • July 30, 2010 5:39 am

      I read a lot of nonfiction too, but it’s interesting how differently I read if a book is just about a topic that interests me personally or if it touches on things I studied in college. :)

  8. July 28, 2010 7:59 am

    Wonderful review, Eva, and I am very intrigued by this author and her honesty. I am excited that journalists are beginning to question the ethics of so called “objectivity” and “non-involvement”, and are writing honest accounts of what they see and feel. I will add this book to my ever growing list.

    When I read and review nonfiction they tend to be science or life science books as socio and geopolitical books tend to piss me off, for the very reasons you mention. I read nonfiction to learn more about something that interests me, and if I like the book, I find it is easy to review.

    • July 30, 2010 5:40 am

      Thank you Gavin! Isn’t the journalistic questioning exciting too? I only find nonfiction difficult to review when I see it more from a scholarly angle than a reader angle, you know?

  9. July 28, 2010 8:55 am

    Well, you did two things to me with this review, Eva–first, you unquestionably made me want to read this book, and second, you made me want to pick 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa back up (one of the dozen books I got sidetracked from because of school stuff–I’m only about a quarter of the way through it, but so far it has been very good). Thank you, for yet another wonderful review of what sounds to be a very important book!

    • July 30, 2010 5:40 am

      I’m really curious about that 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa book!

  10. July 28, 2010 9:43 am

    When reviewing non-fiction I always do the same, i.e. “check out all this stuff I learned!”
    This book sounds excellent.

  11. July 28, 2010 9:55 am

    That is just so sad! It sounds like it would be a book that would affect the reader profoundly.

    • July 30, 2010 5:52 am

      I found it more hopeful than I expected, but it’s definitely the type of book that will linger.

  12. July 28, 2010 10:33 am

    I often just go ahead and share all those interesting facts & details I find in nonfiction books, because that’s what I read for in nonfiction (rather than style/lyricism/character development, etc. – although of course if the style is abysmal I’m not going to enjoy the book). You struck a great balance here – I’m intrigued by what you say about Itano’s criticisms of the assumptions behind Western journalism, and the ways in which she deconstructed those. She sounds like a compassionate & intelligent writer – and such an important subject.

    • July 30, 2010 5:53 am

      Thanks! I usually share many of the details, but then start worrying about copyright issues if I include too many interesting passages. :) That being said, I find it much easier to review nonfiction on topics that aren’t of academic interest to me! She’s definitely compassionate and intelligent…I wish she had other books out.

  13. kimberlyloomis permalink
    July 28, 2010 10:49 am

    I am so grateful for you bringing this book to my attention, Eva. I, too, get very frustrated with Western authors who take a completely ethno-centric view of another culture then proceed to degrade and demoralize it without ever asking the most important question they can: What is my bias?

    Truth be told I know very little of Africa’s history (more specifically the Congo – talk about Colonization nightmare…) and always hunger to know and understand more. It isn’t enough to read it through our own biases, but to try and understand these people’s plights as it pertains to them and their situation; to check our Western pretenses and arrogance (if indeed we have them) at the door. Thank you for sharing. It’s now on my TBR list.

    • July 30, 2010 5:54 am

      Did you read King Leopold’s Ghost about the Congo? I think I cried on almost every page. I can recommend some wonderful nonfiction about various African countries if you’d like. :)

      • July 30, 2010 5:55 am

        I have not and will most certainly add it to my spreadsheet. :) Please, recommend away!

  14. July 28, 2010 11:55 am

    This is definitely a book for my library list or wishlist. I’m completely interested in anything involving AIDS, in Africa and beyond, and this one sounds right up my alley.

    • July 30, 2010 5:56 am

      Can’t wait to see what you think of it!

  15. July 28, 2010 12:14 pm

    I can’t even remember the last time I tried to review a non-fiction book (not counting memoirs). But, yes, I’d probably just go into what I learned and why it was an important read for me.

    I hadn’t heard of this book Eva but glad to see your review. I actually have one book waiting for me that focuses on the lives of women in Africa – I believe mainly the Congo – so I am preparing myself for it. I imagine it will not be an easy read.

    • July 30, 2010 5:59 am

      Is that A Thousand Sisters? I’m still trying to decide whether or not I want to read it…I’m worried it might have a ‘white woman sweeping in and helping the natives’ feel to it. Which I know is a bit irrational: I should at least read the first few chapters!

  16. July 28, 2010 1:42 pm

    It’s not my usual reading but I’m going to try and find a copy. It sounds fascinating.

  17. July 28, 2010 2:34 pm

    Oooohhhhhhh you had me at the first sentence, but your whole review has me convinced that I need this book. Badly. It sounds absolutely incredible. Thank you!!!

    • July 30, 2010 6:01 am

      I definitely thought of you when I finished this one. :D Us international relations nerds must stick together! lol

  18. July 28, 2010 3:27 pm

    This area of expertise is far from my writing about the prairie, but I think I just read that a new gel has just been developed that may be very helpful in situations like this in preventing HIV.

    • July 30, 2010 6:02 am

      I think the research for this book was mainly conducted 2004/2005, so it’s not quite up-to-date. But good background knowledge!

  19. July 28, 2010 3:45 pm

    This sounds really good! (And sad.) (And good.)

    I have a hard time reviewing nonfiction myself. My inclination is to collect all the best stories and tell them in my blog post, which of course isn’t really a review. I think with nonfiction, particularly nonfiction that deals with difficult topics, I’m more inclined to go searching for information about the author, and criticisms of the book, which I don’t often bother with for a review of a fiction book. If I reviewed Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On (speaking of AIDS), I’d want to say something in the review about the fact that his Patient Zero idea has been discredited, and like that.

    • July 30, 2010 6:05 am

      It’s actually not as sad as I expected it to be, which was a bit of a relief. With international relations nonfiction that I read, I want to be all “and here’s why the author’s paradigm is wrong in six easy points” instead of “the writing style was a bit dry.” lol

      With topics that I don’t have academic background in, I like to read criticisms too (which I rarely do with fiction!).

  20. July 29, 2010 9:16 am

    Oh excellent, I noted this one down when I saw it on your Library Loot post last week – it’s definitely something I want to read so I’ve gone ahead and ordered it. I agree with everything you said here, and I loved the quotes included too (I mean, what she says and how she says it, not the problems themselves!)

    The Globe and Mail, when we used to have a subscription, did a series on different countries in Africa; they had a journalist there who did features on different stories, and I think it was in one of those that I read about how men, especially in South Africa, who had AIDs believed that having sex with a virgin would cure them – hence a spate of rape, including (and this still makes me feel ill thinking about it today) with girl babies. I don’t know how prevalent such a thing is or if it’s improved or what, but it doesn’t help that so many African governments still pretend they don’t have an “AIDs problem”.

    As for reviewing non-fiction, I don’t have a method but I find it hard to give a summary – where do you stop? – and yet hard to talk about it without talking about everything, until I feel like I’m just repeating everything the author said! I don’t read enough non-fiction; I need practice! But I think you’ve done a great job, and I’d do it the same way: give a summary, whatever’s appropriate, talk about issues raised, problems with the topic and how it’s presented if there are any. Quotes are wonderful :)

    • July 30, 2010 6:08 am

      You and your book buying! ;) I knew what you meant about the quotes: isn’t she marvelous.

      The issue of young, young girls being raped appears briefly (I agree: it upsets me so much I can’t actually think about it for more than about 15 seconds before I want to puke and/or kill someone) and ideas about virginity curing AIDS appears as well. The problem w/ Mbeki is his weird denials not only that HIV is linked with AIDS but that antiretrovirals are good (Itano explains in the book how he held up getting access to them for pregnant women and children, which is so offensive). There’s a problem with Western governments, too…part of why African governments are hesitant to discuss their problem is that they saw what happened when the US thought Haiti was the source. It’s all so complicated!

      • July 30, 2010 10:24 am

        I know, I have a problem! *ducks head*

        It’s clearly a deeply multi-layered problem. I recommend Stephen Lewis’ Race Against Time which gives an overview on AIDs in Africa – completely biased perspective, I suppose you can say, mostly because Lewis got so fed up and enraged by all the bullshit. But there’s honesty there too, and clear links between western organisations/governments and the problem. It’s part of the CBC Massey Lecture series, so it reads like connected essays.

  21. July 29, 2010 2:18 pm

    I rarely review nonfiction, but I think the way you did it is spot on — highlighting the author’s perspective on her subject, a bit about how she did her research, her writing style, and the big ideas she’s tackling. Based on your description, this book fascinates me. I’d love to read it, but I’ll have to steel myself — I know it will make me cry.

    • July 30, 2010 6:09 am

      Thank you!

      You know, I expected to be crying a lot, but I think I only cried a few times (and some of them were crying when good things happened). Itano definitely doesn’t try to milk your emotions, which I think is a very good thing.


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