Essay: Reflections on the Death of Peter Wells

From Craig Young, 19 February 2019

It is with great sadness that I must report the death of iconic award winning New Zealand gay film maker and author Peter Wells (1950-2019).

Wells was a prolific New Zealand author, responsible for short story collections, novels and films alike. Dangerous Desires (1991), Duration of a Kiss (1993), Iridescence (2001), Lucky Bastard(2007) and Dear Oliver (2018) were amongst the books, Jewel's Darl (1985), My First Suit (1985), A Taste of Kiwi (1990), Desperate Remedies (1993) and Georgie Girl (2001) were amongst the films. A more exhaustive list of his output can be found on his Wikipedia entry. In addition to LGBT subjects, he also wrote about Victorian era figure George Colenso, Napier's art deco heritage, Auckland's Civic Theatre and his family history. He worked with onetime partner and fellow filmmaker Stewart Main and Georgina Beyer, who is thankfully still with us despite battling kidney disease herself. Amongst his many award were the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction (1992), Pen Best First Book in Prose Award (1992), the New Zealand Montana Book Awards (Biography Category: 2002), the Michael King Fellowship (2011) and was runner up and shortlisted for the 2004 Deutz Prize for Fiction and the Tasmania-Pacific Fiction Award 2005. In 2006, he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to New Zealand Literature and Film.

Peter Wells died of prostate cancer at Auckland's Mercy Hospice, on February 18, 2019.

This article is more than an obituary. In it, I will place Peters' final work, Hello Darkness (2019), in its political and social context. It's also my way of dealing with my own grief at his passing.

Why do I find writing this so difficult? As a gay man in his fifties, I have lived through the onset and grim tally of the HIV epidemic of the eighties and nineties, when I lost friends and acquaintances, and Peter lost his brother Russell in 1989. I have also lost lesbian friends to breast cancer. I have witnessed the passing of LGBT icons of art and literature like Adrienne Rich, Leslie Feinberg, David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Audre Lorde and countless others. Like Peter Wells, they all lived rich, creative lives and left us a bountiful legacy of words and images.

Since 1994 and the advent of life-extending protease inhibitors (and PrEP, more recently), gay men's lives began to unfurl again from the time of the HIV epidemic, which was a time of truncated lives and tragically wasted potential. However, now, with antidiscrimination laws and subsidised medication access, HIV+ gay and bisexual men can live a fuller and longer life, which can incorporate further education, meaningful careers, relationships, families and other new opportunities. After 1994, obituary columns faded from LGBT community media and HIV conversations became more oriented toward prevention and health maintenance than than the postponed and delayed end of life.

In feminist media, lesbians started talking about their own health crisis, breast cancer (although, as women, lesbians and bisexual women also experience cervical cancer, ovarian cancer and uterine cancer.) They share this experience with straight and bisexual women, particularly if breast cancer is in their female ancestry, due to genetic susceptibility. In its turn, this generated reciprocal gay male conversations about our own inheritable susceptibility to prostate cancer, although there has also been similar concern expressed about anal cancer, which is spread by the same human papillomavirus (HPV) that triggers cervical cancer in women. In addition to this, gender reassignment does not remove genetic susceptibility, so unless they have regular smear tests, transmen can still potentially develop cervical cancer, just as transwomen can develop prostate cancer. In my own family, my father has the initial signs of prostate cancer, but early intervention seems to have caught it early. Still, that means that I will have to watch for signs in my later life, and so might my nephew. Peter lost his father early and never had the opportunity to have the same discussions I've been able to have with my dad, unfortunately. And so, perhaps in order to provide a memoir of his experience, he wrote a memoir of his passage through prostate cancer, Hello Darkness, recently published.

Hello Darkness belongs to a genre of books about LGBT experiences of illness and death. There are a variety of such publications- Audre Lorde and Sandra Butler (and her consequent widow, Barbara Rosenblum) wrote The Cancer Journals (1990) and Cancer in Two Voices (1996) about their experiences of breast cancer. David Wojnarowicz wrote about the circumstances (homelessness and street sex work) where he became HIV+- but this was before the onset of protease inhibitors, so he died in 1992 from endstage AIDS. C Carr wrote a recent excellent biography of the artist and author, Fire in the Belly (2014), which provides useful details about his angry HIV/AIDS activism, art and literary work. Books about how to live and die with dignity are nothing new, of course- the ancient Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca wrote about how to die as in a Stoic and dignified manner (and fortuitously, his work has been reprinted in a concise volume of excerpts from his commentary on that matter). And of course, Peter was responsible for a memorable short film about nursing someone with endstage AIDS and dealing with their death, at the same time as the onset of the HIV epidemic and homosexual law reform in New Zealand, Death in the Family (1986). The latter won a 1988 American Film and Video Festival blue ribbon and was co-winner of the Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Artists Media Awards.

In my own personal case, having lived with Type 2 diabetes since 2012, I may eventually be carried off by cardiovascular disease, given that I am at increased risk, probably about twenty five to thirty years from now. LGBT communities never seem to discuss cardiovascular disease. This is particularly odd when it comes to lesbians and bisexual women, given that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of female mortality in New Zealand. However, I do have a positive story to relate here- my mother had a triple heart bypass in 2001- eighteen years ago. She lives a sensible healthy life, doesn't drink alcohol and has never smoked and immediately modified her diet to deal with information about practical diabetes prevention. At 85, there's every chance she may get to see my thirteen year old nephew graduate from university or polytechnic. When it comes to these things, I talk to my mother a lot. Ironically, given that Mum is of Ngai Tahu descent, the Maori side of my family is healthier than the pakeha side, given that all but one of Dad's siblings are dead.

In the meantime, I've established a career in LGBT online journalism, found a partner, brought up his daughter from his previous marriage, sent her off to university and bid goodbye to her as she left for a medical career as an overworked UK National Health Service junior doctor. When it comes to alcohol and drugs, I'm probably an outlier in terms of gay men. But, beyond HIV and women's cancers, New Zealand and other LGBT communities have to start addressing more and varied conversations about illness and death. As heartbreaking as the publication of Hello Darkness and its authors untimely death may be to his friends and many admirers, nevertheless he can rest in peace, assured that his brave and courageous work has stimulated conversation about living- and dying- with dignity and self-purpose.

Recommended

"Award winning writer, filmmaker Peter Wells, dies" Radio New Zealand News: 18.02.2019: www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/382796/award-winning-writer-filmmaker-peter-wells-dies

Peter Wells: Hello Darkness: Auckland: Mighty Ajax Books: 2019

Sandra Butler and Barbara Rosenblum: Cancer in Two Voices: Duluth: Spinsters Ink: 1996.

Audre Lorde: The Cancer Journals: San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books: 1990.

C. Carr: A Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz: New York: Bloomsbury: 2014.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca: How to Die: Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2018.

Peter Wells and Stewart Main: A Death in the Family: James Wallace Productions: (1986) (Excerpt): www.nzonscreen.com/title/a-death-in-the-family-1986

Wikipedia/Peter Wells: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Wells_(Director)

Peter Wells Blog: www.peterwellsblog.com