From early on, I knew that my novel would include various – okay numerous – scenes of sex. But I thought about Bonobo! for several years, wrote large chunks, and plotted the whole shebang with hardly a prophylactic. Nonetheless, the text eventually ended up with almost fifty mentions of condoms. What changed?
Writing Bonobo! was my work when I wasn’t performing other jobs: college professor, editor, or researcher-for-hire. For example, while living in Uganda, I convinced a public-health organization to fund research on HIV-prevention from a novel perspective. As a pilot project, they contracted me to conduct a systematic review of research explaining patterns of condom-use in five African countries. So on the one hand I was writing a novel that included orgies and a lot of impromptu sex, while on the other I was focused on how to encourage people to use condoms.
On yet another hand, I couldn’t help but notice that young Ugandans seemed to pay much, much more attention to popular music than to public-health campaigns. What would be really effective, I hypothesized, is if rappers and dancehall artists were to drape condom packages on the gold chains around their necks or to brag about how many condoms they used per day (per capita?). It shouldn’t be some pasteurized, foreign-funded All-Star sing-along but a seemingly autochthonous amalgam of nastiness and prudence.
No one would confuse my philosophical bildungsroman for a literary rap video, but I knew that I had to put my novel where my mouth was. In time, condoms came to have a metaphorical role in the story as well. But it started from research and the desire to contribute what little I could to condoms’ cachet.