(San Francisco, CA: Outpost19. 2020)
Imagine the world going silent. All cars and buses, trains, subways, and planes stop in their lanes and patterns. Tiny particles drifting quietly through the air slowly and then pause, waiting. Even you are still. For a short while, nothing is being destroyed or created. I know it’s a little bit of a cliché to envision time standing still. We all know it’s impossible to hold a moment in your hands. I do believe there are a few exceptions to this rule though, and one of them is, of course, when you are holding a book. In the anthology, Writing the Virus, 31 authors seize one long moment, or at least their many different versions of it. You know which moment I’m referring to: this moment, in the time of COVID-19. Together, these writers offer their true stories of extreme distance and extreme intimacy, so that we all might remember, in spite of our easily distracted minds, this moment of uncertainty, where change has proved both possible and essential.
To create Writing the Virus, editors Andrea Scrima and David Dario Winner gathered 30 pieces, including poems, personal essays, and one fictional story, that had been published in the StatORec magazine between mid-April and September this year. The voices throughout the anthology vary, many coming from within the United States, but also from countries outside of the U.S., such as Turkey and Germany. The writers cover a wide range of topics, including politics and the various responses to the virus around the world, lockdowns and social distancing, climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement, anxiety and disappointments, deep loss, making peace with uncertainty, and finding comfort in unusual ways. Some pieces are spread over a period of weeks or months, a collage of experiences—conversations, YouTube and TikTok videos, news reports, and observations—while others focus on only a few very specific moments or a specific topic. Despite their many different approaches and perspectives, there were certain themes that I believe, at times, allowed the authors to speak together in one voice.
As Andrea Scrima wrote in the introduction, each of the authors seemed to write with a sense of urgency, determined to record this moment in time, each in their own way and for their own reasons. Some seemed both fearful and hopeful that they would one day look back on this moment in history and remember it only as a strange and distant dream; hopeful because they would, of course, like to be able to move past this state of crisis, but fearful because they don’t want the world to pass over the opportunity for change being offered to us. Christian von der Goltz discusses this idea in his essay about silence and the danger of constant progress. He writes, “…when I consider that things are likely to continue as they were before—I realize that some of us will mourn the lost chance this interlude of silence offered us to reevaluate what our societies are based on—and to make changes that have long been urgent, self-evident, and necessary.” Throughout the anthology, my attention was drawn, again and again, to the inescapable fact that change is needed on this planet, in more ways than one.
In his essay “Rooms and Clarinets,” Clifford Thompson opens with a humorous, yet haunting comparison. He tells of how he blows his clarinet out the window, applauding health care workers with his open G and F sharp, most nights at seven. Just after depicting this first image, he describes a photo he once saw of Malcolm X, standing at his own window, but holding a rifle instead of a clarinet. Throughout his essay, Thompson continues to cleverly draw powerful parallels between the pandemic and the movements for racial equality now and in the past. He explains that he is Black, while his wife is white, and describes their relationship together in quarantine as “a microcosm of the country, or of what the country would be if its demographics were slightly different and its different groups cared more about one another.” Later in the piece, he tells about dreams he’s been having about mysteriously finding a new room in the apartment where he and his wife live. Around this time, his wife did create a new space, if not an entirely new room, by moving a little table to the bedroom window, so that the two of them could eat dinner with a fresh perspective. Thompson shares his hope with his reader that he will be able to find new space, not only in his home but within himself as well: “…room for more contributions, room for thinking about other ways to make my voice heard.”
Other pieces, while sharing the same urgency and the same determination to remember this time in history, seem to gravitate toward different ideas. Many of the pieces focus on either the extreme distance or the extreme closeness which have simultaneously been present in many people’s lives during the pandemic; some, like “Masks and Gloves” by Rebecca Chace, focus on both at the same time. Chace’s story begins as she discovers a man lying on the sidewalk outside her building, near the beginning of the pandemic—it is unknown throughout the whole essay whether the man was dead or only unconscious. He wore no mask and Chace describes the fear she has of getting too close to him or, really, too close to any stranger in the city. She writes candidly: “Growing up here, I was taught that it was safer to step around fallen bodies. I avoid thinking about it as I avoid the bodies of strangers. Most of us move like minnows on the sidewalk, trying to maintain the six-foot distance, even with masks on.” There is a shift in the story, however, when time springs forward by a few months. Now, it is the time of the protests, the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, and space has suddenly become less important for many in the city. People crowd together and there is a sense of closeness now, both physically and mentally, between the writer and the other protestors on the street. When a sign Chace hung in front of her building, quoting “Harlem” by Langston Hughs, disappears before she returns, she says, simply, “Maybe someone took it to the protest.” Even this short statement creates a feeling of closeness, as if maybe she’d hung her sign in the hopes that someone likeminded and in need of the words she’d written would find them there, waiting.
In the essay, “We Are Dreaming of the Future Season,” Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer describes the different types of distance and closeness that he found during the pandemic. He writes about his experience of leaving his home in New York City with his husband, and the seven weeks that they spent living in a secluded home in Maine where, he says, “it hardly matters that it might be the end of the world; in fact, it seems like it is and it’s okay.” He admits that he feels guilty for leaving the city when he did, since he is very conscious of those struggling there who didn’t have the option to leave. At the same time though, in his temporary home, he can’t help but feel a bit separate from all the chaos. Even though this feeling of isolation is somewhat constant throughout the story, Cheslik-DeMeyer shares moments of intimacy, which stand in contrast: kind gestures made by the two landlords of the house in Maine, a Zoom call with friends, and the relationship between the author and his husband, which feels particularly close to the heart of the story. Cheslik-DeMeyer describes his husband as he takes calls for work, soon after the pair arrived in Maine: “He’s an attorney and he takes phone calls all day long, stomping back and forth through the house, speaking forcefully in a patois I don’t understand but that I am mesmerized by. I’ve never loved him more than I do in this house.” This personal moment, along with others, seems to express the feeling of closeness, between Cheslik-DeMeyer and his husband. As a whole, this essay is one of the number of pieces in the anthology that brings to light the competing forces of closeness and isolation present throughout the pandemic.
In Writing the Virus, 31 authors interpret the events unfolding around us in their writing. The juxtaposition of distance and intimacy, and the urgency of change, are just two ideas that seem to have a powerful influence over the anthology. Of course, every author has been affected differently by the virus and all that has come with it, and each of their essays, poems, and stories hold unique perspectives. There was no escaping very real worries, fears, and experiences in these pieces; they don’t shy away from reality, even when that reality is disturbing or even disastrous. Yet, I believe the anthology also brings the relief that comes from truthfulness; the book faces all that has happened in the past year head on, and, somehow, in the bold confrontation, comfort can be found.
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Averi Long is a fiction writer and a student at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she was given the Beverly Saul Award for Creative Writing. She studies both psychology and creative writing, and, in 2019, she enjoyed the opportunity to intern at The Literary Review. Most importantly, she is a lover of the feel, smell, (taste?), and all around experience of books.