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On March 11, 2020 — after nearly 4,300 deaths worldwide — the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. “It becomes clear this isn’t going to be over quick,” wrote Michael J. DeLuca in a publisher’s note in Reckoning’s Creativity & Coronavirus issue that April. The journal was one among a dozen or so literary magazines that produced special issues or sections, or even entirely new publications, in response to the “novel” coronavirus. A self-avowed introvert already working from home before shelter-in-place orders, I found myself drawn to such publications as a vital means of connection to the world beyond my window. The mundane details of interior lives proved oddly comforting, while also shedding light on the relative ease of my own seclusion.
Until recently, my wife and I lived on her family’s farm in Northern California. As she taught middle-school science on Zoom from the living room, I typed while watching white-tailed kites nest in the redwood trees bordering the property. There, we were afforded the luxury of both space and safety while much of the world was shut inside. While spikes in COVID cases continued to ravage the planet, we took to socializing outdoors (initially at six-foot distances and later unmasked in an open-air barn). “Amid this bucolic scene, with acres of sheep fields fencing us in from our neighbors, it’s easy to lose sight of others,” I confessed in an essay entitled “The Distance Between.” That disparity sharpened into focus when another writer, under prolonged lockdown at a senior residence not far away, attended my virtual workshops; she described the shock of fresh air on her face after 16 months of confinement, her account of delayed liberation published in Passager’s Pandemic Diaries.
The short-lived COVID LIT, an online mag and philanthropic endeavor, addressed such “positions of privilege” that countered the we’re-all-in-this-together platitudes designed by early campaigns to flatten the curve and slow the rate of infection. Three years later, as the public health crisis continues, the number of deaths worldwide is close to 7 million. Beyond the harrowing statistics of illness, isolation, and social upheaval, our personal stories hold significance and bridge our shared humanity.
Here are six stories from diverse voices and literary publications that point to the profound power of personal narrative: a global record from multiple nuanced perspectives. While each selection was written during the COVID-19 pandemic, some recount other types of sanctioned quarantines with similar themes of separation. Drawing on lived experience as well as historical research and firsthand observation, these authors tackle social issues from structural racism and the stigma of disability to repressive political regimes. Each one chronicles the heartache of disconnection and demonstrates the importance of collective remembrance.
Sixty Days in Shanghai’s Covid Lockdown (Iris Chen, bioStories, November 2022)
Also for bioStories, Irish writer Phil Cummins uses humor in “134 Days” to document the 2020 lockdown outside of Dublin, with his wife and disgruntled grown son.
“Sharing the extraordinary in ordinary lives” is the tagline of bioStories. Although the online magazine, established in 2011, does not specifically solicit stories of quarantine, it was “conceived in the belief that every life can prove instructive, inspiring, or compelling.” Iris Chen’s essay, or “word portrait,” concerns itself with the spring 2022 lockdown in Shanghai, China — an effort to control the outbreak of an Omicron variant of COVID-19. Helpless from afar, and worried about the family, especially her ailing grandmother, Chen illustrates the impact of severe government measures on the city’s population. For any of us, like myself, who have ever used the term “lockdown” loosely, this piece urges us to reconsider its definition, and the dire consequences. In surreal prose, Chen offers a sobering look at the pandemic two years in.
The Chinese phrase for lockdown means to literally seal the city shut: fen cheng. It also means this: that no one leaves their apartment building. Hospitals shut down. Supermarkets stay empty and twenty-six million starve.
No one has cooked dinner and grandma still lies on the sofa, softly moaning. It is the night of Tomb Sweeping day. Ghosts walk on the streets, and all-around Shanghai there is a deep, asphyxiated silence: an honoring of the freedom that is now a privilege for the dead.
On this side of the ocean, a call is all I can give. Sorry is all I can say. I think about my mother when this is all over, about Shanghai when things open back up. How many bodies will they pull out of apartment doors? How will neighbors remain neighbors When my mother comes to California later this year, what will we talk about? The oceanic distance between us has changed.
Blankets (Laura Vukson, The Quarantine Review, 2022)
Lindsay Zier-Vogel imagines a different mother-daughter separation in “Almost Forty Days” for The Quarantine Review, which was created “to alleviate the malaise of social distancing.”
First Nations writer Laura Vukson, sheltering in an old rambling house set against the rugged beauty of Ontario’s Georgian Bay, feels a fierce sense of protection for her young sons. Their little bodies snuggle under baby quilts sewn by their grandmother, who as a child endured family separation as a result of federal government policies. “Safer that way,” says Vukson’s mother, who observes her grandkids and their parents co-sleeping “like a wolf pack.” The Tlicho Dene woman was one of 150,000 Indigenous children forced to leave their families to attend residential schools across Canada. In haunting prose, Vukson reveals the reason behind her mother’s “bulging wrist bone” as she works on an Indian Day Schools class action settlement, breaking her silence for the first time.
They weren’t allowed to speak their language, practice their culture, or go home.
I can’t fathom my children stolen from me. My grannie Julie’s mind cracked. She was found wandering around Behchoko, a Dene community on the northwest cusp of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, in her nightgown. It was the dead of winter. Subarctic temperature. All 10 of her children were taken to those schools.
[The application] asked her, on a scale from one to five, to choose the level of abuse she faced. She had to write the story of as many events as she remembered, providing documentation to back it up. All spring and summer the application sat on her kitchen table as she eked out 16 pages of memories she’d buried long ago. Not only was she forced to relive it all, but she had to prove it was true.
No Kind of Good Trouble (Shabrayle Setliff, Speculative Nonfiction, December 2020)
For Lit Hub in 2021, U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón considers her gender in “Preparing the Body for a Reopened World.”
Nam Hoang Tran describes the horrors of discrimination in “An Issue Masks Alone Cannot Fix,” an essay in the Quarantine issue of Montana Mouthful in 2020.
In the Editor’s Comments introducing the Dwelling-themed issue of Speculative Nonfiction, Robin Hemley fondly describes an old family farmhouse in a “quaint” town in upstate New York, where he is briefly quarantined. His wife Margie, a woman of color, feels differently: “For her, the place was spooky and the area, dotted profusely with Trump signs and overwhelmingly white, felt threatening,” writes Hemley, who realizes he is protected by his whiteness.
In “No Kind of Good Trouble,” an essay in this issue, Shabrayle Setliff reflects on her upbringing as a biracial child — part Quechua, part Black — in a low-income, mostly white suburb of Oklahoma City. Later in the piece, Setliff recounts life as a resident in wealthy northern Virginia during the summer of 2020, when cities and communities around the world mobilized in response to the murder of George Floyd. “I have often been the only Black person in the spaces I occupy, as is the case now,” she reveals, contemplating class privilege and racial divisions in the ethnically diverse neighborhood where she and her white husband live. As protests kick off elsewhere, she notes the lack of real action and activism in her city: “I had become disquieted by the order in this overly resourced place.” A series of underwhelming local demonstrations for Black Lives Matter prompts Setliff to reexamine her own complacency, engendered by her surroundings.
Ever since I came to this U, I’ve known nothing but an uneasy peace, and I’ve wanted to leave. I want to unsettle our lives, get new jobs, move to a place with more class diversity, with people willing to engage, where the collective is lived out because proximity demands it.
There is an inviolable pact of safety and order here. A deep reliance on the myth of individualism. A commitment to comfort. Despite my unease, there is a part of me that wants to rest in this place, even if it’s an illusion, even if it’s wrong. I sometimes find that I’m satisfied to give money and time, call it mutual aid, go to demonstrations, put up a sign, and say that I worked for something, when I know that as long as eruption in the world never leads to disruption in my own life, it’s not true.
My Mother’s Sister (Michael Colonnese, Months to Years, January 2023)
Check out the COVID flash nonfiction published at Months to Years, like Barbara “Bo” Jensen’s “Unloading the Kiln,” about their clinic’s failure to serve the unsheltered who didn’t die from coronavirus, but from living on the streets.
Published in this pre-pandemic quarterly exploring themes of “mortality, grief, or loss,” Michael Colonnese’s heartrending essay relays the seclusion and family division that arose from social stigma during the Great Depression. “This is a story about a dead woman I never met, my mother’s sister, Eva, who never became my aunt because she’d only lived to be fourteen,” he begins. Because of the congenital defect of a cleft lip, the teenage girl was “hidden away from the world” — first behind the walls of various tenement apartments in Connecticut, then in an asylum “for the insane and feeble minded.” Only at 94 did the author’s mother, who shared stories of her three brothers but never mentioned a sister, finally disclose their family secret. Part of what makes this tale so harrowing is what Colonnese discovers: not only the official cause of death, but also the unsurprising reason behind the institution’s closure.
And because my mother’s story about Eva had now also become my story—a story about resistance, helplessness and avoidance—I could see that there was a pattern to it. Those hauntingly tragic details got under my skin, and I took it upon myself to try to learn more if I could.
“Failure to thrive” sounded like a phrase that a deliberately evasive doctor might employ to explain a mysterious death, and except for her facial deformation, Eva had been a healthy and intelligent young girl who had probably just gone through puberty when she’d been sent to that asylum.
It Wasn’t Me — Monkeypox and Gay Shame (Darren Chase, Pangyrus, November 2022)
Also at Pangyrus: Susan Schirl Smith’s account of nursing at the height of the AIDS epidemic in “Hero.”
After the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the ongoing spread of the monkeypox virus a Public Health Emergency, Darren Chase recalled the “quiet, shameful aftermath” of the AIDS epidemic for a column called In Sickness & In Health: Life in the Pandemic and Beyond. When he and his partner decide to break eight years of monogamy, he experiences the “visceral, cellular-level carryover from that old HIV hysteria and stigma,” even decades later. As a gay man who became sexually active in the late ’80s, before “sex-positive” was a concept and HIV still carried “the feeling of a death sentence,” Chase describes his metamorphosis from “cautiously-out teenager to out-and-proud adult.”
I, too, claimed my queer identity in the mid ’90s, in San Francisco. Back then we marched to protest government apathy to HIV with placards that stated: “10,000 SF deaths and rising.” On the wall above my single mattress was a poster of two nude women entwined, bordered by the words safe sex is hot sex — a campaign to make dental dams desirable.
Chase beautifully captures the paradox between sexual empowerment and paranoia under the looming threat of a new plague:
Nonetheless, during those first few dalliances after dark, part of me was still morbidly afraid that any extra-marital contact would irrevocably contaminate me. … It was like I’d be totally cool for a while, having a grand old time, and then all of a sudden I’d be bungeed back to the feeling of panic, as if I were seventeen again, sitting in a dingy clinic, clutching a handful of safe-sex brochures.
For Their Own Safety: A History of Lockdowns in Turkey (Kaya Genç, The Point Magazine, July 2020)
Quarantine Journal: Notes From Inside posted more than 70 dispatches, from an evangelical church to a prison cell. Read The Point’s “Gimme Shelter” by Helena de Bres, a philosophy professor who recalls her own “spinal lockdown” when one of her vertebrae cracked in middle school.
In “Saying Yes,” Kaya Genç’s short essay for The Point’s Quarantine Journal, the Istanbul-based journalist prepares for his wedding ceremony, which takes place just hours before a pandemic curfew begins. In this longer piece on the history of lockdowns, Genç registers citywide panic during a two-day lockdown in April 2020, which is reminiscent of Turkey’s 1980 military coup. He notes that “tactics used to curtail freedoms in 2020 are eerily similar” to that “years-long nocturnal confinement” when martial law was declared — only days after a curfew was lifted — and continued until 1985.
Genç, who recently reported on Turkey’s devastating earthquakes for the New York Review of Books and other publications, points to patterns of autocracy under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He urges against collective amnesia — “willful forgetfulness” — and argues for a historical record that reaches beyond “the viewpoints of warring generals and politicians.”
In Istanbul, the country’s biggest city, the announcement was met with panic. Crowds of people scrambled for groceries, showing little regard for social distancing. Fistfights broke out in bakeries; customers quarreled in department stores. City officials estimated that the ensuing chaos in the streets would cause a spike in COVID-19 infections. Two hours before the curfew was lifted at midnight on April 12th, the interior minister announced his resignation, admitting that it was a mistake to have hastily called a curfew that startled the nation.
No wonder that, for a certain generation of Turks, the COVID-19 lockdowns can be seen as a screen for the country’s authoritarian politics. In Turkey, the coronavirus poses a double threat: along with the risk of contagion, there is also the danger that, in trying to control the epidemic, the country will fall victim to its own past.
While longform nonfiction storytelling takes the stage at Longreads, here’s a mix of shorter reads from some small publications and pandemic-themed special sections that entertain, inform, and connect us:
- E. M. Wright’s statistical accounting in “One Month” at Reckoning
- Christina Canalita’s quarantine period in “Menstruation Isolation” at COVID LIT
- Noelani Arista on “Finding Aloha in the Time of Covid” at Flux
- Jessica Ripka’s family instability in “Right the Ship” at Unlimited Literature
- Trudy Hale’s runaway nephew in “A Plague Tale” at Streetlight Magazine
Nicole R. Zimmerman is a writer based in the Bay Area. Her work appears in literary journals such as Litro, Sonora Review, The Rumpus, and Creative Nonfiction. Her essay “Autumn Inferno” was featured on Longreads in November 2021, in a reading list on loss, love, and living with fire in California. Nicole is at work on Just Some Things We Can’t Talk About, a memoir-in-essays about denial and family dysfunction.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Copy-editors: Carolyn Wells, Peter Rubin