The world has swung around and rearranged itself so much since I wrote my last Dawn column that I couldn’t remember my topic and had to Google it (something on literature about Afghanistan, but that’s unimportant).
Though we’re not yet in the age of ‘postcoronialism’, the coronavirus has already changed almost everything about everywhere. Right now it feels as if I could divide life into ‘BC’ (Before Covid-19) and ‘AC’ (clue: not air-conditioner).
We’re finally writing our wills, a pressing task we’d long postponed. My husband Rob favours using the online company ‘Thy Will Be Done’ because the pun tickles him. I’d prefer it if the name were ‘The Will to Live’. All this is deadly serious, though, as Rob’s a doctor. I hope he doesn’t work himself to death on the frontline of the war on the coronavirus, like some of the Chinese and Italian medics.
Each morning I wake up early, quivering with a primitive dread. My fight, flight or freeze responses are activated, but confused and entangled.
While Rob’s out on the metaphorical battlefield as a National Health Service GP, the home front is also a hard place to try and work — especially with our younger son (13) having been ill. And it’s tough keeping our elder son (16) and the rest of his quaran-teen friends apart now that they’ve no GCSE exams to bother about.
Our parents must self-isolate for months. (Newly Irish, post-Brexit, I discover that in Ireland they call it ‘cocooning’ — a comforting term.) The older generation are finding their isolation dull and lonely.
I had to delete WhatsApp as it was proving too stressful. Not only was the sanctimommy of certain school mum groups enervating, but the toilet paper memes and trashy disinformation — some of it noxiously racist — were damaging my mental health. So I took extreme measures, bringing in a policy of social media distancing.
Hard as it is to concentrate, I turn to the world of books. Ironically, this takes me back online. On March 10, when I was still well enough for Twitter, Kamila Shamsie started the hashtag #covid19readinglist, where people shared reading plans for any “lockdown/quarantine situation.” Should it surprise us or come as no surprise, that many of the titles recommended belong to the genre of dystopian fiction?
For me, too, dystopian writing is both a tonic and a guide when it comes to understanding the current coronial destruction to lives and livelihoods, and imagining our postcoronial future. In her collection of essays In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood coins the portmanteau term “ustopia.” This brings together the utopia and dystopia categories, because she argues that, like yin and yang, one contains the germ of the other.
Atwood doesn’t unpack the ‘us’ in ustopia. However, that collective pronoun — of society, its breakdown and an ineffable relationality between humans — is the focal point for many non-Western ustopian authors. The notion of Ubuntu, meaning “a person is a person through other people”, emanates from southern Africa, but has pan-African resonance. Similarly, in Islam, a hadith makes it clear that the Muslim community is interconnected like a person’s body: “if the head aches, the whole body aches.” As this emphasis on pain makes clear, how interconnected we are is double-edged — especially at times of crisis such as this one.
Postcolonial ustopian authors expand the notion of togetherness beyond the confines of one’s continent or religious group. They examine the corporeal closeness of all human beings and the consequent need for (social) justice on a global scale.
In Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, for example, are scenes that appear to have nothing to do with the main narrative arc. There is a sudden shift to a different location and new characters, before a jump-cut back to the primary plot. Such snapshots evoke a planetary snarl-up of lives, and — in a mostly bleak novel — foster an alloyed optimism about interactions between white, brown and black people in a future landscape to emerge after the apocalypse.
Hamid also gives us this quote: “It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class, but that is the way of things, with cities, as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”
I want to cross-stitch the sentence and hang it on the wall as a reminder of the strange reality/triviality to these surreal and historic times we are living through.
In her stellar new monograph, Contemporary Women’s Post-Apocalyptic Fiction, Susan Watkins singles out Bina Shah’s Before She Sleeps as an important postcolonial dystopian novel. Watkins summarises the text thus: “[S]et in a repressive southwest Asian country, a nuclear war has caused a genetic mutation that causes a deadly type of cervical cancer to kill millions of women.” The mutation Shah envisages has selectively killed off most women. However, what we’re seeing with the coronavirus is that it isn’t discriminatory. It hurts everybody — including Britain’s prime minister, health secretary and chief medical officer. This levelling effect is something Shah says she didn’t consider when she wrote the novel. But the pandemic does showcase social inequalities in that rich people can pay for private testing and get better care. They may also cocoon themselves in comfortable, safe homes without worrying about domestic violence, looming unemployment or being unhoused.
In South African author Lauren Beukes’s short story ‘Internal Architecture’, the catastrophe is an impact event rather than a virus or a genetic mutation. Riffing on Stephen Lyng’s theory of edgework, Beukes writes that the asteroid strike on Cape Town has a positive outcome for some survivors, of “finding yourself [...]. Or finding understanding. That the world is blunt mechanics, but also that there is magic in that if you can push yourself far enough to see it.” Yet Beukes also delves into what she calls the undercity of “the homeless and the refugees and the drug addicts and dispossessed.” These undercity dwellers have no hopes of epiphany amid their desperate quest to survive.
The cliff-edge road ahead is bumpy, and our view of it fogged. Yet these postcoronial ustopian writers provide some relief with the crystalline clarity of their roadmaps.
The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 5th, 2020