Over four months into 2020’s second half, a quartet of women writers of colour — Zadie Smith, Arundhati Roy, Elif Shafak and Uzma Aslam Khan — published landmark works. Their essays, books and stories deal, at least in part, with the global Sars-Cov-2 pandemic and our tumultuous times.
Smith brought out Intimations in late July. It is a collection of six essays about our present year (a year so cataclysmic I have begun calling it Catch-2020), whose royalties she donates to the Equal Justice Initiative and the Covid-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York. In a postscript, Smith writes that the racism, social injustice and lack of civil rights, against which Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaigns are held, are a kind of virus: unseen, contagious and hard to recover from. For Smith, her primary interest beyond the interlinked issues of health and wealth is BLM.
A month later, Shafak unveiled How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division. Published by the Wellcome Collection, a museum of medicine and art, Shafak lays emphasis on mental health. In what she calls the post-pandemic world, it is “totally fine not to feel fine … perfectly okay not to be okay.” As such, she structures her chapters around such emotions as disillusionment, anxiety, anger and apathy.
In her anger chapter, like Smith, she explores BLM but, rather than examining systemic racism, notes the coincidence of America’s protests coinciding with the seven-year anniversary of Turkey’s Gezi Park uprising of May 2013. Shafak positions the pandemic as a threshold moment, after which there is an opportunity to right wrongs and effect social change. Ahead of us is a fork: “On the one side stretches out nationalism, protectionism, ‘my kind first’… On the other side extends the road towards international communication and cooperation, a spirit of humanism.”
Related to Shafak’s belief in the “spirit of humanism” is her espousal of silenced voices. She makes a valuable point about listening to the other, but this can lack specificity. Her examples are of echo chambers, fake news and social media bubbles, where people only listen to other individuals who share and reinforce their views. However, she sidesteps the key issue of whether, and to what extent, the tolerant should be tolerant of the intolerant. Although the book is strong on social media’s dark side and on the erosion of confidence in progress and democracy, it is a shame not to see her discuss whether it is worth listening to racist Trump supporters or misogynistic religious extremists.
Next came Roy’s Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction. in September. Here, the author is concerned with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). She rightly excoriates the BJP’s discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, as well as the party’s vicious abandonment of First Information Reports (FIRs) in India-held Jammu and Kashmir — a chilling alphabet soup of violence as Prime Minister Narendra Modi uses Covid-19 to shore up his proto-dictatorship.
Just as Smith calls racism a virus, Roy writes of fascism and fake news in virological terms: “spreading like an epidemic and blossoming in the popular imagination like a brain-deadening malignancy.” Like Shafak, she views the health crisis as a crossroads, writing, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
Finally, Khan’s story ‘Now Pray: Notes on a Separation’ is forthcoming in November’s AGNI magazine, and launched at a virtual reading and conversation in October. This devastating, lyrical piece reflects on the many forms of lockdown that immigrants have experienced for years, and how this year’s shelter-in-place orders further complicate that. The narrator uses the second person to write to her elder sister who, like her, moved to the United States decades earlier. There, the sister underwent a mental health crisis that never lifted, which has caused the siblings’ parents to enter into an unhealthy, and sometimes violent, “chokehold” with their daughter when she returned, deeply unwell, to Karachi. This is the finest writing on mental illness I’ve read for ages.
In Intimations, Smith had written: “[W]hen the world itself turns unrecognisable, appears to go ‘mad’, I find myself wondering what the effect is on those who never in the first place experienced a smooth relation between the phenomena of the world and their own minds ... What is it like to have always seen, in your mind’s eye, apocalypse in the streets of New York and then one day walk out into those same streets and find — just as it is in your personal hellscape — that they are now desolate, empty and silent?
Khan engages with just this question of what it is like to live with florid mental illness at a moment that is bewildering and scary even for the healthiest minds. Meanwhile, it is the narrator (residing in America) who has become especially isolated from her family. She finds solace in working with women from displaced immigrant families: “Some of them say the lockdown’s nothing compared to previous uncertainties they’ve endured. For others, being quarantined with family members corrodes the progress they’d been making.”
The narrator tries to help these struggling women by day. At night, she relaxes through online conversations with Ian, an old college friend originally from Haiti. He exchanges stories of the virus’s ravages in the ward he works, for her tales of family dysfunction underpinned by misguided notions of duty, honour and Islamic morality. Out of the four pieces, this is the richest and most multidirectional discussion of the pandemic, lockdowns and reopen protestors.
Smith, Roy, Shafak and Khan write to inoculate against the diseases of racism, Hindutva, anti-immigration bigotry, religious/ideological obscurantism, mental ill-health and coercive control within families. Although very different in approach and tone, the four authors explore their story universes, writing, art and linguistic politics, making a defence of increasingly beleaguered commons across the world.
They do this through intimations, the title of Smith’s book and Roy’s sixth chapter, ‘Intimations of an Ending’, intimately hinting at solutions rather than always mounting full-frontal attacks. These three books and the long short story represent the first real works of ‘postcoronial literature’, in what seems likely to be an outpouring over the coming years.
The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York, and author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 1st, 2020