The virality of letters: the Covid-19 literary archive keeps growing

On Saturday 21 March 2020, I submitted a poem entitled “Give Us Water to Fight Covid-19 in Cameroon” for consideration under the ”Poets Respond” column of Rattle magazine, which publishes at least one poem every Sunday in response to an interesting news event in the previous week. I was not surprised, the following day, when Rattle’s Editor, Timothy Green, mentioned in a rejection email that they had received over 800 poems, most of them concerned with the coronavirus pandemic.

Why wasn’t I surprised? This is not the first time literature is responding to a global pandemic. There is an abundance of literature dealing with pandemics throughout human history. Certainly, there is no consensus as to whether “Wuhan-400”, the human-made virus fictionally predicted by Dean Koontz in his 1981 thriller novel The Eyes of Darkness, exactly represents Covid-19 as we are witnessing it today. Nevertheless, Koontz’s novel is listed among many other books and films which (nearly) predicted the current pandemic.

Disputable predictions aside, many literary texts retrospectively engage with pandemics, constituting what Hamid Dabashi aptly called the "literary legacy of pandemics". As Chelsea Haith observes:

In the 20th century, Albert Camus’ The Plague (1942) and Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) brought readers’ attentions to the social implications of plague-like pandemics – particularly isolation and failures of the state to either contain the disease or moderate the ensuing panic.

In more recent times, there have been numerous literary responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the world, and especially in South Africa.

In Africa, Ivorian writer Véronique Tadjo retrospectively explored the Ebola epidemic in her 2017 French language novel En compagnie des hommes. In her book, she hails frontline combatants of the epidemic, while highlighting its ecological origins, and alerting humanity to prepare better in order to confront possible future outbreaks of such wide-scale pandemics.

Expectedly, a global literary response to the pandemic is in progress. Coming back to my Rattle story, Timothy Green selected only two from the 800+ poems due to space constraints. Green invited me to read my poem alongside many other poets in a literary podcast called Rattlecast in the evening of the same day (you can listen to the recording here). Most of the poems we read focused on Covid-19.

In March alone, Rattle published many other poems responding to Covid-19, including poems like “Spring” by Jessica Cohn which had reached close to 1000 shares on social media at writing time, “Out of an Abundance of Caution” by Luci Huhn, and “Love in the Time of COVID-19” by Francesca Bell. Meanwhile, in the UK some employees of the National Health System (including doctors, nurses and other frontline workers)  have published the poetry collection These Are The Hands.

Still in March, Yeehoo Press (USA) published a free-to-download picture book called Be a Coronavirus Fighter, which I translated into French as Un Combattant du Coronavirus. I also got some colleagues who translated it into Danish, Greek, Italian and Norwegian. By 7 April 2020, the picture book had been shared over 2000 times on social media in ten language editions.

Be a Coronavirus Fighter does not only educate children about coronavirus, but also invites them to appreciate the enormous amount of work done by frontline workers such as doctors, nurses, pharmaceutical researchers and delivery persons, to curb the spread of the virus and save human lives. The book invites children to play their own part in the battle against the virus by staying at home, washing their hands, practicing social distancing, and so forth.

A similar picture book is My Hero Is You, developed and published by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings (USA) in late March. In this book, translated into Arabic, Chinese French, Russian, and Spanish, a little girl named Sara asks her mother if humans are unable to fight the virus, given its invisibility. Her mother says it can be defeated, adding that “[c]hildren are special and they can help too.”

This spurs Sara into action, as a friendly animal called Ario flies her and her friends Salem and Leila around the world, as they go about advising children and adults to protect themselves and others against the virus.

The invitation for children to help in stopping the virus and to “be a coronavirus fighter” goes beyond confinement and the observance of medical advice, to include active awareness campaigning outside the family space, albeit fictionally through the dream motif.

Children are also reminded that many people survive the virus. The child combatants visit a Covid-19 survivor called Kim, and, as with all other characters, they chat from safe distances.

Writers and poets from Cameroon, my home country, are also responding to the pandemic. Editions Adinkra has published 12 illustrated boards in PDF and video format about Covid-19. Using five children characters named Akiba, Felami, Cathy, Obi and Kweni, the boards explain why schools have closed, how the virus is spreading across the world and in Africa. They also inform children about medical advice and recommend “alternative” African social practices such as the “Wakanda greeting”, which excludes handshakes and hugs.

Similarly, Cameroonian cartoonist Cedric Kenfack produces daily cartoons to sensitise people about the pandemic. Using hashtags such as #CartooningAgainst_Covid_19, #AloneTogether and #FightingAgainstCoronaVirus, Kenfack shares the cartoons on his social media.

Some Cameroonian poets are sharing Covid-19 poems on Facebook. Echoeing worries from many Cameroonian citizens and politicians, Ngong Sandra Nyangha uses the metaphor of Mvomeka, President Paul Biya’s native village, to interrogate his silence and absence in the face of a pandemic threatening the lives of Cameroonians. In his incantatory poem “Give Us a Break”, Douglas Achingale directly addresses the virus, urging it to leave human beings alone and to grab some other forms of flesh elsewhere, if it must.

Ekpe Inyang underscores what he perceives as the freedom of animals versus humans' self-imprisonment through isolation in “Animal Freedom”. Njam Theophilus Ghangha, in “Crossing Over”, compares coronavirus to other pandemics, including those that come and go, and those like HIV/AIDS which have continued to wreak havoc on humanity.

So far, much of this literature, especially picture books and cartoons, is meant to raise awareness about the virus, and to educate readers about preventive measures to adopt, while spurring children and other readers into combative action. But it is possible that literary responses will gather up more diagnostic and critical steam when the pandemic is over.

Some authors already question political (in)action in some contexts, such as in Cameroon where Biya has gone personally silent and invisible since his country began to grapple with the pandemic, amidst high rates of water scarcity in urban centres (see, for instance, my Rattlecast poem).

Since scientific evidence suggests that children have strong immune systems and are the least affected in terms of mortality, they are largely ignored in discussions of the impact of Covid-19.

This approach ignores the fact that children suffer psychologically from the pandemic, especially with so many lockdowns, school closures, and new social norms which are strange to them.

This is where children’s literature can step in and offer coping mechanisms to children by explaining the virus to them, highlighting how helpful they can be in fighting it, and suggesting that they visualise their safest moments and think of their loved ones whenever they become scared. “You can go to your safe place whenever you feel sad or afraid”, said Ario in My Hero Is You. As the storybook remarks, out of sight is not out of mind, for both kids and adults.

Literature can be a form of solace and a way to cope for frontline workers, patients and others. Some writers are reminding panic-stricken people that this too shall pass. In this sense, literature provides some light in these moments of almost indefinite darkness. While some writers now approach literature as a kind of witnessing, others might soon begin to explore possible post-corona futures.

Of course, for some writers this is not a strange time – creative writing and literature have always offered companionship in confinement. Little wonder therefore that some websites now suggest numerous books and series to read while social distancing.

Overall, the growing literature addressing the pandemic plays a significant role in shaping our personal and collective responses to the virus. These works teach, comfort and console us, they embolden our frightened selves to face the future. Many of the works mentiond here pay particular attention to children. Paraphrasing Dabashi's recent reflections on literature on past pandemics, the literary legacy of this pandemic is well underway, and will become the object of serious scholarship in the post-Covid-19 era.

Kenneth Nsah is a PhD Student in comparative literature at Aarhus University, Denmark. His PhD research focuses on ecocriticism and the role literature can play in mitigating climate change and ecological breakdown in the Congo Basin. His other research interests include migration literature, postcolonial literature, minority literature, scholarly publishing and activism, and creative writing. As Nsah Mala, he counts five published poetry collections and his work appears in numerous anthologies and magazines across the globe. He has co-edited (with Mbizo Chirasha) Corpses of Unity – Cadavres de l’Unité, a forthcoming bilingual poetry anthology on the current war in Anglophone Cameroon.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

Show Comments