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How will the coronavirus pandemic change the world of literature?

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Ferdinand Mwongela | April 12th 2020

It might be a little too early to start thinking about this but the fact remains that momentous historical happenings have had far-reaching implications on literature and other works of arts for years.

From the adventure-exploration jaunts of yore that led to the “discovery” of Africa, to the spectre of colonialism hot on its heels and the subsequent struggle for independence by subjugated indigenous communities, the world wars and every major conflict before and after, the impact on literature has been far-reaching.

Locally for instance, colonialism and the struggle for independence and fight for multi-party democracy in the 1980 and 1990s have been the unending springs that have watered works by Kenyan authors.

In Africa, the uprising against colonialism and apartheid in the south have been rich springs of literature. Whether you want to talk about key works by African greats like Chinua Achebe with Things Fall Apart or Ngugi wa Thing’o’s with A Grain of Wheat and Weep Not, Child (among others), influential works of literature have been driven by socio-cultural and political events.  

Authors cannot help but take note of what is going on around them. Or look back as it were, like Peter Kimani with Dance of the Jakaranda (2017) that came after the influence of the colonial era on literature had waned over generations and African authors started looking towards speculative writing.

So, whether the coronavirus pandemic will affect literature is matter of when not if -- but the only question is how? Already, writers are beginning to feel around the space offered by the interesting and challenging times the world finds itself in.

City of Pain

Nigerian-American author Teju Cole already has a short story (on level.medium.com). Titled City of Pain, it is a fictional take of the times we find ourselves in, described as “a powerful fable for our times” where “a traveler arrives in a strange city during a crisis” at a time whether the hand of “death was heavy on that careful city.”

His story is set in Reggiana, a city in the midst of an outbreak simply known as Visitation. The protagonist travels to Reggiana during a lockdown and encounters a way of life that is as mysterious as it is lonely.

“Reggiana was a city of the memory of touch, a city in which citizens sometimes claimed to be unconcerned about the past. They would say they were unbothered by the relative lack of physical contact between themselves and others but then would, at the mere sight of a curtain resting on a window sill, burst into tears,” he writes.

Like many areas in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic today, inhabitants check out the obituary pages the first thing every day not only to see who has died during the night but also to confirm that it was not them who had died.

Reggiana is a city ruled by silence. It is dark and inward-looking.

Teju Cole might be among the first to start poking the dark bowels of the coronavirus pandemic, but many are sure to follow. Writing in the New York Times, Sloane Crossley (an author with several collections of essay to her name) said: “The nature of tragedy is that it takes more than it gives, but it’s also produced some of our most iconic literature.”

In an essay titled Someday, We’ll Look Back on All of This and Write a Novel, Crossley writes: “From an artistic standpoint, it’s best to let tragedy cool before gulping it down and spitting it back into everyone’s faces. After all, ‘Don Quixote’ was published about a century into the Spanish Inquisition.”

But for now? “Right now, such novels seem like an impossible luxury. But I trust we’re all taking notes. Taking notes, taking care. And we’ll see who gets to this material first.”

All around, many are eager to see what authors will write about this time.

Far reaching influence

But the influence will likely not only be in the content but also how we do things.

Already, many are predicting that several aspects of our lives, from how we relate to how we work, will undergo fundamental changes even after the pandemic is over.

In the literary world, this will be seen in different ways. The first and most immediate being in the field of virtual festivals. About two weeks ago, we saw an entirely virtual African literary festival, the Afrolit Sans Frontieres festival. Where all the reading and interaction was done online.

And just this week, it was announced that the Ake Arts and Book Festival will fully run online. The festival, billed as Africa’s biggest annual literary gathering, will take place on October 22 to 25. It brings together writers, editors, critics and readers. It was to be held in Lagos.

“In response to the Covid-19 pandemic which is changing the way we engage, we have decided not to cancel #AkeFestival2020 but to have a magical online festival instead. It is more important than ever that we continue our tradition of bringing African creatives together for lively, stimulating conversations, while adapting to current realities,” said a statement from the festival’s organisers.

How much of these changes and festival formats will be felt or go on after the pandemic ends remains to be seen.

What is not in question is that Covid-19 will have an effect on the literary world.

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