Book Review: Ajit Kumar and Dustin Pickering’s ‘Global Pandemic Crisis: A Series of Literary Essays on Quarantine’

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By Gracy Samjetsabam

Ajit Kumar and Dustin Pickering’s Global Pandemic Crisis: A Series of Literary Essays on Quarantine is a set of 25 essays on quarantine during the COVID 19 pandemic. The mantra “We’re all in this together” binds the autobiographical accounts of the collection of experience-sharing essays by literary scholars and academicians across the continents on the global pandemic. As we all participate in the various phases of quarantine all over the world,  Prof. Steven G. Kellman from the University of Texas, San Antonio, in the forward borrows from Blaise Pascal’s (1623-1662) views on the ability to remain in one’s room as a source of happiness and at the same time, how each of us go through and rise out of these “separate solitudes” in the togetherness of the times we live in. In the global village, he names “everyone” as vulnerable and each one of us responsible in our own way, to walk through to the other side of the pandemic together.

Ajit Kumar from the Department of Education, Haryana and Dustin Pickering, the founding editor of Harbinger Asylum are editors of the book. In the introduction, Kumar and Pickering iterate that literature in all language and traditions has supported mankind in developing  minds against all odds and has been a symbol of courage for generations to come. Going by the lines that literary minds are bound to be philosophical by nature, they call out writers, artist and thinkers to voice their experience and add more meaning to complex questions raised by the COVID-19 pandemic and, additionally, to help better understand the complex questions of life on Earth.

The essays are written in a casual tone like an experience sharing in a get-together with friends, family and relatives about the lockdown phases from different locales across the world. The  contributors include authors, instructors, editors and poets: Cynthia Atkins, Casey Dorman, Marlon L. Fick, Kathleen McCoy, Reza Parchizadeh, Scott F. Parker, Rafseena M., Anna Yin, Michele Baron, Vandana Kumari Jena, D. L. Lang, I.B. Iskov, Ken Jones, Lipika Bhusan, Linda Breedlove, Bruce Edward Litton, Elizabeth Esguerra Castillo, George Griffin, Mitali Chakravarty, Wansoo Kim, Bless Maricar B. Ramos, Joanna Atherfold Finn, Satishchandra Matamp, Andreea Iulia Scridon and Natalia Trevino. Some of the essays are a combination of prose and poetry, in which some have given a rendition of the pandemic through their own poetry. Pre-pandemic memories and anecdotes of the pandemic bring its own share of shared fear and happiness. One of the most striking take-aways of the book is to come across words and phrases used as metaphors that are knitted in and on COVID-19 and its effect on our lives.

In this period of prioritizing social distancing, staying at home and staying safe, vehemently realising that health matters, and with Internet playing a huge role in our lives to stay connected, the essays remind us that the whole impasse we are experiencing is in a realm of paradox. The paradox of seeing clearly that diseases, darkness and death are inevitable in this pandemic just as it is in life. Yet, the choices we make through hope, love and passion draw us to realize that just as we isolate and distance to survive the viral attack, existential isolation becomes the new art of living. Each of us are performers of this art in our own way. On the new paradigm brought by the pandemic, the authors discuss the superlatives of the impact with majority agreeing that lower sections of the community are the worse hit ones. The educators deliberate on university campus life, on their experiences and thoughts on the advantages and challenges of online education – teaching and classes and, apprehensions of what lies ahead, the future of education.

All the authors shed light on spending time by themselves or with family and loved-ones. For many, the lockdown has turned out to be more of a productive phase, a “staycation,” a “splendid isolation,” or a blessing in disguise with more time to read and to ponder on life, also on concerning issues such as domestic violence, old age, anxiety, loss, sickness, disability, unemployment, security and poverty. The essays bring out the complexities of the pandemic experience in terms of the similarities and differences, and touch on the issues of exclusion and inclusion. These writings generate a blend of tears and laughter. I can’t help but laugh aloud when an author writes if it is the virus that would kill or the staying at home, which is something universally felt. Similarly, dark humour and wit permeate the book. The editors ask, “Is it possible to be optimistic?” I think the answer after reading the essays is subtly, an affirmation. It truly is a delight to learn that optimism guides us despite all the hardships and unexpected blows of the pandemic. The essays soothingly make us one in the experience of this episode in history – each one with a story of our own during COVID-19.

The book can be read by anyone interested in life in the times of the pandemic – a light read on varied experiences, and at the same time, it provides enough space for those who want to delve deeper into the philosophy of life during the pandemic. Fact and fiction have always gone hand in hand and here too, the autobiographical features recall and allude to past fact and fiction in order to seek solace, hope and courage in the lifeforce of togetherness to battle the massive and global impact of the current pandemic. To help us see a better picture of what the pandemic has done to us, the authors put forward their arguments by referring to stalwarts and related fictions of Homer’s Odyssey, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Albert Camus’s The Plague, the idea of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, Otessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Man, Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, Katherine Anne Poter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Emily Dickenson’s line “Will there really be a morning?” Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, Slavoj Zizek’s Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World, and facts related to life during the Black Plague in the Medieval ages to Zoom meetings, online chats and other trends during COVID-19 in the twenty-first century.

The essays remind us that we truly live in a “global village”. The stress of adjustments that the changes and the new normal bring to the relationships between nature, man and technology is startlingly coloured with mixed feelings. The public and the private blur within the narratives; each authorial voice narrates the uniqueness of the pandemic experience. The change is evident in professional and personal lives and in the stories of the pursuit for balance between these two at a global level. Prof Kellman mentions about the epidemiological extension of the butterfly effect in the COVID-19 cases by referring to how a spark of the outbreak in Wuhan resonates toxically across the globe. The essays make us more aware of the impact of COVID-19 on our lives and that there is beauty in life even when we are caught in a “surreal nightmarish situation” in one such as the present crisis. Throughout history, major outbreaks have brought transformation and transition and so has COVID-19. The essays echo the same concern. They send out a message that the future may be vague but man is determined to stay positive, adapt and adopt, which would bear fruit only if we respond and act in the spirit of “metanoia” and “togetherness”.

Bio:
Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is also a freelance writer and copyeditor. Her interest areas are Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature. When not reading or writing, she loves to be with Nature.

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