A rich, eye-opening anthology, And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again , dozens of esteemed writers, poets, artists and translators from more than thirty countries offer a profound, kaleidoscopic portrait of lives transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.
As COVID-19 has become the defining global experience of our time, writers transcend borders and genres to offer a powerful antidote to the fearful confines of isolation: a window onto corners of the world beyond our own.
UNPRECEDENTED was the ubiquitous term first used to describe the COVID-19 pandemic that swept the world in 2020, as if the event were unlike any other. The truth is that it has been rather routine in its procedure, part of the eternal cycles of nature. Even in the Bible, similar disasters—earthquakes, deluges, famines, plagues of insects, pestilence of livestock, boils, thunderstorms of hail and fire—are recurrent visitors in the theater of human affairs. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that newcalamities such as this one aren’t extraordinary.
It isn’t surprising that the official approach to the pandemic was initially forensic, with an insistence on numbers: how many deaths and infections per day in a given hospital of a given city in a given country, how long a possible vaccine could take to bring us all out of purgatory, and so on, as if suffering could be quantified, ignoring that each and every person lost was unique and irreplaceable. The Talmud says that death is a kind of sleep and that one person’s sleep is unknowable to others. Although the misfortune arrived at a time when the essential tenets of globalism were being questioned—tariffs imposed, borders closed,immigrants seen with suspicion—the pandemic was planetary, hitting wherever people did what people do. It preyed with distinct fury on the poor and vulnerable, as natural catastrophes always do, especially in countries ruled by tyrants responding with disdain and hubris. Inevitably, the lockdown also forced a new method to everything everywhere. The sound of the kitchen clock suddenly felt new, the warmth of a handshake, the taste of fresh soup. As an antidote to numbers, it was once again left to writers to notice those changes, to chronicle them by interweaving words. That’s what literature does well: it champions nuance while resisting the easy tricks of generalization. This international anthology includes over fifty of those writers representing thirty-five countries and arriving in about a dozen languages. Cumulatively, their accounts are proof of the degree to which COVID-19 brought about the collapse of a hierarchy of principles we had all embraced until then. Call it the end of an era Shenaz Patel, from Mauritius, for instance, realizes that “suddenly, like an octopus disturbed in its sleep, everything kept hidden under the placid surface latched onto us with its many arms and spit its ink into our faces.” She adds: “We are faced with a true ‘civil war’ of speech, echoing through radios and social media, between those who respect the lockdown and those who don’t; those who understand and the ‘cocovids,’ the empty heads who go out anyway; between the ‘true patriots’ and the selfish few who knowingly put others in danger.”