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How writers worldwide are making sense of the pandemic

As the covid-19 pandemic leaves humanity in a welter of emotions, it is literature that helps us make sense of who we are, and of our place in the world

A view of the Colosseum in Rome in June. Courtesy: Getty Images
A view of the Colosseum in Rome in June. Courtesy: Getty Images

In 2011, Indian-origin American writer Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome, buoyed by her love for Italy, both the country and its language. Her affection for the tongue went back several decades, to the years when, as a doctoral student of Renaissance studies in the US, Lahiri had to learn Latin. Early on, she was struck by the elegance and perfection of the classical language, she once said in an interview. And it was this affinity with Latin that led her to Italian, its modern counterpart. Soon enough, Lahiri was immersed in a rich linguistic and cultural landscape that transformed her fortunes as a storyteller.

Over the past decade, Lahiri has not only acquired enviable fluency in Italian but also owned the language in the most intimate way possible for a writer—as her medium of literary expression. She has translated several writers from Italian into English already, most notably Domenico Starnone, and begun to publish original fiction in the language. Lahiri’s translation of her first novel in Italian, Dove Mi Trovo, is scheduled to appear in May 2021 as Whereabouts, in English. As she says, with unconcealed affection in her letter to Italy, the country has become her “point of arrival".

The covid-19 pandemic has disrupted arrivals and departures all over the world. Under siege from an unprecedented public health disaster, it is only human to worry about the well-being of those we love, especially those who are far from us. So it was with Lahiri, too. With the suspension of flights, she found herself stranded in Princeton, US, where she teaches part of the year at the university. Beset with separation anxiety from her beloved Italy, her friends and colleagues there, Lahiri was overwhelmed with a feeling of helplessness, abject and harrowing. “It’s the same distress a daughter would feel at not being able to run to her gravely ill parent and lend a hand," she writes, “because she feels compelled to, because she can do no less."

And We Came Outside And Saw The Stars Again: Edited by Ilan Stavans,Penguin Random House India, 400 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
And We Came Outside And Saw The Stars Again: Edited by Ilan Stavans,Penguin Random House India, 400 pages, 799.

Variations of this sentiment run through the essays, stories and poems by writers from across the world collected in And We Came Outside And Saw The Stars Again. Edited by the publisher Ilan Stavans, the anthology memorializes loss—of lives, opportunities and time—but also celebrates loves, old and new, remembered and renewed. It burns with flickers of hope. The title is borrowed from Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, where, at the end of a journey through hell, purgatory and paradise, the poet emerges with Virgil, his steadfast companion, into the open, under a sky gleaming with starlight.

In spite of her mounting sadness, Lahiri, too, draws steady comfort from the resilience and good cheer that her adopted country radiates. In her daily calls with Italian friends, she recovers a sense of calm and fortitude. Laughing at silly memes shared on social media by her far-away friends keeps her anchored to the here and now, even as death looms large all around her. As her home country descends into the mayhem and suffering caused by the disastrous policies of Donald Trump’s administration, Lahiri turns to Italy for refuge and reassurance. And, like a wise and dependable parent, Italy offers her solace, a sense of homeliness to overcome the melancholy of being unhomed.

Scholar and translator Arshia Sattar, the only writer from India among the contributors, also experiences a form of homecoming in the spiritual as well as physical dimensions. When the lockdown begins, she leaves her Bengaluru home in a rush to be with her 91-year-old mother, who lives in Pune. Ensconced with her parent, in the familiar environs of a home she knows closely, Sattar rediscovers her younger self lurking among her old books. It is a bittersweet moment of reckoning, bringing the person she once was into sharp contrast with the one she has become. Sattar’s deep dive into the interstices of memory and personhood is a template that runs through several other pieces as well.

For many writers, the pandemic marks a climactic moment along a personal journey they had embarked on some time ago. Haunted by a growing awareness of climate change and impending national crises on a global scale, they had gradually begun to embrace change—by giving up meat, stopping air travel, seeking alternative modes of living that are less damaging to the environment. They were on their way to recalibrate their lives and priorities when the pandemic struck. For the rest, as Polish writer Filip Springer says, covid-19 brought about the hour which the ancient Greeks called kairos: “the right moment to act, created by opportunity and unique transient circumstances".

Sometimes it is only by knowing the pain of others that we can recognize our own sense of loss—real and anticipated. As Stavans writes in the introduction, great literature, with its “capacity to make tragedy feel new again", impresses these truths upon humanity with a singular force of conviction. Words are often the only insurance we have against the fickleness of human memory.

Read Jhumpa Lahiri's 'Letter to Italy' here.

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