On Not Writing Fiction During The Pandemic

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I’m not sure I can write fiction anymore. I don’t know how to write a psychological thriller set here and now in this pandemic, this lockdown.

I think of those movies made during World War II that completely ignored the war. Were they set during a slightly earlier or slightly later time? Or an alternative universe?

Should I do that? I don’t think I can do that.

It’s Saturday afternoon in NYC. It’s 20c (68f) and the sun is shining, the air is crystalline, conversations and laughter (!) drift up from the street below, cars drive by, music blares. NYC sounds like NYC.

We’re in the sixth week of the lockdown.1 NYC shouldn’t sound like NYC. NYC shouldn’t be jumping. There shouldn’t be so many people out on the streets. Hundreds of people are still dying here every day. We’re supposed to be quarantining.

I haven’t been outside since Tuesday. My autoimmune disease has been in full flare. I was hoping to go out for a walk today. But, no, it’s impossible. There are too many people on my street.

It’s nothing compared to how busy the streets would have been pre-shut down. It’s our first sunny day after several days of cold and rain. Before the streets would have been jammed. The numbers that are freaking me out are tiny.

There’s no where in the USA it’s harder to maintain distance. NYC is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Our footpaths are too narrow, so we spill out onto the roads. Many of which are also too narrow. Especially today when there’s more cars cruising around than I’ve seen since this started.

It’s not that people are ignoring the lockdown. We’re allowed to go out to exercise, to shop for essentials. I look out the window: most are wearing masks, they’re trying to distance. But it’s impossible.

I’m hearing a lot of sirens today.

I stay inside and work. But I don’t turn to rewriting the YA psychological thriller or the adult one I’ve written ten chapters of. I haven’t touched either since before I spent the summer in Sydney. The summer of a million fires. The summer of having to wear masks to go outside because the air was unbreathable.

Back then I didn’t work on them because I didn’t know if I should include the fires, by which I mean climate disasters. Neither book, though supposedly set in this world, even touched upon how much hotter, more dangerous and unlivable our world is becoming. Leaving those realities out felt wrong.

The adult thriller begins on a plane. As did my last novel, My Sister Rosa. I love writing scenes on planes. It’s so contained, so intense. The characters are jammed in with hundreds of others, yet also in a tiny bubble.

But the airline industry may not exist the way I wrote it, after this pandemic is over. It may change as dramatically as it did after 9/11, or more dramatically.

I don’t know how to write fiction set in this world.

I work instead on non-fiction book proposals. Books that don’t ignore this world of bushfires, floods, tsunamis and hurricanes and all the other disasters made worse and more frequent by industrialization, by the steady rise in carbon emissions.

But these non-fiction books don’t touch on the pandemic, on this lockdown, on my world right now. That book can’t be written until this over, not well. Besides I don’t want to write that book. There will be a million such books.

When we come out of this pandemic, will we really want to read books about it?

I can’t even read too much about it now. I follow the immediate news, I read a few articles, I listen to the ABC’s Coronacast, but too much of that and I start to freak out. Mostly I read books about the history and future of the fashion industry and talk about it with folks on Instagram.

My account there is a huge part of my mental health regime. It’s where I found a worldwide community of people, who care passionately about transforming the fashion industry from one of the world’s biggest polluters and exploiters of workers, into a sustainable, clean, and ethical one. A deeply important mission done while wearing gorgeous vintage and responsibly made clothes. That’s my kind of revolution.

Maybe when this pandemic is over I’ll write a novel set in that world.

  1. Or is it the seventh? I’m losing track of time. I know it’s Saturday because we do the weekend quiz with the family back in Sydney every Friday and Saturday night. We did the first weekend quiz last night. Thus Saturday. []

The Problem With Making the Cut

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I did not love Making the Cut as I did not love Project Runway before it and for similar reasons: they favour the least interesting designers, who for some mysterious reason are almost always white.

I’ll admit straight up that I only watched two seasons of Project Runway and bowed out once they got rid of the interesting designers. So I’m not an expert on that show. Maybe it got better.

My reaction to Making the Cut was also coloured by having watched Next In Fashion shortly before it, which I loved. LOVED.

What was so refreshing about Next was that most of the interesting designers made it deep into the competition and the best designer won! Honestly, I almost fainted.

Also there was an episode on Next In Fashion where they actually discussed whether the judges might have some racial bias, and then they changed their decision because of it. I had to watch it again to believe it.

There were zero discussions of race or class or gender or anything else on Making the Cut. I felt like it’d gone back in time.

Next touched on issues around sustainability–not nearly enough–but Making never discussed fashion’s horrendous impact on the planet. The words organic, sustainable, circular economy, recycling, pollution were never mentioned. Unlike the seasons of Project Runway I watched which had a recycling challenge.

All the winning looks were available primarily in synthetics, which damage the planet in production, as well as every single time they’re washed. And those clothes were available for price points so low, there’s no way everyone in the supply and production chain were paid fairly.

The ethics of fashion was never discussed. On either show.

The winning collection from Next was also primarily synthetic and, while more expensive than Making, the prices were still too low for everyone involved to be paid fairly.

I loved that Next, especially in the latter episodes, showed far more of the process of designing and making the clothes, which is what these shows are supposedly about. I want to see more of them sweating the designs. I wanted more process. I wanted more of them dealing with one another. I really felt that I knew the Next contestants–far more than those on Making.

Making seemed to think viewers would be more interested in Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum fencing. This viewer was not remotely interested in the Tim and Heidi antics. Though I did enjoy watching Tim pack. I love seeing neat and tidy people being neat and tidy. Organisation is hot. I wish there was a show entirely devoted to different packing techniques from around the world. Ask me how I feel about Marie Kondo. #Swoon

Ultimately I don’t think Making the Cut knew what it was. It was looking for the next global brand and kept emphasising accessibility, but then designers would not make the cut for lack of originality.

Yet the show was won by one of the least interesting designers. Megan, who was cut, had everything they claimed Johnny had: her clothes were accessible, comfortable, and could be worn by a wide variety of body types. She was the one designer who fit the show’s unstated parameters: make clothes that look cool but not too intimidating. Be edgy but accessible.

I was not wild about Esther’s clothes. I don’t like all black. To me it screams arrested development. Leaven it with colour. You’ll look better. Truly.

That said, I thought her last collection was by far her best. She was robbed. As was Sander. Both of them deserved to win. And so did Megan.

In my reboot, Naomi Campbell is the only judge I’d keep. I loved her, not least for fighting for Megan. I’m not wild about Heidi, she reminds me of all the blonde school bullies I dealt with, but she redeemed herself by voting for Esther.

I’m waiting for the fashion design contest that looks for the most sustainable designs produced in the most ethical way. That lays bare the entire supply chain. We got to see that Johnny has his clothes made in Indonesia, but there was no discussion of why. That why is huge.

Watching these shows in the midst of a global pandemic, where there’s a huge campaign to get the biggest fashion brands in the world to actually pay their suppliers for clothes already made, so that garment workers in Bangladesh etc don’t starve to death, well, both Next in Fashion and Making the Cut seemed like they were set in Fairyland.

Prescience? Nah.

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A friend recently told me they’d been thinking about my story “Elegy” because it predicted our currently distanced,1 isolated existence, stuck at home, avoiding our neighbours, occasionally venturing out to walk along empty streets. It’s like you knew, they texted me. Your dark fable predicted everything.

I laughed.

So many people knew: epidemiologists, virologists, futurists, novelists like me who’ve been making notes towards their end-of-the-world opus for decades, pretty much anyone who’s done more than ten minutes research on the likely causes of the end of humanity, will have learnt that it was likely to be a pandemic and/or climate change.

I’m not saying this is the end of our species. I’m quite sure we’ll survive this.

As for my story predicting our current lockdown, we’ve also known for a long time that the best way to control a pandemic–before there’s a vaccine–is to isolate. In 1918, more than a century ago, the city of St Louis came out of that flu pandemic with a lower death toll because the authorities implemented a lockdown, much as cities, states and countries are doing across the world now. Meanwhile Philadelphia was hit particularly hard because of its failure to do likewise. Just as we’re seeing dire consequences for regions that didn’t implement social controls quickly enough, or at all, in various parts of the world.

It requires zero prescience to have predicted these outcomes, just a glancing familiarity with humanity’s history. There have been many pandemics. In the fourteenth century it’s estimated that as much as a third of the world’s population died from the Bubonic Plague. European colonisation of the Americas and Australia introduced an array of deadly diseases devastating the indigenous populations there.

This will not be the last pandemic either. There will be more.

My story uses physical disease as a metaphor for depression, for the way it feels like something that consumes us, something over which we have no control, and our fear that it’s contagious.

At least that was my intent. Obviously other people will read it differently, but it’s no kind of prescient, unless you consider it prescient to predict that in the future there will be floods, droughts, and locust plagues. Somewhere all of those are happening right now.

Our planet is vast. Bad shit is always happening somewhere. What’s different about this pandemic, is that for the first time in a century, for the first time in a world with truly global, instantaneous communications, we’re all experiencing this together. But not equally. COVID-19 is, as pandemics always have, hitting the poorest with the least resources hardest.

That’s what we have to change. I want to believe we can.

  1. I’m not calling it socially distancing because, c’mon, it’s physical distancing. Many of us are doing our damnedest, via the internet, to make sure we’re not socially distanced. []

Life In NYC In The Time Of COVID-19

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In Sydney the seven-year-old niece has cut her own hair. It looks pretty good. The kid has style.

Here on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I’m lying in bed at 6am, straining to hear the sounds of the city, but there’s no planes above, no helicopters, no horns honking, no sirens–despite all the reports that say sirens are constant–no cars rolling by with canciones played ear-bleedingly loud, no yelling or laughter floating up from the street below.

No one I know has died of the virus or been hospitalised. Yet. But plenty of my friends have had it. Close friends. All their cases, but one, confirmed by their GP in a video call. There’s no where near enough testing here.

Their cases have ranged from losing taste and smell for a few days, to three weeks of fever, exhaustion, and a crushing vise on their lungs and knife in their heart. Both ends of that spectrum are officially described as mild.

If you don’t wind up in hospital on a ventilator, it’s mild.

I’m in full flare, unable to get out of bed. It’s my usual chronic illness, not the dreaded virus. It feels ridiculous to be lying in bed weeping over an illness that won’t kill me and isn’t contagious. Yet here I am.

Friends of mine have lost relatives–an uncle and a grandfather, so far. I know that list will grow. I pray the beloved elders and ill and immunocompromised in my life, of which there are many, will not join it.

I am, of course, one of them.

This flare has terrified me. Not because of the pain–I’m used to that–but because it’s reminding me forcefully of how vulnerable I am. How vulnerable so many of us are.

I’ve been going out for long walks early every morning: across the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges into Brooklyn and back, along the East River Parkway and the mostly empty streets of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, the Financial District, Soho, the East Village.

Sometimes I walk for hours, masked and gloved, making sure that I’m home by eight am. If I walk any later than that there are too many people jogging the bridges and the Parkway, six feet of distance becomes impossible. Joggers run past almost touching me. I recoil.

I avoid the west side of the island altogether. Too crowded.

I’m not sure if I’ll be brave enough to go outside again. I don’t think my body can cope with even a mild iteration of the virus on top of the illness currently ravaging me.

The last time I hung out with a friend in real life was back in early March. I visited Julia at her hat shop on Seventh Street in the East Village, sitting on a stool more than six feet away from her. We disinfected our hands and anything we touched.

We hadn’t seen each other in months, I’d been in Sydney, where I retreat each year for three months to see family and friends and avoid NYC’s winter. I hate the cold and lack of sunlight.

I told her about living through the bushfires, she caught me up on her life here in the city.

Showing far more foresight than is usual for me, I bought a turban. As my hair gets longer and more unruly without its once-every-four-weeks maintenance from Chereen in NYC and Julianne in Sydney, I’m wearing that turban more and more. As my hair turns into a mullet–*shudder*–I’m contemplating copying the niece and hacking at it myself.

I was with Julia in her gorgeous shop for more than four hours. Two people came in. One was getting the final touches on her hat for a formal occasion in May. (So not going to happen.)

She was annoyed by all the fuss about the virus and everything being closed. “Everyone’s over reacting. It’s just like the flu. It will only affect old people and sick people.”

As one of those sick people, I bristled.

Also? She was at least in her sixties. How did she not see that she’s in the endangered demographic?

The second person to come in was a delightful vintage hat collector, who was bringing some recent finds for Julia to repair. I collect vintage clothes. He was my kind of people.

He kept almost touching his face and stopping, muttering, Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch your face.

The same admonition echoes through my head all day long.

I admired the gorgeous vintage brown wool Borsalino porkpie from the sixties he was wearing, flecked with gold and orange, and asked him hat questions, while he danced on the spot, not meeting my eyes, replying succinctly.

He kept his distance, touching nothing. He doused his hands in sanitizer twice in the short time he was in the shop.

The woman meanwhile did not keep her distance and touched everything with the surgeon’s gloves she’d clearly been wearing for hours. She did not once use hand sanitizer.

After she left we disinfected everything.

It seems a long time ago. I bet her attitude has changed. She lives in the city. She’ll know people who’ve had the virus, who’ve died. She may have had it herself.

At first it was hard for any of us to believe this was real.

Now everyone wears masks and keeps their distance. We give each other thumbs up and say, Stay safe. We all know someone who’s had it.

Increasingly many of us New Yorkers have had it ourselves and are wondering if that makes us immune. No one knows for sure.

No one knows much of anything about the virus. How many people are asymptomatic? Do masks help or give a false sense of security? I know I feel safer with a mask on. Should I?

We do know this will go on longer than any of us hoped. There will be no formal events in May. No WNBA season. No Olympics in July. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll get to do my annual sojourn in the city of my birth come December. Will the airline industry recover? Should it?

When do we get our lives back? Do we get our lives back? Money earning opportunities disintegrate, we lose jobs and insurance and shelter and hope. Friends and family are remote and the internet only partially bridges that gap.

NYC is the epicentre of this plague in the USA, of the world.1 Yet here in my part of the city I can’t see the makeshift hospitals in Javits or Central Park, the hospital ship in the harbour, or the refrigerated death trucks.

If anything there are fewer homeless people on the streets.2 Only a handful of people have begged me for money since I got home. I don’t carry cash anymore. It’s too dangerous. All I can do is say sorry and donate to the organisations helping them.

I take the stairs to reduce my viral load. I’ve not seen anyone else in the stairwell. I rarely see my neighbours, or hear them cough, and when I do we nod to each other from different ends of the corridor. This catastrophe is happening behind closed doors.

We don’t ask how we’re doing. We don’t chat. We’re scared of each other now. We’re scared of everyone.

They could be dying in their apartments and I wouldn’t know.

It’s a lonely apocalypse. The only people I’ve talked to are my building’s lovely super and the masked and gloved clerks at Essex market during the early morning times reserved for the old and the sick.

I disinfect everything I buy. I keep running out of bleach. My hands have developed eczema. It seems a small price to pay.

I thought the bushfires were terrible and they were: the choking smoke blanketing my beloved Sydney, filling the hospitals with people who can’t breathe. Those fires are also part of a global crisis, of climate change, but one that hasn’t yet affected everyone.

But this silent, invisible COVID-19 disaster, has completely transformed all our lives. It’s isolating us, sickening us, and killing us.

And bringing us together. People I haven’t heard from in years have been reaching out, checking up on me. I’ve been bonding with strangers online about vintage, sustainable, and circular-economy clothing.

This really is the worst of times, all over the world, and I know that no amount of dressing up in beautiful clothes changes that. But at the same time many of us privileged enough to shelter at home are being sustained by beauty, by laughter, and joy.

We’re finding new rituals to sustain us as we cope with isolation and disease. We make music and art and reconnect.

There are new sounds in NYC: bird song, louder and more frequent than I’ve ever heard it here, and the new ritual of the 7pm whistles and cheers and banging of pots for the health workers’ shift change. I well up every time I hear it but I smile too.

Suddenly I’m connected to my neighbours: seeing them on their roof tops, balconies, at their windows, down on the street, all of us full of gratitude for the ones working so hard to save this city, to allow it to be crowded and noisy and overwhelming once more.

The way it’s meant to be.

  1. Though do we really know that? So many countries are barely testing and are under reporting infection numbers. Do we really know what’s going on in Iran? In North Korea? []
  2. Which could be for scary reasons: surely the homeless are amongst the most vulnerable to this disease? []