Writing in a Time of Disaster

Debra Spark | Summer 2020

Debra Spark



Trouble, as we all know, forces a reordering of priorities, in a rather unhappy way. So long, petty concerns! We have all likely received bad news—a cancer diagnosis for ourselves or a loved one, say—that changes everything. The blissful happiness of worrying over something minor gone, since now you have to worry about something real. Oh, to think back to the ten pounds you want to lose, how lazy you are about exercise, that story you can’t get a magazine to take. Who cares now? With a breast to lose, a colostomy bag to acquire, or anything of that ilk, you are forced into dealing with not just mortality but story and event in a whole different way. Is your kid going to get into a good college? Is your kid smoking pot? Given the news, who cares? Indeed, maybe you want to take a hit of something yourself.

We have all had this experience, too, when learning of some more public disaster or crisis, of having our very vocation undermined. “What’s the point?” Alex Chee asked of writing, as so many other writers did in the wake of 9/11.

In the past, my answer to the “What’s the point?” has always been that as long as you are writing in a way that says what happens to people matters—that people and their lives are important—you’re writing meaningfully. The actual focus is your own business.

But in 2020, as our lives are upended by a global pandemic, we are in a substantially more difficult position when it comes to writing that feels meaningful. And the problem is that our lives are juxtaposed in a daily way with dire truths. When in history did immediate extinction and future extinction seem like very real possibilities not for just some or for a whole segment of the globe’s population but for everyone? And, in truth, even without the pandemic, we were all at risk. On any day, pre-COVID-19, you might venture to the movies, Walmart, the mall, yoga class, a classroom, a concert, a house of worship, and be killed by a madman. And not just you, but everybody and everything may be gone, if not in your lifetime, perhaps, in your grandchild’s, thanks to climate change. That’s our reality, along with a sense that if all these problems have a solution, we are getting nowhere near to enacting them. We are all Major Kong atop the nuclear bomb in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, headed for the explosion that will launch multiple Russian bombs that will destroy life on planet Earth. How do we create art given that? How do we do anything that involves making meaning?

…people do not want to pay attention to that narrative, because it’s so terrifying or repellent. They want some freedom to pay attention to other things.

It used to be, as Ecclesiastes says: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.”

But what if the earth doth not abide?

Or to say the same thing in a different way: the emergencies of our times present a challenge to the writer who is not addressing these emergencies head on because they are so annihilating of other concerns.

It’s not the usual thing of wondering if one should be writing political/relevant/topical fiction, but the sense that the noise associated with the End Times narrative that seems like daily life (coronavirus, climate change, gun violence, the constant and pure evil and stupidity of decisions out of the executive branch) crowds everything else out. And, yet, at a point, people do not want to pay attention to that narrative, because it’s so terrifying or repellent. They want some freedom to pay attention to other things. In a New Yorker cartoon in late 2019, Roz Chast depicts an ostrich, head in the sand, with the ground having progressively deeper layers labeled “Can’t Bear Any News Concerning Trump,” then “Can’t Bear Any News,” and, finally, “Can’t Bear Anything.” And that was even before coronavirus was everywhere.

What does this mean for writers of fiction and poetry? The newspapers speak clearly to the emergencies of our times. They’ve sounded the alarm and so loudly that people often speak of needing to ration their exposure to the news, for sanity’s sake. Do we need to address these crises, too, given the journalists are already doing such a good job of it? And if so, how? What are our responsibilities? What if we have concerns apart from the direst? What if we want a break from the bad news?

“The question I was thinking about in this book,” Jenny Offill says of her novel Weather, which vacillates between the quotidian concerns of a Brooklyn mother-librarian and the same woman’s increasing anxiety about environmental apocalypse, “was ‘Can you still just tend your garden once you know about the fire outside its walls?’” 1

In her 2019 Nobel Prize speech, Olga Tokarczuk said, “How we think about the world and—perhaps even more importantly—how we narrate it have a massive significance . . . A thing that happens and is not told ceases to exist and perishes. This is a fact well known to not only historians, but also (and perhaps above all) to every stripe of politician and tyrant. He who has and weaves the story is in charge.”2

So, there’s a moral imperative to keep talking and writing—about the big and the small things—but how should we do it?


Last January found me with a group of international artists in the small second-floor space of the Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company, thinking about this very issue in the context (initially at least) not of the 2020s but the 1920s. We had all come to France for an artist residency/cultural exchange devoted to exploring the flowering of the arts in the 1920s and perhaps to recreating some of that same energy, 100 years later, as we were educated about the period.* On this particular day, we were being reminded that the disaster of World War I radically changed art, because artists felt that the old way of narrating and depicting the world would no longer work. “Make it new,” as Ezra Pound famously said. The horror of the war, the fragmentation of everyday life, the mechanization of society, the sense of the world as irrational and absurd led to surrealism, cubism, and expressionism in visual art, and some of the same in literature (the automatic writing of Breton, the interest in dreams and surrealism), as well as a modernism that dispensed with the abstractions and flowery rhetoric of the Victorian era.

On this particular day in Sylvia Beach’s famous Paris bookstore, Matt Jones, a Canadian writer, who was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was presenting two poems that dramatically indicate the difference between what writing was like before the war and what it became after. They’re both about the war and both well-known to many American and English readers, who are often asked to read the works in conjunction, but they were new to my compatriots in Paris.

“The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me
      That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
      In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
      Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
      Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
       A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
            Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
       And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
            In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.3

“Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in.
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face.
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.4

By our current moral and aesthetic standards, the first poem is a bad poem and the second is a good poem. One tells the truth about war, the other does not. As Tim O’Brien would have it, and as Matt Jones, the Canadian vet, reminded us in his handout for his class, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever.”5


And yet, on that day in Shakespeare and Company, it took me (the only novelist in the room, aside from the teacher) to say that Brooke’s poem was dishonest. The others (all well versed in their own arts and quite bright) tried to read Brooke’s poem sympathetically, as the author’s effort to make sense of why he was willing to sacrifice his own life. Not that they were nationalistic warmongers themselves—more victims of such having lived in places like Armenia and Zimbabwe—but they were trying to get under the skin of what Brooke was trying to do. Jones agreed that the nationalistic stance was part of the author’s impulse to make the war into something noble and beautiful, so as to justify its continuation. Even so, having returned from a war in which he’d seen infants burned and women blown up, among other horrors, Jones was having none of it. He snapped his fingers and chanted “ding, ding, ding,” when I finally jumped in with my assessment of the Burke poem and my know-it-all teacherly pronouncements. The poem, I said, was not only dishonest but poorly written for all its abstractions. Wilfred Owen’s was the opposite—specific, detailed, a catalog poem, you might argue, ending with a single abstraction that gains its power for being set against the concrete images that precede it, so the irony of the Latin, which translates as “Sweet and right it is to die for your country,” is made all the plainer. No surprise, of course, that I was the one to speak up. The English professor in the room.


The truth about Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke is actually a little more complicated than the easy distinction that Matt Jones and I made that day. Owen apparently admired Brooke, and Brooke’s original title for his poem was not “The Soldier” but “The Recruit,” in which case the poem might have been expressing not the truth about a war experienced—and Brooke didn’t experience action because though he enlisted, he died of a blood infection from a mosquito bite, of all things—but a war imagined by an innocent. As Joanna Scutts wrote in 2015 in a New Yorker profile of Brooks: “For a long time, the history of the First World War has been understood via the symbolic transition from Brooke to Wilfred Owen, from posh idiot nationalist to heroic witness.” But “that simple narrative,” she writes, obscures the fact that until the 1960s, Brooke’s image and words “represent[ed] something true and comforting” to people. It is also, she notes, “impossible to know what Brooke might have written if he had seen what the other war poets saw, or what he might have become if he’d survived his own golden age.”6

The simple narrative may be unfair to his biography, but I think it is fair enough when it comes to our norms about good writing. 


About those norms.

“We live in a reality of polyphonic first-person narrators,” says Olga Tokarczuk in her 2019 Nobel Prize speech. “We have determined that this type of individualized point of view, this voice from the self, is the most natural, human, and honest, even if it does abstain from a broader perspective.”

In other words, what writers “made new” a century ago is still what we consider good writing. And while Tokarczuk speaks of polyphonic first-person writers, I don’t think she’s ignoring the fact that plenty of contemporary fiction is written in the third person, since that third person is so often a third-person close that mimics the first-person sensibility with a bit of the objectivity of the third-person narrator or it’s an omniscience that is larger (say with rotating limited third-person narrators or with a bit of a storyteller voice) but still not global.

The implication of Tokarczuk’s description of the contemporary literary landscape is that we should have a broader perspective—we can’t afford not to in these times—but how exactly? We can address the crises of the world, but certainly we don’t want abstraction and dishonesty…or a return to, say, pre-modernist tropes like epic poetry. Even our political fiction seems “best” when it focuses on the individual experience.

Still, the problem, the problem of our times, Tokarczuk argues, is that “We lack new ways of telling the story of the world.”

And we need that presumably because the world is so drastically different from what it once was.

“We do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world,” Tokarczuk concludes.

In some ways, we are exactly where the artists of the 1920s felt themselves to be, in need of new ways to narrate a moment that seemed to them unlike any other.

…portray the horror directly, tell the truth about violence, consider distraction and avoidance, abandon art for direct action, indulge in hedonism, remember not to reduce sufferers to their trauma, look for ways to authentically write about the body, and remember joy.

At the very least, perhaps one can say that one should not write in a vacuum. What are the other options that we can imagine for engaging with crisis?


This question was one of the subtexts of the Parisian residency. What to do with grim reality? We answered that question in class and casual conversation. One option, as an African American expatriate living in Paris admitted, was to “get super-depressed.” A London-based American playwright said she worried about the question but did nothing, because she simply didn’t know what to do. A Canadian dancer thought one should “try to find the silver lining” in tragedy. He did. His Japanese grandparents had two children before they were separated for three and a half years, one placed in an internment camp, the other in a work camp. When they reunited, they had an “oops” baby who grew up to be the Canadian dancer’s father. If the camps hadn’t existed, the grandparents wouldn’t have had a third child, and the Canadian dancer would never have been born. As he saw it, his existence was the silver lining.

Other options people mentioned: portray the horror directly, tell the truth about violence, consider distraction and avoidance, abandon art for direct action, indulge in hedonism, remember not to reduce sufferers to their trauma, look for ways to authentically write about the body, and remember joy. If you were going to do the horror directly, the Canadian vet said, you needed to take care not to be maudlin or to sentimentalize, you needed to “interrogate the ideology” undergirding your scenes, and you needed to consider that truth was so complex that even amid the horror, there could be beauty. As for direct action, that suggestion came from a Chilean dancer who was an arts administrator. At home, she protested. At the risk, quite literally, of her life. The hedonism suggestion came not from one of my fellow artists, but a cheese expert I met. She wasn’t talking about self-indulgence exactly, despite all our associations with that word, but self-care.

In Peter Nichols’s novel The Rocks, a man in his dying wife’s hospital room reflects that “smoking, eating, and other mechanical tasks made him feel better.” He then recalls a BBC documentary, in which he learned that when a rock or stick is removed from above an ant—that is, when the ant’s entire universe is threatened—the first thing the ant does is wash its face. Whether this is true or not of ants, the urge to take care of yourself in moments of crisis (or maybe to try to pretend all is still normal) makes sense.

A final option that seems to put the most positive spin on what it means to be an artist in a time of crisis came from the same actor/playwright who admitted she had no idea what to do about the problems of the world when it came to her writing. Referring to the Paris residency, she said, “But in this context I am reminded joy has value. Pleasure, excavation has value in of itself. The richer we are as individuals, the better we can deal with the world itself.”


What does a successful work of fiction about crisis look like? Pat Barker’s Regeneration is a brilliant novel about World War I that accurately represents the horror of the war without ever going into the trenches.

Some challenges in writing about World War I or the Holocaust or apartheid or any number of man-made disasters: the horror resists representation because the scope is so big. No one person’s story can convey the disaster in all its enormity. Language itself seems to fail in the face of the experience. Yet, a book that overwhelms the reader with gruesome facts may be a book that goes unread. What’s more, in a story where some people are clear victims, others clear evildoers, and the characters have no agency, the Manichean nature of the story can make the whole tale seem too simple.

Barker approaches the task by writing about Craiglockhart War Hospital, an actual place where shell-shocked soldiers were treated during the war. Her characters are sometimes real people, sometimes based on real people, and sometimes wholly fictitious. Instead of an onslaught of horror, we get a handful of shockingly upsetting details that are made to stand for all the rest. The novel has a clear ideology about the war—it’s clearly anti-war—yet finds the pacifism vs. pro-war sentiment too simple a divide to explore. Instead, it addresses issues of duty, sympathy, courage, conviction, medical ethics, and military responsibility.

Because language may be inadequate to express trauma, the book itself is about talk—it consists of a series of dialogues—but also about the failure of words, as one of the central characters has mutism. He technically can speak, which is to say he is physically able, but he does not. The treatment, the cure, proposed for all the men is for them to tell their stories as a way of healing. Each man has a different story about the experience that has brought him to such psychological shipwreck, as well as a different relationship to the doctor who tries to coax the difficult narrative out of him. The novel proceeds by a series of case histories with the doctor’s interpretation of what he hears adding another layer of interest. The individual tales are then complicated around a central dilemma for the psychiatrist: what does it mean to cure a man of shell shock only to send him back to the front?


Olga Tokarczuk is asking, if I understand her Nobel speech correctly, for something different than what Barker’s book, with its rotating points of view, provides. Tokarczuk is asking for both a return to a kind of myth and a jump forward to a new kind of narrator. Of the autonomous first-person narrator with whom (presumably) the reader can identify, Tokarczuk says, “What we are missing—it would seem—is the dimension of the story that is the parable. For the hero of the parable is at once himself, a person living under specific historical and geographical conditions, yet at the same time he also goes well beyond those concrete particulars, becoming a kind of Everywhere Everyman.”

What exactly does this mean?

Here’s Tokarczuk:

Could there be a story that would go beyond the uncommunicative prison of one’s own self, revealing a greater range of reality and showing the mutual connections? … I dream of high viewing points and wide perspectives, where the context goes far beyond what we might have expected. I dream of a language that is capable of expressing the vaguest intuition, I dream of a metaphor that surpasses cultural differences, and finally of a genre that is capacious and transgressive, but that at the same time the readers will love.

I also dream of a new kind of narrator?a “fourth-person” one, who is not merely a grammatical construct of course, but who manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters, as well as having the capacity to step beyond the horizon of each of them, who sees more and has a wider view, and who is able to ignore time. Oh yes, I think this narrator’s existence is possible.

Seeing everything also means a completely different kind of responsibility for the world, because it becomes obvious that every gesture “here” is connected to a gesture “there,” that a decision taken in one part of the world will have an effect in another part of it, and that differentiating between “mine” and “yours” starts to be debatable.

All of this we know. A virus in one part of the world devastates lives everywhere. But still how to parse that into what Tokarczuk is asking from the narrative?


Tokarczuk is not advocating for mere omniscience nor rejecting what she clearly values about literature—the ability to “let us go deep into the life of another being.” Even so, I confess I’m not sure I fully understand her point, though I get that she enacts it, in part, in her Nobel lecture, when she describes the day in 1492 when Christopher Columbus was set to sail to America. Tokarczuk then connects that dockside moment (with all its sensual particulars) with the decimation of nearly sixty million Native Americans, which changed the nature of land in America, which weakened the greenhouse effect, bringing on a mini ice age in the 16th century, which changed the economy of Europe, which subsequently shifted from farming to trade and industry, caused wars, etc., etc. In other words, she briefly narrates through time and space the absolute dependency of one thing on another.


Might Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West be a novel that approaches or even achieves both what my Paris compatriots and Tokarczuk imagine as best for writing in these dark times? His book addresses the global refugee crisis by focusing closely, but not exclusively, on Saed and Nadia, a couple living in an unnamed, increasingly war-torn, largely Muslim country. The novel concerns their lives from when they meet till their parting. It certainly tells the truth about violence and portrays horror directly. It doesn’t reduce sufferers to their trauma; it is precise about complex human emotion and reveals that there can be beauty even in the most unlikely of moments.         

We see Saed and Nadia as they slowly reconcile themselves to changes in their city, struggling to keep things normal and maintain usual domestic routines, until that is no longer possible. We see how the city disintegrates into a war zone, with behavior descending to the most gruesome (people playing soccer with a human head, bodies hanging from streetlights, a man beheaded with a serrated knife so as to make his pain worse). We see, too, how violence perverts personal relations and forces people into making impossible choices.

But we also see beauty in human relations, particularly between Saed’s parents and Saed and Nadia, and some of the physical beauty of the world. At one point, as Nadia snuggles with Saed, she says, “The end of the world can be cozy at times.”7

Exit West is not, however, simply a novel of social realism in the way Barker’s is. It is not merely accurate either, in the way Wilfred Owen’s poem is, though it includes the strengths of social realism and accuracy.

Exit West is narrated by an omniscient narrator who has access to many of the characters’ thoughts, but stands distinctly apart from any of the characters. He narrates through space and time, jumping away at times from Saed and Nadia’s story to tell us what is happening simultaneously elsewhere on the planet or what will happen in their future. At one point, when summarizing Nadia’s romantic history, the narrator describes one of Nadia’s ex-boyfriends as someone “who would not stop thinking of her until his death, which was, though neither of them knew it, only a few short months away.” 8

The narrator’s wisdom sometimes merges with the characters’ wisdom and is sometimes truly godlike, separate from any specific human consciousness, though representing collective experience, as in the novel’s second paragraph, in which the narrator says, “It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class—in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding—but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”9

The narrator’s knowledge arrives when most relevant to the story’s action. For instance, just before Nadia learns of a cousin’s death, the narrator says, “In times of violence, there is always that first acquaintance or intimate of ours, who, when they are touched, makes what had seemed like a bad dream suddenly, evisceratingly real.”10 At the same time, the narrator confines the details of the cousin’s death, as with other significant deaths, to a single clause in a long, multiply modified sentence, to suggest that, in the new world order, shot and blown-up loved ones are as routine as the other things you might observe about a family member: their jobs, personalities, activity in the moment of dying (as with Saed’s mother, who is looking for an earring in her car when she is killed.)

Hamid’s book may also offer something like the “new form” Tokarczuk says she is seeking, for Hamid uses a magical conceit to cover that part of the migrant story that we know so well from newspapers—the migrant on a crowded, dangerous raft, or walking miles to cross a border. In Exit West, people move from one country to another by finding a dark “door,” some entry in their country of origin, which literally serves as a portal to another place. By doing this, the author avoids telling the likely horrific but perhaps not as psychologically compelling aspects of the narrative—the man-against-nature struggle of getting from here to there—and focuses on the breakdown of a country, the decision to leave, and the attempt to make a life as strangers in a community often hostile to outsiders. Over the course of the novel, Saed and Nadia pass through a portal from their home country to a refugee camp in Mykonos then to a squat in London and eventually to a tent in California.

Perhaps to emphasize the parabolic nature of Saed and Nadia—to make them stand for more than just themselves, but all migrants—Exit West frequently departs altogether from Saed and Nadia’s experience to describe a simultaneous moment elsewhere on the globe, in which people are forcing themselves through a portal door from one country to another—a Tamil family pushes into Dubai, a “dark” man lands in a “white” woman’s bedroom in Australia, a Filipino family struggles into Tokyo. With these stories, the emphasis is on the door itself and what happens immediately after passing over the threshold. In one case, characters, under surveillance their whole journey, are immediately captured. In another, a love story transpires between two old men.

In The Guardian, Sukhdev Sandhu writes, “Exit West shifts between forms, wriggles free of the straitjackets of social realism and eyewitness reportage, and evokes contemporary refugeedom as a narrative hybrid: at once a fable about deterritorialization, a newsreel about civil society that echoes two films—Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here and Peter Watkins’s The War Game—and a speculative fiction that fashions news maps of hell.”11

Is that what Tokarczuk speaks of when she imagines “a new story that’s universal, comprehensive, all-inclusive, rooted in nature, full of contexts and at the same time understandable”?


Another model for Olga Tokarczuk’s ideal story might come from visual artists. I think of Chris Baumler, a dear friend from college, who initially expressed her concern about the environment by painting extinct birds and endangered species, but whose practice evolved to directly improve the environment. Her medium changed from paint to the earth. Rather than making some monumental structure in the sand, however, she transformed urban landscapes through “slow art,” i.e., through long-duration art projects which involved partnering with multiple communities. For instance, she created the Pollinator Garden and Buzz Lab at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota. On the face of it, the project replaced cement with multiple gardens and a better storm drainage system for the museum, but because students from various immigrant communities helped do the work and now maintain the spaces, and because those students were educated about pollinators but also paid (thus empowered) for their efforts, the students became environmental activists themselves, creating poems, videos, and social media campaigns to educate others (including government officials) about bees.


What might this sort of activist art look like for a writer? What would it mean to imagine a similar literary project, which directly enacts change? The challenge fascinates and defeats me. I can’t think of anything. That said, Australian Helen Hopcroft, one of the artists I met when I was in Paris, could. For a single year, Hopcroft dressed as Marie Antoinette 24/7. She took meetings in costume, went to CrossFit and the supermarket in costume, and picked her daughter up from school in costume. To earn a living, Hopcroft works as a freelance house painter and editor, so she climbed ladders and sat before her computer in costume.

This was not all merely a lark. She undertook the project to draw attention to Maitland, the economically challenged community where she lives.

I wonder what boundaries can be stretched to make our narrative powers mean something more in dark hours.

As a child, raised with “good, left wing, socialist” values, as she says, she knew the famous “Let Them Eat Cake” anecdote about Marie Antoinette and understood the story was supposed to teach her about the disconnect between the upper and lower classes. “But what I took away from it was the glorious indifference and arrogance of it, the sense of power of not caring,” says Hopcroft. “Everyone I knew was a working mother who was stressed out and the sense of power was strangely attractive.” As an adult, she says, she “still associated Marie Antoinette with power but wanted to flip her iconography and use her in a strange blend of performance art and community service.”

The media attention around her project—and there was plenty—allowed her to do what she wanted, which was bring reporters to her town, to talk up the community of Maitland, to bring attention to the area’s troubles simply by standing as such a stark visual contrast to the bleaker surrounds, and also to promote the city as a cultural tourist destination, pointing to the (largely unheralded) creative work that was being done there.

All this may not sound like a literary project, so I will note two things. First, that Hopcroft received a PhD in creative writing—she wrote her thesis about Arabian Nights—and at the end of her studies, all the graduate students were gathered in a room and instructed to think of a way to either commercialize the research they had been doing during their graduate studies or find a way to use the research to serve the community. It was at that moment that Helen came up with her rather outrageous plan. Second, Helen is now writing a book about the year she spent dressed as Marie Antoinette, and it weaves a fictionalized account of Antoinette’s life with her own life, which is partially a story about being the victim of domestic violence. Of the book-in-progress, she says, “The book is interesting as a creative project, but it is also a gift back to women.” By dressing as Marie Antoinette, “I managed to get out of a cage. I sense there are a lot of people looking for a key. If I write clearly enough and well enough maybe it will be the key for other people. I remember having no identity, no power, and no voice, then assuming the identity of a dead French queen and thinking I could do anything. I had that sense of absolute power. I am interested in how you get from one to the other.”


I am aware that writers are not going to start sending garden plots or costumes to the New Yorker and Knopf. I have no project of my own similar to Bauemler’s or Hopcroft’s. Still, I wonder what boundaries can be stretched to make our narrative powers mean something more in dark hours. At the very least, I can say that Baumeler and Hopcroft were using two tools with which we must always work: their powers of observation and empathy.


Jenny Offill’s recently published Weather might be the antithesis of all I’ve argued for here. It’s a first-person, somewhat solipsistic novel that proceeds by a series of mini-paragraphs that function as bon mot, aperçu, joke, or clever observation. Offill favors inference and sarcasm, yet her fear is as real as that of the characters in Hamid’s novel, though her immediate circumstances are far less horrific. Her book is a lot easier to read than Hamid’s—it’s funny where Hamid’s is painful, and it addresses itself less to horror than anxiety about horror. Both novels are just over 200 pages long, but it took me a few pleasurable hours to read Offill’s and days to read Hamid’s, because at times I’d get too upset to continue. In the end, though, Offill closes her book with the sentence we must all keep in mind, whatever we try to write in troubling times, or even untroubling ones: “The core delusion is that I am here and you are there.”12


Debra Spark has published nine books. Her newest collection, And Then Something Happened: Essays on Fiction Writing, is due out in August 2020.


* Under the auspices of the L'Air Arts program


  1. Parul Seghal, “How to Write Fiction When the Planet is Falling Apart,” New York Times, February 5, 2020.
  2. Olga Tokarczuk, “The Tender Narrator,” Nobel Prize Speech, 2019, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2018/tokarczuk/104871-lecture-english/.
  3. Rupert Brooke, “The Soldier,” Poetry Magazine, Vol. VI, No. 1, April 1915.
  4. Wilfred Owen, Poems (New York: Viking Press, 1921).
  5. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), 65.
  6. Joanna Scutts, “The True Story of Rupert Brooke,” The New Yorker, April 23, 2015.
  7. Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017), 83.
  8. Hamid, Exit West, 34.
  9. Ibid, 3-4.
  10. Ibid, 31.
  11. Sukhdev Sandhu, “Exit West by Mohsin Hamid—magical vision of the refugee crisis,” The Guardian, March 12, 2017.
  12. Jenny Offill, Weather (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020), 21.

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