These strange days

I’ve been trying to imagine it — one day during the coronavirus pandemic without the company of writers and artists.
 

In my new lockdown routine, I’ve come to rely on art to make sense of an altered world or shift me from this constrained present into another dimension.

After absorbing the news at breakfast — the global death tolls, the harrowing reports — I fill the room with music. Among work emails, a poem from an artist friend — an emergency exchange begun weeks back. ‘In a dark time, the eye begins to see ... What’s madness but nobility of soul/ At odds with circumstance?’ These lines by Theodore Roethke will shadow my day. To maintain the poetry chain, I send off Lisa Gorton’s The Hotel Hyperion:

I don’t hear it.

I am closed in my life, my machine-

fed breath, a true ghost haunting

the loneliest idea –

walking out

from the settlement’s small world

of manufactured atmosphere.

By 11 am certain details from the news have gripped the mind: the smiling self-portraits pinned to medics’ scrubs so corona patients can see a human face, the abraded cheeks of nurses from protective gear, spotted Sika deer roaming deserted streets in Nara, Japan. By midday I’ve registered photographs, visual art, my kids’ books, the poetry, essays and novels on my desk as I work.

Photograph of Mireille Juchau.

Mireille Juchau. Photo by Joy Lai.

In an afternoon lull we browse restaged iconic artwork in the #gettymuseumchallenge. A friend has posed her daughter in homage to Gerhard Richter’s photorealist Betty. I like these deliberate substitutions: the camera-shy teenager turning away as Betty; the bearded dude with cheap clip-on as Girl With a Pearl Earring. In the lockdown version of Artemsia Gentileschi’s bloody Judith Slaying Holofernes, the sword-wielding Judith wears a wily smile.

Later, I glance at another pandemic initiative — Yiyun Li’s virtual bookclub on War and Peace (#TolstoyTogether). On my daily walk I pass the creche where a teacher is reading from Ursula Dubosarsky: ‘out comes the leopard, out comes the goose, out comes the antelope, out comes the moose!’.

I think again of those Nara deer searching the streets for food, their pale haunches, those spotted flanks. I can’t decide if pandemic rewilding of emptied cities is hopeful or disturbing but I count on writers wiser than me to eventually write about it.

Back home my youngest watches a movie, while my daughter does Zoom drama. By evening we’ve collectively consumed nearly every artform — movies, books, music, paintings, podcasts, plays, dance and theatre — all while confined at home.

Can you imagine these strange days, these days with their ‘sculptural immobility’, as Paul B Preciado calls them, unaccompanied by art? Even composing this piece, I turn to other writers to sharpen not just my language and experience, but my understanding of this sudden new world. I’m reminded that making art is a collective experience — and that consuming it is a communal one. Yet a day without art is what filmmaker Lynette Wallworth proposed to highlight the precarious state of Australian artists during the pandemic. While we’re part of a $111 billion dollar industry, contributing more to the economy than aviation ($18 billion), and an estimated 75% of people in our sector are likely to lose their jobs — a higher rate than in other industries — there has been, to date, no targeted federal government support.

As the pandemic hit, I’d just finished reading fiction as a judge for Christina Stead Prize in the 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Fellow judges Felicity Castagna, Michael Sala and I had been immersed for months in the work of writers who’ve spent years honing their craft.

One of the vital aspects of literary awards is how they cast light on work that deserves greater recognition. It was thrilling to discover books that had flown under our radar in the previous year, to read writers we hadn’t yet discovered. In Australia, where writers average $12,900 a year from writing (and have leaner years with no advances or royalties), a literary prize buys writing time. It can mean the difference between producing another book, and not.

This year, for the first time in their 41 years, the Awards were announced online. Tara June Winch’s The Yield, a boundary-pushing novel about colonial history, Indigenous language and place, took out the Christina Stead Prize, People's Choice Award and Book of the Year. In her acceptance speech, recorded from France, Tara asked the federal government to support the artistic community. ‘The years I was at my least creative were the years I was the least financially stable,’ she said. ‘We can’t tell you the story of what is happening to our society and country if the only thing on our mind is how to afford last week’s rent. There’s nothing artistically romantic about poverty.’

 

Cover of the book Throat.

Book cover for Throat (UQP).

Writers releasing books during the pandemic face a publishing world that has abruptly changed. Mununjali Yugambeh writer Ellen van Neerven spent three years working on a second poetry collection Throat (UQP). It was due out in May, but the release was brought forward to ensure the book reached stores before the lockdown.

Ellen, who turns 30 this year, had been looking forward to a ‘celebrationary year’, with invites to four international festivals including the Palestine Festival — a two-year engagement with Arabic translations of Ellen’s poetry. All have been postponed. While a bookstore launch for Throat wasn’t possible, the Zoom event that replaced it had unexpected benefits — relatives and friends from all over the world could take part. Still, Ellen says, ‘I miss the ceremony [of a live launch]. I miss feeling that the book is really out, getting to hold the book and see it in the bookstores, having dinner with friends after.’

It’s four years since Ellen’s previous collection, Comfort Food, was published. In that time, ‘you’ve hidden yourself away to write this, then there’s so much anticipation when it comes out.’ Ellen’s income has also changed significantly, and JobKeeper rules mean some writers and other sole traders are ineligible.

After a period of grieving what this year was supposed to hold, Ellen says, ‘Now I’m feeling quite creative, as if things have solidified … The pandemic has stripped a lot away, interrupting the rhythms of life and revealing the important stories.’
 

Ellen van Neerven.

Author Ellen van Neerven. Photo by Anna Jacobson.

Sydney-based writer Rebecca Giggs was set to promote her non-fiction debut Fathoms, The World in the Whale (Scribe, April) in Australia, the UK and US before the pandemic struck. Appearances at Sydney Writers’ Festival, bookstores in Australia and the US, and at Southbank Centre, London, were all cancelled. ‘The loss of those events represents a foregone opportunity to connect with readers who might never have encountered my work otherwise,’ Rebecca says. ‘And that's a significant loss because, as a debut author, you're told that it’s important people make a connection not just with your book, but with you.’

Her UK publishers have delayed her book’s release till November, and Rebecca now plans to travel to the US for the paperback release next year. Despite these unnerving changes, she says, ‘Fathoms is in a bit of a sweet spot: it’s non-fiction, but it’s not hooked to time-sensitive current events … And the book is concerned with where we locate wonder, hope and resilience, in nature: a subject that the pandemic has placed squarely in the public eye, now that so many of us are isolated and hungering for green spaces.’

Cover of the book Fathoms.

Book cover for Fathoms (Scribe).

Rebecca Giggs.

Author Rebecca Giggs. Photo by Leanne Dixson.

 

Some writers who find public speaking difficult have told me that the cancellation of author appearances is a relief. One unexpected benefit of online events is that those with caring responsibilities or disabilities that prevent travel might be more able to participate.  

Festival cancellations have made Ellen more conscious about how much air travel is involved in promoting a work. Given the impacts of climate change, Ellen believes this has to change. For now at least, many local writers’ festivals have rescheduled their events online and a host of virtual initiatives have sprung up to promote writers who’d otherwise be touring bookshops, libraries or festivals.  

Jane Rawson and Kate Harrison set up the Lockdown Reading Group through Read Tasmania to feature new releases. Their line-up includes Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron (Text, June) and Madeleine Watts’ debut The Inland Sea (Murdoch Books, March). ‘We’re trying to give a platform to writers who have books out around now and who are missing out on publicity, but also to provide comfort and entertainment to people stuck at home,’ Jane says. ‘Being read to is — for most people — very soothing.’ Other online initiatives include Together Remotely, run by writer and former festival director Caro Llewellyn, which presents local and international author interviews as ticketed events — and, importantly, will pay writers festival rates to appear.

There’s an apocryphal story circulating that enforced isolation must be ideal for writers, that they are surely churning out work during the lockdown. Writing in the New York Times, author Sloane Crosley was not the first to note the problem with this view. ‘There’s something comfortingly glib,’ she wrote, ‘about art-shaming in the midst of being told you’re a vector for death.’

Apart from the fact that stress is rarely ideal for creativity, few artists are spending lockdown creating — most require an income in addition to their writing. We are also teachers, lecturers, hospitality workers, bartenders, freelancers, part of the gig economy and often lacking superannuation or savings. We’ve been busy shoring up work, moving teaching online or adjusting to a new financial vulnerability. Some are home-schooling children while working from home, caring for infants or elderly relatives.

As the pandemic subsides and we survey the longer-term impacts of indefinitely delayed or cancelled research trips, residencies, conferences, talks and tours, we’re trying to imagine a new way of working. Rebecca says that while writers she knows are finding it difficult to work right now, ‘I know that it will be important to record what we’re going through — the texture of the lived experience of it. And adapting your practice and process to these new conditions is also necessary: because this isn’t a holding-pattern, it’s the new order. The 2020s will be a decade of great upheaval and having some elasticity in how and where you work is a skill, not a personality trait, to my mind. So that’s what I'm trying to work on.’

Mireille Juchau is an award-winning novelist, essayist and critic. Her most recent novel is The World Without Us (Bloomsbury, 2015).

This essay first appeared in SL magazine, Winter 2020.