Can stories be a portal out of our pre-pandemic ‘normal’?

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If the pandemic, and stories, are a portal, our passage is contingent on imagining something better, something new, not something old that suddenly becomes tolerable because we’ve seen worse. Photo by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When writer and activist Arundhati Roy compared the pandemic to a portal in early April, Metro Manila was two weeks into what would turn out to be among the longest, most punitive, least successful lockdowns in the world. As a historical experience, Roy said, the pandemic marked a turning point in how we see and make sense of the structures governing our lives. It occasioned a rupture of sorts, and our frail and unsustainable systems, from public health to national security, are at last exposed for what they had long been: “the wreckage of a train that has been careening down the track for years.”

We could only nod from Manila, our harried faces obscured by masks, our streets alternately empty, desolate, and barricaded with makeshift gates of discarded GI sheets, on one hand, and choked with vehicles contending with ill-planned checkpoints and haplessly stranded pedestrians, on the other. Six months later, the most visible, calculable ravages from the pandemic, such as the highest number of cases in Southeast Asia, could only rival the flagrant assault to our institutions, from the vindictive shutdown of ABS-CBN to the railroading of a dangerous anti-terror law, to which the virus all too conveniently served as a smoke screen.

What awaits on the other side of all the ruin and levelling, Roy said, depends on how we cross the portal: “Walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us [or] walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

My practice of fiction alerted me to its ready parallels with Roy’s generative metaphor. To my mind fiction also operates via imaginative work; it is also a political task that works by defamiliarization, for instance, or clearing the space for empathetic identification, both of which work on the level of consciousness. I remember, for instance, how some of us sought out books and movies about pandemics in the first weeks of the lockdown. It was a new experience, and debilitating in its newness, so any sort of “evidence” that it had happened before (and therefore surmountable) brought relief, if fleeting and just as easily contradicted by the latest fumble from Malacañang.

I remember reading with rare intensity the novel “Severance” (2018) by Chinese American writer Ling Ma, about a virus that originates in China and infects the rest of the world. A powerful book, I thought, with urgent things to say about the pitfalls of a sprawling global logistics network and the “disease” that is capitalism (victims of the fictitious Shen Fever in the book mindlessly, tediously repeat a certain action until their bodies break up — a visceral evocation of the drudgery of modern living). I also caught the South Korean movie “Flu” (2013), about a deadly strain of bird flu that devastates a district and occasions a violent militarized quarantine. The sight of soldiers in full battle gear patrolling the set-up camp and imbecilic bureaucrats making dumb decisions capture the inanity of the local pandemic response.

But there is also danger in ascribing a too literal prophetic insight to fictional stories. In the case of “Severance,” the fixation on the broad parallels — a catastrophic virus from China — opens the work to being weaponized to fuel the racism that accompanied many people’s experience of the pandemic. In “Flu,” the purported source of the virus — trafficked immigrants — plus the less than salutary behavior of panicking characters may dangerously contribute to the government’s “pasaway” narrative.

Fictional stories are most “instructive,” I feel, in these moments of overlaps and slippages, when they approximate our “real” experiences and perceptions just enough that we are jarred to take a second hard look. What fiction provides is not “information” or “facts” in the way that guidebooks or think pieces dispense things such as instructions on navigating the so-called new normal. What it provides is the imaginative clearing — necessarily collaborative between writer and reader — with which to imagine, and with work perhaps even refashion, our world anew.

But this should all be taken in the context of a material reality in which reading, or, broadly, education and recreation, is systematically denied to many Filipinos. And so even without that proverbial novel, the pandemic and its inevitable spectacle on our monitors and T.V. screens should have cast in sharp relief the utter failure and bankruptcy of the status quo, the fissures and cracks that for generations we have been taught to dismiss as “just how things are.”

Reports of our hospitals nearing capacity or our fatigued frontliners crying for a timeout, our jeepney drivers reduced to begging on the side of the road, or a record seven million families experiencing hunger — all of this ought to alert us to to the permanent state of austerity in which our social systems had been saddled for generations. A state of austerity that is pursued as a matter of policy, rooted in the structuring of the Philippine economy to conform to the demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, whose loans come with conditions that range from keeping wages low to cutting down on social spending.

This should give pause to the perhaps inevitable tendency to wax nostalgic about the “pre-pandemic world,” from sitting in traffic for hours to having Noynoy Aquino at the helm of government. There is nothing to be wistful about car-centric road policy or a disdain for urban planning. Our hospitals had always been underfunded, our frontliners chronically overworked and underpaid, hunger and joblessness a perennial problem, yes, even under Aquino.

“Emancipatory politics,” wrote Mark Fisher, “must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order,’ must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”

If the pandemic, and stories, are a portal, our passage is contingent on imagining something better, something new, not something old that suddenly becomes tolerable because we’ve seen worse. Emancipatory stories liberate from the easy, defeatist binary between an oppressive status quo and the other “carcasses” that masquerade as an alternative but in their own ways also enable the same oppression. Passing through is the first step; the next is choosing the direction.