/ 7 May 2020

Writers on lockdown

Img 0368 (1)
Written and published under 50 days, the Corona Chronicles feature the work of more than 40 contributors. (Melinda Books)

South Africa has been locked down for almost 50 days. During this seven-week period, author and publisher Melinda Ferguson has released two books under her imprint Melinda Books. The Lockdown and Lockdown Extended anthologies (or Corona Chronicles, when referring to both) feature the work of more than 40 contributors from varying professions. There are novelists, fine artists, columnists, journalists, poets, motivational speakers, musicians and academics. With an open brief that only asked for 1000 to 3500 words about being under lockdown, each contributor takes a unique shot at making sense of the terms, conditions and consequences (some real, others fictional) of living during this pandemic.

When I first read the Corona Chronicles, I tried to read the essays in the order that they are published. But about three essays into Lockdown Extended, my mind begins to wonder about Phumlani Pikoli’s take on the open-ended brief so I skipped forward.

Titled The Great Quarantine, Pikoli’s essay uses six pages to tell an arresting apocalyptic tale. With apartheid-trained hounds, stun grenades, instantly barricaded roads, Hilux bakkies with swastikas and rich kids who negotiate their survival using drugs, money and alcohol, it’s a nightmare tailor-made for South Africa.

Although his story is fast-paced, Pikoli manages to pack a mean punch by drawing on our history and his knowledge of Pretoria’s geography, while relaying the story in a voice that could belong to Xolani, the invincible cheese-boy character from his 2019 novel Born Freeloaders.

Even though a lot of the contributors are novelists who generally operate in the speculative fiction lane, most of them chose not to write short stories. Instead the majority wrote reflective nonfiction essays that do the work of mirroring and archiving the many ways that civilians have engaged with the national mandate of a lockdown.

Although fictitious short stories are in the minority, their inclusion is necessary because it satisfies our imagination and sense of dread about the impending doom.

Although this literary potluck approach leaves room for repetition and rambling, the Corona Chronicles get away with it because of how different each writer’s style is. For example, a lot of the authors liken lockdown to imprisonment because of the limits on movement and access to vices like alcohol and nicotine. However, no two stories are the same. Perhaps it’s because even though the pandemic is a shared lived experience and our anecdotes overlap, the varied vantage points make each read unique.

There are times, however, when the pacing differences are jarring. Take the jump from Sara-Jayne Makwala King’s essay to Ben Trovato’s piece. King writes about the intersection between motherhood survival instincts and suicidal ideation. Right after that is Trovato’s satirical piece in which he offers tips on how to purposefully catch the virus. 

And that’s the thing about the Corona Chronicles: although it’s unlikely readers will enjoy both books cover to cover, they attempt to have a bit of everything for everyone. There is Pumla Gqola’s delicate outpouring about having hope, Lebo Mashile’s sharp dissection of South Africans’ use of humour to cope, Fred Khumalo’s parabolic writing about rewriting a novel based in 2020 and Rofhiwa Maneta’s descriptive walk to Pick n Pay for essentials.

The Corona Chronicles would have been easier to navigate if the essays were divided into chapters. Without that breathing space, reading the two editions on a cellphone feels similar to reading a long text on Whatsapp. The scrolling is endless and sometimes disheartening.

Before they serve the reader, the Corona Chronicles serve the writers by offering them a platform to be seen during this pandemic. As Ferguson told the Mail & Guardian, the publication of the two volumes “did an incredible thing to our battered self-esteem and psyches, being the ‘non-essential’ people that we had been declared to be by the government”.