Pandemic Stories: A New Anthology Explores Community and Creativity in the Era of COVID-19

From canceled book deals and darkened theaters, to closed churches, libraries, schools, and storefronts, to spikes in suicides and substance abuse, to unemployment claims in the tens of millions—the devastation wrought by COVID-19 and the unprecedented measures taken to "stop the spread" have forced many writers to question whether civilization itself is in decline. Others are contemplating how isolation is transforming us, wondering where will it all lead?

From canceled book deals and darkened theaters, to closed churches, libraries, schools, and storefronts, to spikes in suicides and substance abuse, to unemployment claims in the tens of millions—the devastation wrought by COVID-19 and the unprecedented measures taken to "stop the spread" have forced many writers to question whether civilization itself is in decline. Others are contemplating how isolation is transforming us, wondering where will it all lead?

Jennifer Haupt

But for Jennifer Haupt, a Seattle-based novelist (In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills) and journalist (Psychology Today), the most immediate question is, What now? This question compelled Haupt to approach the publisher of her debut novel, Michelle Halket, of the independent Canadian press Central Avenue, to undertake Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort During the Time of COVID-19 (Sept.; LJ 9/20). This anthology includes mostly original essays, poems, short stories, and interviews that highlight the pandemic experiences of 90 diverse authors. It will appear in both print and digital formats, with the print book offering 69 authors and the ebook an additional 22 authors. The ­collection was designed to raise money for independent booksellers, with all profits going to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc).

Alone Together has become a grassroots movement of authors supporting readers as well as small businesses in a time of hardship. Said Haupt in a Zoom interview with LJ, also attended by Halket, "This project solidifies the power of independent bookstores, independent publishers, socially responsible authors, and an entire community that is staying connected through books and discussing ideas. Librarians are a huge part of that community."

Big things have small beginnings

According to Haupt and Halket, there were plenty of advantages of publishing this book through a small press, including the ability to move quickly, bypassing the group decision-making that is inherently part of larger publishers. "When you come from an entrepreneurial background you can get things done really quickly," said Halket. "We were also able to rely on our creative instincts. Librarians are like us in this way that they curate outside of market forces. This project is what it is because of the smallness of it…and yet it keeps growing and growing."

                              Michelle Halket

From the beginning, the project saw a tremendous outpouring of support from authors looking for a reason to start writing again. Haupt’s thoughtful interview with Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander brings a striking opening to what is among the first literary anthologies to capture our lives during lockdown through a creative lens. Responding to Haupt’s wondering as to why it is so important that we keep listening to one another, Alexander observes, "Listening is what allows us to learn…it is that learning that we bring to our daily lives that opens up a world of possibility, about who we can be, how we can be, and what ought to be. And isn’t that where our stories come from?" The power of sharing our stories is a key theme of this ­collection. Organized into five sections—"What Now?," "Grieve," "Comfort," "Connect," and "Don’t Stop"—the ­anthology feels timely not only because the virus is still with us, explained Haupt, but because it highlights the useful conversations that have risen out of the shutdowns—e.g., strategies for helping struggling businesses on the brink of bankruptcy and dialogs forming around our personal relationships as well as issues of our republic, racial tensions, and policy reform. "I hope this book will give people things to talk about in book clubs and with friends," said Haupt.

Indeed, every entry presents an idea worth pondering. ­Richard Blanco’s arresting poem "American the Beautiful Again" describes his mother’s Cuban accent "scaling-up/ every vowel: O, bee-yoo-tee-ful, yet in perfect pitch, delicate and tuned…. How the timbre through our bodies mingled,/ breathing, singing as one.../ ...the marching band playing the only song/ he ever learned in English." "Only in America" is the feeling readers will take away from this patriotically charged hymn in verse.

Dispelling fear with knowledge

"What differentiates this book from other anthologies is there’s a story. It begins with a question and ends with some possibilities for action," Haupt said. And for those who feel powerless right now, these writings offer comfort and even escape into the abstract, allowing for meditation on deeper issues. In her essay "Ecstatic States," Lidia Yuknavitch writes, "Aloneness looks different on me. I’m in love with aloneness. I desire aloneness. I crave it. There is an erotics inside the alone."

Juxtaposing the hypercreative with more visceral, real-life concerns, selections also consider pandemic dating, sibling reconciliation, coping with job loss, giving back to the community, and managing self-care. Elsewhere, author Donna Baier Stein explores the possibilities of faith and "how uncertainty can cause us to flounder or even lash out." In the final piece in the ebook, Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor’s aptly titled poem "Last Words," we are reminded of both the power and the limits of the written word—"what/ words can/ capture spring rains,/ gently swaying branches/ when/ the/ heart/ yearns/ for routines...."

In an age when the human face—what famed photographer Dorothea Lange called the universal language—is masked and shielded, would it help if like poet Major Jackson we "pictured our shadows liberated from human forms…?" What if, as the works in this anthology attest, positivity and hopefulness were the new norm, and individuals and communities strove to lift one another up? No doubt in bookstores and libraries are good people working hard to dispel fear with knowledge; these ­institutions we must continue to invest in, support, and grow.

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