he first time I wore a mask I was extremely self-conscious. It was a makeshift bandana–hair tie contraption and it kept slipping down my face. I wanted to smile at everyone and say, It’s not that I don’t trust you or that I think you have Covid. Or: This is for you, not me! There were no tests. Covid was everywhere. Maybe I had it. For a while, the news I brought home after any trip out in public was a report about how many people were wearing masks—or not. At first they were hard to come by. There was a pattern in the New York Times for how to make your own, there were contractor masks, and then there was an explosion of calico on Etsy. I nearly forgot about all that, now that there’s a box of free disposables at the door wherever they’re required, and now that going without one is not necessarily an act of aggression. When I recall a conversation or a trip to the store or theater, half the time I couldn’t tell you whether people were masked or not. It’s become background. It’s part of the story, but it’s not the story itself.
We started seeing submissions that referred to the pandemic as soon as March 2020. If anyone mentioned Covid or quarantine in a poem or story it stood out like a bright red flag announcing its newness, its relevance. The writing often conveyed this strange new situation with a tone of disbelief, but by the time we read it not only did we believe it all too easily, but usually that moment had already been superseded by even more restrictions, more sirens, more deaths; more disbelief and moving on from it. So much of this writing felt a few steps behind, even in a matter of just weeks or months. Which isn’t to say that Covid didn’t appear in the 2020 issues of this journal, but it was more often the defining factor of pieces we did not publish. We didn’t need anyone to tell us how strange this all was. Something stranger still was already taking place.
Covid-19 is no doubt the best documented pandemic of all time, and from March 2020 onward every day offered another article about how people were reading their way through it—or cooking or birding or tweeting or parenting or watching true crime. We were sick of hearing about it and yet couldn’t seem to talk or write about anything else. Covid still shows up in the writing we receive, just as it is still out there threatening our very lives, but by now writers are better able to get past the initial surprise—or maybe by now they’ve just had more time for revision. Instead of trying to deliver the news of the pandemic as if it’s new to the reader too, they treat it as the means to a more personal, idiosyncratic, or otherwise unexpected exploration, or just as background.
Once this issue was closed and ready for layout, I thought that it was probably our most Covid-inflected issue yet. Finally writers had managed to break through our Covid-reading malaise or just managed to make it subtle enough to avoid a “here we go again” response from our staff readers. Zoe Valery’s piece, for one, uses the quarantine to explore the “infra-ordinary,” as it came to dominate her domestic life. In M. Colón-Margolies’s story, the outbreak changes the course of her characters’ relationship, but the story doesn’t try to show the reader what happened in 2020 as if they didn’t already know.
But when I look more closely at these pages, I realize that Covid is barely mentioned at all, and yet it feels known and understood. Despite cries that everything has changed since 2020 (as similarly everything had changed after September 11, 2001), pieces that were written or that are set pre-Covid still pertain profoundly to this much-changed world. The translated poems by Meret Oppenheim and Daniela Catrileo were originally published in the 1930s through 2018; which immediate events were these writers responding to? This work doesn’t need to contain the facts of the day to convey its urgency. Much of the other writing here seems to precede the pandemic in either its setting or its composition, or just to elide it, and yet it doesn’t seem like the writer is presenting some irrelevant past. It’s just that these writers are able to fully inhabit, imaginatively, a world that preceded 2020, as well as they can inhabit this new one.
For a while it was riveting news to my immediate family when I would come home and announce, “I think we’re up to 90 percent masking!” or “There are N95s at the drugstore today!” But it was only riveting and only news for about five minutes. How many people were wearing them at the polling place last week? How many Covid references are in this new issue? It’s hard to say. By now Covid is everywhere and nowhere at once.