Our current times have the makings of a magnum opus: detention and disease, political drama, fashion twists that have merged ties and tennis shoes at virtual board meetings, collectivist spirit taking to the streets to show the bastions of power that all lives matter, and, of course, frontline heroes in daily combat to reduce tragedy. This epic saga, whose time had come, is best captured by the phrase of the year — “I’m sorry, I was muted.” Ironically, those words approximate the state of the pandemic-ridden storyteller: as the land began to shift beneath us, our imaginations too, were muted, without warning.
But wasn’t seclusion, living in a cabin outhouse in the woods, the writer’s pipedream; to merely be, and allow your imagination to march to a marvel? Then why has the pandemic thrown storytellers off-the-kilter? Admittedly, writing is a solitary act — one I wouldn’t hurriedly wish upon anyone — yet the act of creating, imagining, sculpting and telling a story, isn’t. Birthing a story, much like a child, is meant to be generative, it involves co-mingling and co-creation, an invitation to dance. With stifled imaginations, stuffed in locked four-by-four squares, that invitation got aborted, proving Covid-19 to be a stalemate for writers.
Stumbling upon a book on a mantelpiece, the final, crafted invention with a dark, delightful plot and an eye-catching cover, makes it difficult for readers to absorb the messiness, fluidity and ambiguity that goes into its making. Yet we know that the writing process is anything but linear and sanitised. Crafting a story is akin to a field experiment, tossing everything into the mix, especially during early stages, staying patiently with it for a few years, hoping it will metamorphosise into something. As the story advances, it turns into a puzzle; you keep rejigging until the pieces fit. This past year, the natural laboratory, our world, which offered writers a stew of ingredients and influences, shuttered overnight. The experiment was abruptly disbanded, making it impossible to solve the puzzle anymore.
This was no tiny modification for storytellers, whose imagination and experiences are their primary resources and lifeline; isolation cut us off our raw material. It catalysed a transition from exteriority to interiority, with no outside stimulus left to engage with. For writers, the shift between 2020 and the years preceding it, appear in stark juxtaposition; the latter, a potpourri of experiences that forged inspiration for our writing — cherry blossoms pushing their way into spring, orange and black kurtas, wrinkled but luscious, parading across a clothesline, strangers conversing through sign language whilst crossing the English Channel, a string of medieval tunes emanating from street squares, a crow and a grocery basket comfortably sharing a balcony railing, women applying kohl on the jagged rooftops of old cities — derivatives from those experiences found their way into the written word, authenticating the vignettes we created. How else could we build these imaginary worlds; we had watched, heard, sometimes lived those moments, then employed artistic license to craft stories around them. They offered a form of empirical investigation and travel, often without getting on a plane, yet which held the power to transport us. I struggle to think of how I might have depicted scenes in my debut novel, Skyfall, without the days and nights spent note-taking on rooftops and alleys that readers eventually immersed in. Would they appear synthetic?
In comparison to the vivid, visceral adventures that previously informed our writing, the pandemic stands like an uninterrupted ocean, of bleakness and timelessness. Hunkered down in limited spaces — unless one superbly jogs their memory — the spur for storytelling has been snatched from in front of our eyes. Covid-19 has significantly punctured the procurement of new external stimuli for writers. In such a vacuum, what might be a storyteller’s muse?
Physical distancing has also paved way for inside chaos. As a writer, I complement experience-gaining with finding spaces, tiny windows, to pause and process, especially when outdoors; it is in those instances that a “light-bulb” flashes, a sentence or character germinates. Yet, Covid, as if mocking the outside solitude, rendered the in-house treadmill unstoppable. Uncluttered emotional and physical spaces were quickly swallowed by phonics practise, hoover hums, and toddler tear-wiping, demanding seamless slipping into that revered and otherwise inaccessible title of “SuperMom” — a patriarchal pandemic indeed. I sometimes wonder, will sharing office space with my new three- and four-year-old co-workers, lay my storyteller identity extinct?
As Elif Shafak beautifully puts it, the harem within, especially for women writers, has lifted its head; at the crossroads of motherhood, storytelling, working-from-home, infused with guilt and disoriented nerves, the pandemic raises key questions for writers: Where from here? Can we piece together a story cradled in fragments? Reconcile the mixed, clobbering emotions of supermom and storyteller, embrace the ongoing vulnerability and chaos, and distil from it, the simplicity of a folk song? Can this orchestra of cacophonous voices and incoherent feelings play a harmonious symphony in our stories?
The storyteller in me suspects an affirmative answer though not without thick challenges; our stories — be they meditative social autopsies or escapist fancies, to soothe or make us seethe — will take flight. The thing about stories is, they are our “songs”, our deep listening to the world’s rustling, of pushing back against the quiet desperation of our lives. They work as a foil to tough times, an invitation to imagine a better, less divided world. As such, they can be life-changing. How, then, can they standstill forever? Our words may have turned sluggish, been disrupted, just like our world, yet for them to permanently vanish, would run contrary to the human endeavour. Be they around a campfire or over metallic screens, stories will persist, prevail, outlive us, much like love and the indomitable human spirit. For now, what matters is unmuting ourselves to excavate the tales we are so desperate to tell, which are lynchpins for human courage, desire and happiness — that, is the only constant. It won’t be easy but ultimately, the storyteller within us will dial up; she has to, to make these times both bearable and memorable.
Khan is the author of the novel, Skyfall, recently released by Bloomsbury and works at NYU Abu Dhabi.
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