I Want to Hear it From the Workers: My Hope for Pandemic Literature

Featured Image: United Nations COVID-19 Response

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I read Zadie Smith’s Intimations near the end of my quarantine, just before I was called back to work. The book is a collection of short essays written during the early months of lockdown that reflect on the current COVID-19 pandemic. Intimations is the first book marketed as a book about quarantine and is credited for being the start of what may soon become pandemic literature.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear that this is not a critique of Smith or her book. Zadie Smith is one of my favorite contemporary writers, with White Teeth being one of my favorite novels. Likewise, I rather enjoyed Intimations, which I thought was a good start to what we might expect from future literature regarding COVID-19 and 2020 in general. (Smith also included an essay on the George Floyd protests). That said, I am worried that Smith’s essay collection may reflect a future standard on pandemic literature, which is mostly existential dread regarding time in quarantine. As such, it does not reflect the struggles of the workers who could not stay safe under lockdown and were forced to work during the pandemic.

Of course, it would be unfair for anyone to expect Smith to write about all perspectives of the pandemic. She is only one person and she is entitled to writing about her own experiences. Also, we cannot expect the first of anything to do everything for the genre or what is to come. I only wish to acknowledge — as I hope does the rest of the publishing industry — that there are more perspectives than that of being quarantined for months inside your home. As I was reading Smith’s collection, I was reminded that her experiences were not universal; it was one of being able to stay home and employed without the worries of unemployment, eviction, or having to work outside as a key or essential worker.

My first months of quarantine were filled with stress. I could not write. I was furloughed without any sign of returning to work. My unemployment benefits were in limbo for the longest time. I was applying to jobs and getting constantly rejected. I would text friends employed as essential workers to make sure they were still safe and panicked whenever they failed to answer my messages. I felt lonelier than I had in a long time, and everything was uncertain for the next four months.

That said, my position was a privileged position. My benefits eventually came through. I didn’t have to work until I was called back months later. Whereas I used to work nonstop to pay the rent, I suddenly was receiving temporary help from the government, and I was fortunate to have been called back to work when my benefits were depleting and the extra $600 from the CARES Act expired.

But now, I was considered a key worker. I had no more help. I was not part of the remote work revolution, so my body was at constant risk outside the house. I had to wear a mask at all times. I had to pick up extra shifts to make up for the loss of my second job. Part of my privilege was gone when I was forced to go back to work. Yet, part of my privilege remained as I was fortunate to still have a job and not be in fear of unemployment or the looming evictions occurring across the country.

I read Smith’s collection of essays knowing that I was not in the same position she was. I do not, in any way, dismiss her struggles. Remote work has been stressful for many friends and family members of mine, to be constantly in front of a screen and answering emails and phone calls without taking a break from their homes. Even those fully sustained by benefits at home have had difficult experiences. My housemates have had to find ways of entertaining their children, who were not used to being at home for days on end. And those without children, without jobs, without housemates, were faced with the existential numbness of time and solitude.

Everything had been uprooted and it is difficult for a society built on a culture of constant productivity to suddenly slow down.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reality that will not be dismissed, ignored, or forgotten. It will be written about for years as a moment where political administrations and their citizens will be judged. Art will be created to reflect the year 2020 and its pivotal historical events. And, of course, that includes literature.

My only hope is that this literature reflects the myriad of nuanced experiences that does not abandon the least fortunate. Because I want to hear from the children who did not have internet access at home and had to sit outside a Taco Bell just to do their homework. I want to hear from the Starbucks workers who had to handle giant lines of customers at their drive-thrus. I want to hear from the Amazon warehouse workers who fulfilled customer orders as Jeff Bezos’s income reached inhumane levels. I want to hear from furloughed workers who were called into work for the sake of an economy that was recklessly opened when the pandemic was obviously nowhere near over. I want to hear from essential workers who never received hazard pay or the extra unemployment benefits. I want to hear from the doctors and nurses who witnessed the worst of the pandemic as patients and bodies were rolled in and out of their hospitals. Because we are going to hear a lot of stories of staying home and waiting it out, and it should not be the singular story.

For the future of pandemic literature, I want to hear the struggles of the working-class. Intimations is the start of a budding discussion. I just want that discussion to include the workers. I want to hear it from them.