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Sharing Stories of Hope - Saleema Nawaz

This is a personal meditation on hope and what happens when the hopeful imaginary comes into direct conflict with lived reality. 

Before the arrival of Covid-19, I wrote a novel about a coronavirus pandemic: Songs for the End of the World.

The manuscript was pitched to publishers (though I did not know this at the time) as a kind of ‘hopeful pandemic novel’. This was helpful for me to learn when I was revising, for I had never thought of it that way — I was merely trying to write a novel that was realistic. Though the story is speculative and set a few years into the future (a date that grew ever closer as I continued revising), I still thought of myself as writing within the genre of literary fiction. At times, that commitment led me into long research digressions as I tried to ensure I was getting things right: would it be believable for a virus with this particular reproductive value to spread at X rate in a population with Y density employing Z mitigation strategies? How long would it remain believable for scientists not to understand the longer-term prognosis of people suffering from the virus? Even though I was using an imaginary novel coronavirus that could theoretically behave as I chose, I wanted it to remain within the realm of possibility. As I wrestled with the complex intertwined storylines of my large cast of characters, trying to wrangle them into a set of satisfying character arcs, it turned out that I had a lot of time to carry out this sort of background research: between one thing and another, the novel took me many years to write and revise.

Over time, my commitment to realism expanded from researching pandemics and coronaviruses into the broader social response depicted in my novel: was it realistic? Was my (apparently) hopeful outlook on society backed up by facts? How have societies in the past responded in times of crisis? I turned to experts on disaster and, in the course of such inquiries, found myself reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell. I was relieved to learn that, according to sociologists of disaster, most people in a crisis — unless they are primed to believe that others will behave badly — will indeed behave with an eye to the common good. I therefore felt I was on solid ground in my assertions of how things might unfold in the opening days and weeks of a pandemic.

But the typical Hollywood-style disaster story — civil society breaking down in the face of a crisis and a single hero facing it alone — did play an important role in the creation of my novel. With Songs for the End of the World, I specifically wanted to write against this kind of narrative while also exploring the impact that such stories have on our psyches. To what degree does reality reflect the stories that we tell about ourselves? If we believe that we or others will behave badly, are we more likely to emulate that behaviour? I filled my characters’ heads with blockbuster disaster plotlines and intrusive dystopian thoughts, prompting them to wonder if they should hoard supplies for themselves or purchase guns. I have them grapple with their fears before ultimately coming together, for I believe that stories have the potential to shape our actions — and it is therefore important what stories we are telling. 

This is also part of the reason why my novel features a large cast of characters. Traditional narrative structures are centred on a single protagonist and the hero’s journey, so it is perhaps not surprising that these tales tend to relate and reinforce stories of individual heroism. But if humanity is to prevail in the face of huge, global challenges, it will be because of the actions of the many and not the one.

Ironically, for all my commitment to reality, my book is often tagged with the keyword ‘dystopian’ (on Amazon, in various library systems) since it is set during a pandemic. But while it is a disaster narrative, it emphatically is not a dystopia. While I believe that some kind of selfishness is part of human nature, I think we have a much greater capacity for community spirit and collective action than is generally reflected in dystopian narratives that, by and large, emerge from societal fears.

So as I worked on my novel, I began to believe (or understand that I already believed) that positive social change depends on hope — hope that is sparked into action. Sharing stories of hope can therefore become a kind of activism or radical act. Sometime in the late fall of 2019 before my novel went into copyedits, I wrote the dedication page: ‘to those who have and share hope’.

The novel was scheduled for release in August 2020, but everything was thrown into doubt with the declaration of the pandemic in March 2020. Thankfully, my novel was already finished, and my publisher was willing and able to release it earlier as an e-book — a fact for which I was grateful since I felt my novel had something important and urgent to say. After spending so much time considering pandemics, I wanted to share my belief that we must not retreat in fear but instead needed to come together in hope. We needed to listen to the science and to experts in public health. We needed international cooperation for this global problem. We should not listen to anyone who would risk stoking any kind of elite panic about how people en masse might choose to behave. Around this time, I had the opportunity to write an opinion piece in a national paper, and I chose to write about music as a profoundly consoling and hopeful act, referencing the balcony singers in Italy and the neighbourhood choir I (virtually) sang with in the early days of the pandemic. Unexpectedly, I found myself a kind of spokesperson for hope.

Upon the novel’s release, reviewers inevitably took notice of how much the book ‘got right’ about the current pandemic. It might indeed seem incredible — to anyone who hadn’t spent years reading about pandemics, coronaviruses, and mitigation strategies — just how many details of the novel ended up lining up with reality. But I was never trying to make predictions — I was simply trying to write a believable work of fiction. Nevertheless, I found myself filtering events through this same twisted lens of what I had gotten ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ according to what parts of Songs for the End of the World ended up coming true. I couldn’t help it. And the biggest ‘mistake’ in my novel, if one considers it through this wrong-headed lens (as I often unwillingly did) was underestimating the rise of the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. 

Although I did include dissenters in the novel — people breaking curfew, police issuing fines, citizens protesting lockdowns, and the possibility of martial law — never once did I imagine masks becoming a huge wedge issue or anticipate the popular movement of antivaxxers . . . although my novel also does not progress as far into the fictional pandemic. 

Throughout 2021, I continued to be stunned by the reality of the pandemic as it unfolded. I felt taken aback not only by the staggering selfishness and ignorance of these views, but by the way in which they felt like an affront to the notions I had cherished and professed about human nature, hope, and the nature of human beings in a crisis.

In 2021, I was interviewed about hope in pandemic novels for a German Canadian Studies journal. In the article, I confess to being ‘a bit less hopeful’ than I was while working on my novel. The anti-maskers, the anti-vaxxers, the masses of people all too willing to minimize the daily toll of the pandemic — they were starting to get me down.

Intellectually, I knew that they remained in the minority — in Canada, most polls showed at least 80 percent of people supported the mask and vaccine mandates. But the twenty percent who didn’t were still making a lot of noise.

But in rereading the interview now, the most striking thing to me is seeing how hope persists, even as I was experiencing acute disappointment. The words keep reappearing in my statement: ‘I hope . . . I hope . . .’

‘I truly hope that positive change will emerge from this crisis’ and ‘I hope we can hold on to these ideas’. In two short paragraphs, I repeat this phrase four times, as though reaffirming my commitment to hope even as I acknowledged my doubts. For I still believe hope is an essential component to positive change.

Now I wonder if hope is something more or less engrained — a kind of optimism that for some of us does ‘spring eternal’, as the saying goes. I don’t experience it as a choice or an intellectual conclusion, but as a feeling almost totally beyond my control. That’s why I believe those of us with hope have a responsibility to share it and to act accordingly.

We urgently need hope to spark action, and large-scale problems require collective movements and the mobilization of many people and society at large. These are dark days of war, the climate emergency, and a pandemic that is still infecting and killing people every day. When we start to falter in our hopeful convictions, other people — alongside books, words, art, or indeed even our past selves — can help. And when we can, we must.