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Decoronial Writing: Pandemics, Public Health, Prose - ENG00103H

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Claire Chambers
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

The coronavirus pandemic took many by surprise. Certainly, sober warnings came from China and other countries in East Asia. However, these harbingers were underestimated by a complacent and ethnocentric West. The devastation to health and economies has been immeasurable. Whatever happens with the return to a ‘new normal’ there is no doubt the world has changed. Covid’s metamorphoses are entrenching inequalities in ways that will be difficult to reverse. Far from being a leveller, the crisis is encouraging fears about the other and widening already vast social chasms. Though we are not yet in a ‘postcoronial’ age, the virus has brought dramatic change very quickly, in a way that would previously have been unthinkable.

This module examines what I am calling ‘decoronial’ writing: literature resisting colonialism and its legacies and thinking through issues around race, class, and gender, while also exploring public health crises and unequal access to medical care. This term will be theorized and discussed at regular intervals with reference to the work of Frantz Fanon, Barbara Harlow, Walter Mignolo, and Gurminder K. Bhambra.

In the module’s first half, we will examine writers who reflect on past health crises and anticipate the future. Dealing with poverty, public health, and protest, the novels of AIDS, Ebola, malaria, and flu by Sapphire, Amir Tag Elsir, Amitav Ghosh, and Emma Donoghue prefigure our current health crisis. In its second half, we consider new works by Fang Fang, Zadie Smith, Elif Shafak, Edwidge Danticat, Tommy Orange, and Kamila Shamsie. Their diaries, essays, and short stories deal at least in part with the global Sars-Cov-2 pandemic and these tumultuous times. Renowned writer Fang found herself caught in Wuhan during the city’s stringent lockdown, and her diary sparked controversy because of its critique of the Chinese government and the swift translation into English that followed. Smith’s Intimations is a collection of six essays about 2020, in which she argues that the racism, social injustice, and lack of civil rights against which Black Lives Matters campaigns are a kind of virus: unseen, contagious, and hard to recover from. Shafak’s How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division concentrates on mental (ill) health in a ‘post-pandemic world’, and the need to listen to the other. We close the module with some decoronial fiction from the New York Times’ anthology The Decameron Project, including short stories by Edwidge Danticat, Tommy Orange, and Kamila Shamsie. In these stories the authors imagine the globe during and after the coronavirus pandemic, and embark on a painful process of reworlding.

Fang, Smith, Shafak, and the Decameron Project authors write to inoculate against the diseases of racism, anti-immigration bigotry, religious/ideological obscurantism, and mental ill health. Although very different in approach and tone, these writers explore their story universes, writing, art, and linguistic politics, making a defence of increasingly beleaguered commons across the world. These three nonfiction books and the short stories represent the first real works of ‘postcoronial literature’ in what seems likely to be an outpouring over the coming years. The module will reflect on this littérature d’urgence, the writing of immediacy and emergency.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2023-24

Module aims

The aim of this module is to introduce you to the medical humanities via important works of fiction and nonfiction anticipating or reflecting on the pandemic they have lived through. You will engage with how prose authors are working in a variety of genres to assess the impact of disease and global lockdowns on health and social justice, especially in the global south.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with writing of disease and quarantine;
  2. Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with some of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ most devastating diseases and pandemics;
  3. Evaluate key debates within the relevant critical fields dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath;
  4. Produce independent arguments and ideas which demonstrate an advanced proficiency in critical thinking, research, and writing skills.


Task Length % of module mark
3000 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

You will be given the opportunity to submit a 1000-word formative essay for the module, which can feed into the 3000-word summative essay submitted at the end of the module.

Your essay will be annotated and returned to you by your tutor within two weeks.

You will submit your summative essay via the VLE during the revision and assessment weeks at the end of the teaching semester (weeks 13-15). Feedback on your summative essay will be uploaded to e:Vision to meet the University’s marking deadlines


Task Length % of module mark
3000 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

  • You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your tutor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours
  • For more information about the feedback you will receive for your work, see the department's Guide to Assessment

Indicative reading

Indicative reading may include, though not necessarily in this order:

  1. Amitav Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome (Malaria; India)

  2. Phaswane Mpe, Welcome to Our Hillbrow (HIV/AIDS; USA)

  3. Amir Tag Elsir, Ebola ’76 (Ebola; Sudan). Trans. Charis Bredin and Emily Danby

  4. Emma Donoghue, The Pull of the Stars (1918 Flu; Ireland)

  5. Ling Ma, Severance (Shen Fever/Covid-19; US and China)

  6. Fang Fang, Wuhan Diary (Covid-19; China). Trans. Michael Berry

  7. Zadie Smith, Intimations (Covid-19; UK and US)

  8. Tabish Khair, The Body by the Shore (Covid-19; Denmark and world)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.