April 20, 2020
Los Angeles, CA
Normally, I don’t live in Los Angeles, the city from which I’m writing to you. Under ordinary circumstances, and these are certainly not ordinary circumstances, I live in North Brooklyn, where I’ve resided for the past seventeen years. Over nearly two decades, I’ve never been away from home for longer than a month. I suppose it was just over six weeks ago now that news of the virus started to hit a fever pitch and, after canceling all the events the National Book Foundation had coming up and closing down the offices for what we then figured would only be a little while, I found myself flying to California to see my boyfriend. One last time before . . . I’m not sure what?
The day before departing, I stopped to do some errands in Manhattan, and as I walked towards the subway, Mayor DeBlasio was at a hot dog cart, with a mob of cameras and passersby crushed around him. After taking a large bite and offering a winsome smile to the cameras, he announced that New York is still in business! As I headed to the airport, I put my rent check in an envelope on my kitchen table, just in case the totally unrealistic and unthinkable happens. I suppose I knew I might not end up coming back home for the foreseeable future, or should have known if I didn’t. Nonetheless, I hastily packed six days’ worth of clothes, got on a plane, and flew thousands of miles into dystopia. When I landed, alerts flooded in announcing that The WHO had declared a pandemic, that the NBA canceled the rest of its season, and that Tom Hanks had tested positive for the coronavirus. At least I think these were the headlines. It all seems to blend together now.
In the aftermath of the frenzy and disorientation of locking down, the collective closing of our doors, it was easy to forget about work for a moment, but when I came up for air, it was all crashing down around everyone. Bookstores closed around the nation, the market was in chaos, staffs were laid off or furloughed, libraries shut their doors, authors missed their book tours and speaking gigs, literary arts nonprofits canceled public programs and educational programs—will we make it back from this, everyone wonders, and what will “back” look like? The fallout is breathtaking. None of us know what the future is any better than the scientists, journalists, pundits, or politicians, but we know it won’t be easy. We know it isn’t guaranteed. We were already on a tightrope to begin with. We’re ready to try our best. Maybe even harder than that.
I spent the first days (weeks?) in exile battening down the hatches, patching up the dam with sandbags only to find new leaks. My To Do list items: protect the tiny endowment, prepare a budget for the next fiscal year, assess the damage, develop contingency plans, call the funders, calm the team, think about everything that could possibly go wrong. In the small moments between checking off items on this endless list, there were endless calls with other directors of other literary arts nonprofits, wondering together what we would all do, where will the funding come from. The publishers are hurting too, the sponsors are taking hits, and the funders are as few as there ever were. Will the Payroll Protection Act include us? Will we be bailed out too? Who do we call? Our literary arts organizations are fragile—in resources, not in spirit. There are precious few large philanthropic bodies or wealthy patrons that purposefully and consistently support our work—unlike music, theater, dance, visual art, and film. I look at the emergency funds developed specifically for nonprofit film houses and for museums, and wonder what kind of future we will have without anyone on the literacy team. If we are largely supported by the communities we serve, and by the companies we work alongside, what happens when the bottom drops out for them at the same time? A GoFundMe rescue strategy for every literary nonprofit sounds about as chaotic and useful as governors competing against one another for medical equipment on the private market. I wish, often, that the impact our work had was more measurable, more provable, that we could show how important we are despite being left to our own (fiscal) devices so much of the time. I wish we could show how much we’ve done with (philanthropic) scraps for so long.
In real life, I already spent a lot of my time on Twitter. It’s where so many of the editors, writers, publishers, librarians, publicists, booksellers, arts administrators, literary citizens, translators, readers, and general book people that I love so much also spend their days. In a normal world, I spend most of my time on Twitter tweeting tweets full of optimism and good cheer around books and publishing. I like to remind people, over and over again, that the book isn’t dead, that books are alive and well and plan to outlive us all. On tough days, I remind and am reminded that books soothe and distract us (a point that is happily not lost on many of the quarantined). These days, though, Twitter has been both a loving companion and a sadistic oppressor. Alongside the book talk, jokes, camaraderie, and commiserating are the horrible doom scrolls. I endlessly click on links full of interactive graphs of projected curves climbing, cresting, falling—losing hours at a time. I find myself clicking again and again on articles shrieking about “nothing ever being the same” or “the next Great Depression.” I know Cuomo’s voice by heart. Newsom’s too, now. I click my teeth at outraged tweets about the lethally chaotic way that this has all played out. I cry over the dead. I cry over how many have yet to die, but most certainly will.
Locked down here in California, like everyone the whole world over, I find myself personally preoccupied with wondering what we will call this time when and if we emerge from it intact. Surely we’ve all pinned our hopes on something as we self-isolate, and for whatever reason, I want it to have a name, one name, that we all use consistently to mark this time for me and everyone else. I also want names for the beginning of this and for the end of this, for all of its phases, its shocks and hopes, and for each battle fought, won, or lost. Then, perhaps, I’ll start to understand it. More likely, I never will and it will always seem like a strange, impossible, and very long dream. Someone on Twitter jokingly called it “The Great Entroublement.” Another dubbed it “The Big Alone.” But so far, people have mostly just been calling it a pandemic.
As worrisome as I find this unnamed age, I worry, too, about who will be able to tell these stories in full relief, and who will be able to read them. My heart is, all day every day, with the essential workers, with the doctors, nurses, subway drivers, grocery clerks, farmers, journalists, UPS drivers, and all the people making human life as we know it somewhat possible. I worry for my home, New York City, and I worry for Los Angeles, my temporary one, which I will love forever for the sunshine and comfort it has given me. But my “local” community is also my professional one, and my heart is with everyone who makes sure that books are written, edited, designed, promoted, printed, shipped, and sold. Most of all, though, my heart is with all of the little nonprofits without a hero making sure that literature is well-loved, well-promoted, wide-ranging, far-reaching, and made accessible for all. Our work, especially now, is to make and promote literature that remind us that books are, now and always, essential business, even if we can’t visit the storefronts and libraries, and events we all miss so much.
Yours in the struggle,
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Lucas’s contribution will be directed to Graywolf Press.