Literature is the place where humanity keeps its reference points for events that we cannot individually imagine, because they are beyond our own personal experience.
In recent weeks, writers, scholars, and other readers have turned to their shelves, pulling down and dusting off works like Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) and Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), or turning to the relevant sections of the diary of Samuel Pepys, who survived the plague of 1665, a calamity that shuttered London and felled thousands of its residents. Our minds have gone immediately to the citations filed under the many names for this particular calamity: plague, pandemic, outbreak, contagion. We have searched these texts for their insights, and talked with friends and colleagues about how we might best apply that knowledge to the situation we now face. “The only means of fighting a plague is common decency,” Camus writes, and we take note.
Literature is the place where humanity keeps its reference points for events that we cannot individually imagine, because they are beyond our own personal experience. Most of us, in the United States, have not survived a plague—though there are lessons we can draw from listening to those who have. So we turn first to depictions of plague, to see how novel diseases move not only through bodies but also through cities and societies, through families and communities, through registers of understanding, which include the emotions. We want to know: what does a pandemic do? How does it strike, and how does it inflict damage? How can we mitigate its harm, overcome its frightening power over our lives, and rebuild our worlds—or build new ones in its wake?
We are right to be specific; specificity of context—historical, linguistic, cultural—is one of the most important attributes of the work of the humanities. We put ourselves in real intellectual and moral peril when we begin to make comparisons that cannot reasonably hold. And yet, when I think about what now confronts us, I feel that we would be remiss to limit ourselves, even initially, to the set of texts that speak directly to the experience of pandemic. We must also read for all of the other things we’ll need in the months and years ahead. As African American Studies scholar Eddie Glaude Jr. wrote movingly in a recent opinion essay, “those who survive this madness will have to figure out how to live together in the company of grief.”
The book I think of first when I think of grief on a catastrophic scale is the 2013 memoir titled, simply, Wave. It was written by the economist Sonali Deraniyagala, and anyone who has read it will never forget it.
When she woke up on the morning of December 26, 2004, Deraniyagala had a family. Within hours of that daybreak, she had lost them: parents, husband, children. All at once they were taken from her by the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka without warning, one of a great many tidal waves caused by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean that swept away nearly three hundred thousand lives on the coastlines of fourteen countries on that day. In her memoir of survival and of mourning, Deraniyagala writes, “I thought nothing of it at first. The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual. That was all.”
These opening lines of the book are so emphatically calm, almost indifferent. They now remind me of how easily so many of us, across an ocean from the initial outbreak of this novel coronavirus, brushed off its emergence into our interconnected world. Within a few short paragraphs, Deraniyagala’s description of the wave escalates in urgency, showing how rapidly disasters can outpace our comprehension and response: "We had no time. We had to be fast. I knew that. But I didn’t know what I was ﬂeeing from.”
She and her husband and sons sprinted to a vehicle outside the hotel. They could see the water rising. She recounts, “The jeep rocked. It was ﬂoating, the wheels no longer gripping the ground. We kept steadying ourselves on the seats. No one spoke. No one uttered a sound. Then I saw Steve’s face. I’d never seen him like that before. A sudden look of terror, eyes wide open, mouth agape. He saw something behind me that I couldn’t see. I didn’t have time to turn around and look. Because it turned over. The jeep turned over." She never saw her husband or her sons again; her parents never made it out of their hotel.
The memoir of what follows in the life of just one person in the wake of the tsunami is one of the most wrenching retellings of grief that I have ever encountered. But the book balances the suffering of the survivor against the memorialization of those she has lost, beautifully imparting to its readers a series of insights into the dark experience of grief.
Deraniyagala writes, of her own response to the immediate aftermath of the wave, that she could not absorb the reality of her loss. “I can’t live without them. I can’t. Can’t,” she writes. She determines that she must grasp what she has lost, not in its overwhelming entirety, but piece by piece, detail by detail. “I began to teach myself the impossible,” she explains. “We will not fly back to London. The boys will not be at school on Tuesday. Steve will not call me from work to ask if I took them in on time. Vik will not play tag outside his classroom again. Malli will not skip in a circle with some little girls.”
It is difficult—one can reasonably say almost impossible—to survive that kind of grief. So how did she? Deraniyagala tells us that her life was saved by the constant eﬀorts of other people. They reached out to her, knowing that she was beyond their reach: "I was never left alone. An army of family and friends guarded me night and day. Natasha kept hold of me, not leaving my side for half that year."
Deraniyagala is persuasive in her description of the value of genuine friendship and care in a time of grief. The knowledge of that support, felt at the level of the survivor’s body, a body stranded in time and wrenched away from its most intimate connections, made it possible for her to continue living. But in order to not only survive, but also, in her words, to “recover herself,” she eventually found that she needed to draw closer to those she had lost. To do so, she needed to return to the places that held meaning for her family before the wave swept everything away—including the site of the disaster.
In the “dust, rubble, shards of glass,” to which the hotel on the coast had been reduced, she finds fragments of her family’s life, belongings that she recognizes, scraps of paper and fabric that were small pieces of the last objects her sons and husband had held. In this “shattered landscape,” it is difficult for her to believe that her experience had been real—that it had really happened—until she sees and feels the material evidence.
She returns also to the home she shared with her family. Of the house, which had remained as she left it before the unimaginable occurred, she writes, “this morning I find myself clinging to its familiarity, which soothes me somehow.” And she is surprised to conclude that she wants to continue returning to the house. Her subsequent visits unfold over the course of years. Later in the book, she reflects, “It’s different, my visit to our home this time. When I returned previously, I could endure only cautious glances at my family. I looked now and again but mostly wanted to keep them a blur. Now I can hardly take my eyes off them . . . I am rediscovering them, almost. I amass details of them, and us.” The closer she draws to the life she had lived before the disaster, the more fully she is able to live in the present. This is a kind of knowledge, she argues, one that powerfully guides us through grief.
She ultimately commits to remembering her loved ones in as much detail as possible, and to keeping them clearly in her mind rather than attempting to escape her grief by forgetting what she had known so intimately and so deeply. She explains the process by which she came to this conclusion, writing, “the more I remember, the more inconsolable I will be, I’ve told myself. But now increasingly I don’t tussle with my memories. I want to remember. I want to know.” Deraniyagala insists that a meaningful survival of grief must involve a new kind of intimate knowledge of the self and its sustained interdependence with those who were lost. “I have learned that I can only recover myself when I keep them near,” she explains. “If I distance myself from them, and their absence, I am fractured. I am left feeling I’ve blundered into a stranger’s life.” Her memories of her loved ones reflect back to her that she is recognizable to herself. To be reoriented in the present by a deep knowledge of the past does not resolve her grief, but it does sustain her.
What brings her no comfort—and what holds no meaning for her—is the practical knowledge of how the wave had occurred, and what had caused it, in the physical world. On her first trip back to the site of the disaster, she observes: “I had learned some facts by now, so I recited them in my head. The wave was more than thirty feet high here. It moved through the land at twenty-five miles an hour. It charged inland for more than two miles, then went back into the ocean. All that I saw around me had been submerged. I told myself this over and over. Understanding nothing.”
In our current moment, we are desperate for answers: what is this disease? How does it spread? What are its symptoms? How many people have it? Who is most susceptible? Our collective preoccupation with understanding the what, when, why, and how of this pandemic presses us into new ways of living—closures, sheltering, distancing—and have dominated our conversations and concerns. We use ever changing epidemiological models and freshly published peer reviewed studies to try and keep ourselves safe—to feel some semblance of control over our collective and individual well-being. But Deraniyagala’s memorialization of those closest to her is a caution to us: scientific discovery is precisely what will feel most irrelevant to survivors who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. While scientific knowledge will crucially chart the effectiveness of our response to the virus and limit casualties, it will never grant solace, nor will it resolve grief.
Reading Wave in this moment also productively encourages us to complicate how we understand something like a pandemic in relation to other largescale disasters. While the coronavirus is frequently (and problematically) described as an “invisible enemy” with which we are “at war,” Deraniyagala’s story encourages a more nuanced understanding of what we face. As professor and writer Kate Brown points out, COVID-19 can be understood not only as a disease but also as an ecological disaster. She is careful to distinguish between ecological and natural disasters—the former arising not from the ongoing processes of geological time, like earthquakes and tsunamis, but instead from human activities that disrupt the fragile ecologies of which humanity is a part. Brown turns to recent Katz Lecturer Anna Tsing, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who tells her, “we have created a set of dangerous environments, and we can’t just keep imagining that we can exclude them or put them elsewhere.” Brown writes, “in an effort to expand our reach across the planet, we have cornered ourselves.” Through such a reframing, we are encouraged not to be further embattled with the natural world, but to imagine new ways of being an ethical part of it.
Pressed into that corner, trying to read our way through the disaster, and trying to find our way out of it, what holds promise for me is the possibility that we will integrate what we learn and discover during this time—from all our fields of study and endeavor—into a knowledge that will sustain us in the time ahead.
Rachel Arteaga is Associate Director of the Simpson Center and Associate Program Director for Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics, a public scholarship program generously funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In these roles, she works closely with the faculty Director and in collaboration with all members of the Simpson Center staff on the development, implementation, and assessment of academic projects, initiatives, and programs central to its mission.