Italian novelist Francesca Melandri wrote a moving letter to the citizens of UK on the emotional impact of coronavirus recently. In an email interview with Avijit Ghosh, the author of this viral missive talks about why the Covid crisis is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and how it will change the world
Italy has been one of the countries worst-hit by the virus. As a writer, how has the human tragedy affected you?
Being a writer doesn’t make my response to tragedy any different from that of people who don’t write for a living. The enormity and strangeness of this crisis is totally incomparable, both in scale and in experience, to anything we’ve ever seen before in living memory, and provokes in everybody a variety of responses: fear, worry, solidarity, grief, but also the sense of being united in a common experience, albeit tragic, and in a purpose — not letting the contagion spread. As a writer, maybe, my only advantage is that by vocation and profession I am used to observing human experience — both my own and that of others — and that maybe I have the tools to try and express this whirlwind of alternating feelings.
How many days have you been under lockdown? What has been your daily routine?
I have been in lockdown now (in Rome) exactly a month. I deem myself unbelievably lucky, and am fully conscious of my privilege: not only do I live in a pleasant home, with an outdoor space which gives me sunlight and respite, but most of all I haven’t really changed my daily routine in any significant ways. I used to spend my working hours writing at my desk, and that’s what I still do. Ok, instead of going to the gym I train with online fitness videos. But I belong to that small, privileged slice of society which hasn’t seen its job and, therefore, its livelihood, disappear overnight; I do not live with an abusive spouse; I do not share a cramped apartment with too many other worried, exhausted people; I don’t have, as I used to until a few years ago, small children at home to take care of, and to somehow keep occupied, during endless school-less days. Even more poignantly, I do have a home where I can stay: I am not homeless, nor do I live in a slum. My situation is therefore not even remotely as dramatic as that of so many other people. As I said in my letter, class makes all the difference, both in Italy and — much more extremely — in India. Even being able to stay home during the lockdown is a privilege in and of itself, as this protects me and my loved ones from being infected by the virus.
How can literature help us survive this crisis?
That is exactly the magic of literature: the possibility for people to empathise and identify with lives that one would never be able to or even wish to live first hand, and therefore to have a glimpse in the rest of the human experience outside one’s immediate reach. And if there ever was a moment when the power of literature to harness global empathy has a significant role, this is it. At the same time, as I said before, nobody on the planet has, in recent memory, ever lived a situation like this one: one in which all of us almost 8 billion humans are exposed to the same biological danger. There is something awesome — as in awe inducing — in this commonality of experience. There is no doubt that the mission of a lot of the literature and art which will be produced in the coming years and decades will be to try and make sense of this.
You wrote in The Guardian article, “If we turn our gaze to the more distant future, the future which is unknown both to you and to us too, we can only tell you this: when all of this is over, the world won’t be the same.” What kind of world do you visualise?
As I said, anyone who ventures into telling the future simply hasn’t understood what’s happening, so I would rather not do so myself. What I can foresee is only that everything will be different: our societies, the global geopolitical power relationships, the role of capitalism, the relationship politics has with science and scientific research… Not to mention that aspect of our present time which seems to have been pushed aside by the news but which is, in fact, at the core of the Covid-crisis, as it’s the reason why the virus was transmitted from wildlife to humans in the first place: i.e. the relationship that we, as a human species, have with the natural habitat and the planetary ecosystem.
At this moment of history, what is your message to India?
Do not let anyone manipulate you into turning other people — especially, groups of other people — as scapegoats for your understandable fear and anxiety. If someone — authorities, people in power, demagogues — tries to convince you that sectarian conflicts are the answer to the spread of the contagion, — this only means that they are fighting against democracy, not against the virus; and that their aim is holding onto power, not protecting public health.