COVID-19 SPECIAL

Coronavirus lockdowns, quarantines get real, literally

Authors Thea Lim, Danielle Lim and Katie M. Flynn's stories about viruses have become frighteningly relevant during these Covid-19 times

THEA LIM (above left),  who wrote An Ocean Of Minutes
THEA LIM (above left), who wrote An Ocean Of MinutesPHOTO: COURTESY OF DANIELLE LIM

They created stories in which viral diseases devastate society. Now, they are living through the reality of a pandemic.

"It feels a bit like I've courted disaster," says Singaporean novelist Thea Lim, who in 2018 published An Ocean Of Minutes, a dystopian novel in which a flu pandemic devastates the world.

In that same year, polytechnic lecturer Danielle Lim published Trafalgar Sunrise, which is set during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis in Singapore.

Neither had any clue then how frighteningly relevant their work would become in two years' time, nor how much appetite the world would have for virus literature while an actual pandemic raged.

Novels such as Albert Camus' The Plague (1947) and Dean Koontz's The Eyes Of Darkness (1981), which features a fictional virus called Wuhan-400, are back on the bestseller charts.

Even so, it has been tough for new authors such as Katie M. Flynn, who set her debut novel, The Companions, in an America under quarantine because of a highly contagious virus - only to be confronted with the real-life challenges of publishing a book in a lockdown.

"I am in a support group for writers who are releasing books during Covid-19," says the 42-year-old over Skype from San Francisco.

"Independent bookstores have shut down, Amazon has delayed the mailing of books to customers and our events have all been cancelled. So we're trying to get creative and come up with online, virtual ways of getting the word out."

In The Companions, the living are sequestered in high-rise towers to avoid infection, while the consciousnesses of the dead are uploaded into robot bodies and leased out by the corporation that owns them, Metis, as "companions".

These range from rudimentary rolling cans to top-of-the-line bodies able to pass as human. Those who can afford it remain in their families' custody, while the less fortunate are rented out to strangers for whatever uses they deem fit.

In a series of interlinking perspectives, the novel follows Lilac, a murdered teenager who becomes a companion to a lonely, quarantined girl, then winds up on the run from Metis.


Katie M. Flynn, who wrote The Companions. PHOTO: COURTESY OF KATIE M. FLYNN

Flynn says she has always had an "unhealthy fascination" with outbreaks, and started writing stories about them in 2009, when the H1N1 pandemic struck.

"I think I was particularly interested in this idea of quarantine and how, under these circumstances, we seem to lose some of our basic rights," she says.

I imagined it would be a very grotesque, loud disease that would unbalance the world. In actuality, something like Ebola is less likely to spread worldwide because it's so visible. So coronavirus is disorienting, since its danger lies not in drama but in the opposite: the virus' silence. 

THEA LIM  who wrote An Ocean Of Minutes

I was particularly interested in this idea of quarantine and how, under these circumstances, we seem to lose some of our basic rights. 

ATIE M. FLYNN, who wrote The Companions

Being able to connect to the fears and struggles of the characters in my book living through Sars and leprosy will hopefully help readers to feel that they are not alone, that the world has been through similar illnesses, and that we will find a way to come out of this. 

DANIELLE LIM  who wrote Trafalgar Sunrise

"I also see quarantine as being emblematic of our contemporary relationship to technology, which we use to connect but can also cause tremendous isolation. Many of us live our lives in a detached manner, and it's not until we can't go out that we realise how much we really need to be around other people."

She has noticed that catastrophes such as pandemics will often prompt a swift wave of hysteria, followed by forgetfulness.

"After this outbreak and very lengthy quarantine, most folks will go back to their normal lives and not necessarily want to linger on what happened. That's understandable.

"But there are people who are left behind, who live on the edge and don't have the safety net to get through something like this."

CONNECTING TO FEARS

It was history both recent and forgotten that Danielle Lim, 46, had on her mind when she wrote her novel Trafalgar Sunrise, which is dedicated to healthcare workers through the ages.

Lim's husband works in a hospital and their first child was two years old when Sars struck.

"It was an extremely frightening experience, partly because Singapore was not as well-prepared then as it is now," she recalls. "We were caught off-guard and hospitals found themselves at the front line of the battle somewhat unprepared. Doctors and nurses became infected; a few succumbed. It was like fighting an unknown, unseen, diffused enemy all over the place."

Trafalgar Sunrise, which was shortlisted for the Singapore Book Awards last year, follows Grace Hwang, an oncology nurse who finds herself on the front lines of the fight against Sars.

Grace has a secret: She grew up in a leper asylum, Trafalgar Home, a real historical place that was established in the 1920s on the Trafalgar rubber estate off Yio Chu Kang.

Even as she watches colleagues sicken and die and frets if she is bringing the virus home to her own family, she is also caught up in helping Alice, an old friend from the asylum. Now on her deathbed, Alice has one last chance to reunite with the daughter she was forced to give up for adoption before a cure for leprosy was found.

Lim, who co-won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016 for The Sound Of Sch, her memoir on mental illness caregiving, says human suffering is at the core of all her writing.

"Being able to connect to the fears and struggles of the characters in my book living through Sars and leprosy will hopefully help readers to feel that they are not alone, that the world has been through similar illnesses, and that we will find a way to come out of this," she says.

"If we are to hope for a better world, then we must try to create a better world ourselves, by our own beliefs and actions, no matter how small. And to be able to do this, we must search for the small pockets of beauty and hope amid all the trials and struggles. To overcome this crisis, everyone has to work together, to do their part."


Danielle Lim, who wrote Trafalgar Sunrise. PHOTO: PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE CANADA

In Thea Lim's An Ocean Of Minutes, Singapore makes a cameo as the one place that successfully eradicates the pandemic by handing out free pharmaceuticals to all citizens and also sending medicine to Sri Lanka and Hong Kong, the nearest island states with large surviving populations, to ensure it will still have trading partners.

The novel, which was shortlisted for Canada's Scotiabank Giller Prize, follows a young woman, Polly, who is trapped in Galveston, Texas, during the outbreak. She volunteers to travel forward in time as an indentured worker so that her boyfriend Frank, who has the virus, can be bumped up the list for treatment.

They arrange to meet when she arrives 12 years in the future, but she is re-routed mid-flight and, when she arrives, he is nowhere to be found. She also finds herself in a bureaucratic dystopia where the United States and America are now separate countries and she is in the less fortunate of the two.

Lim, 38, based her fictional pandemic on H1N1 and Ebola.

"Like so many other virus writers, I imagined it would be a very grotesque, loud disease that would unbalance the world," says the Canada-based author. "In actuality, something like Ebola is less likely to spread worldwide because it's so visible. So coronavirus is disorienting, since its danger lies not in drama but in the opposite: the virus' silence."

Unlike many virus novels, which resolve with the discovery of a vaccine, Lim was more interested in a pandemic's long-term economic and cultural fallout - which she says is what looms post-Covid-19.

"How will we protect all the people whose livelihoods have been wiped out?"

Time travel in the novel becomes a way to talk about immigration and what transient foreign workers - which Polly becomes after arriving in the future - experience. In real life, migrant workers living in dormitories have become the community hardest-hit by the coronavirus in Singapore.

"As I was writing An Ocean Of Minutes, the plot led me to think about the invisibility of labour," says Lim.

"Once it was complete, part of the novel's focus became the attempt to make labour visible: I tried to write the stories of people whose job is to labour invisibly, so the rest of us can enjoy a lavish lifestyle.

"This is one of Singapore's greatest moral challenges: We are wilfully ignorant towards migrant labourers because that absolves us of concern about their way of life - in cramped conditions, perfect for virus spread - and it contributes to the magic. Our beautiful country appears to have sprung, fully formed, from the ground."

She adds: "The smart thing to do now is, by chance, also the moral thing to do: to stop the virus spread by taking care of our labourers, to change their living conditions and treatment permanently, to start seeing clearly.

"I don't know if this practice of self-serving care will eventually morph into true care. Could Singapore become a world innovator in fair labour? I hope so."

• An Ocean Of Minutes ($17.95) is available here. The Companions ($29.95) is available here. Trafalgar Sunrise ($19.99) is available here.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2020, with the headline 'Lockdowns, quarantines get real, literally'. Subscribe