In the midst of these trying and often frightening times, four writers with recent acclaimed releases – each of which delve into a shrewd commentary on social issues – share their thoughts during a period of deep reflection.
"Sometimes it was hard to read in 2020, but over the course of it, I found it was generally better for me to read paper books set in other times and places rather than doom-scrolling on Twitter or staring glumly out of the window wishing I was a chaffinch. So, over the course of the past year I loved the strange alternative fairy world of John Crowley’s cult fantasy novel Little Big, the twisted dystopias of Nama Kwame Adjei Brenyah’s short story collection Friday Black and even the old weird, depressing Ireland of Nuala O’Faolain’s wonderful memoir Are You Somebody? (I can’t believe I’d never read her before I wrote a book of memoir writing – I probably should have my memoirist’s licence revoked).
"I also really enjoyed good essay collections because a) essays are short and b) they allow you to get out of your own head and enjoy the textures of other people’s brains. So during the pandemic, I loved Hilary Mantel’s Mantel Pieces and Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. For a while, their thoughts took up space in my head where I might have stored pointless worries. And reading Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s Ghost in the Throat – about her own life as she researched the life of another long-dead writer – was a beautifully, haunting experience that seemed to transcend all the particularities of the moment.
"As regards my own writing, I found it easier to describe what was happening in front of me than to describe how the different stages of lockdown felt (saying “it’s weird” a lot doesn’t cut it) so I was thankful to be out reporting about frontline workers – postmen, cleaners, supermarket workers – as well as generally making fun of television programmes like Tiger King or Love At First Sight for my review column. That said I’ll probably write an awful lockdown memoir/novel/screenplay at some point. I’m guessing a spate of these will come soon after the vaccine. Some of them might even be good. Mine will be terrible. I’m warning you now."
"At the beginning of this year, we read a barrage of tweets by President Trump that warned Iran against retaliation, threatening what many believed to be the start of WWIII. Fast forward a couple of months and all we heard about was the global pandemic, with posters of slogans popping up in every corner: STAY HOME, SAVE LIVES.
"We’ve also recently experienced droughts, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and even apocalyptic swarms of locusts—not to mention devastating plane crashes, deadly explosions, shootings, police violence, mass protests, and riots. During this tempestuous year, what has brought consolation to millions of people, like me, has been words. Whether it’s been reading positive news and contemplative books, writing inspirational poems, or reaching out to friends and family with reassuring messages, uplifting words have been the panacea that has slightly pulled us out of despair, made us feel a little less anxious, a little less alone, even if momentarily.
"For me, 2020 has been an affirmation of the power of words and how they have the extraordinary ability to change our lives simply by being next to each other. As an author and educator, I like to think of writing as the ultimate trinity: creation, destruction, and preservation. It is as much about destruction—or what Picasso called “a sum of destructions”—as it is about creation, for both the writer and reader. It destroys the ego, destroys misconceptions, and destroys the veil of habit through which we see everything. Writing also preserves memories that history and society ignore, narrates personal and national traumas, and gives voice to the voiceless—the disenfranchised, displaced, and oppressed. We can abolish harmful stereotypes by telling more than one story about a race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, representing the beautiful heterogeneity of human existence and experience. A writer is one who courageously uncovers their most difficult experiences that others have been programmed to conveniently ignore. They gaze long into the abyss, and instead of fearing their contradictions and perversions, instead of turning away from their shadows and ghosts, they invite them for communion.
"Researchers have been mapping the pernicious effects of social media for years, and perhaps the optimistic edge of this double-edged sword is that each of us has the potential to reach a global audience and make a positive impact. The 280 precious characters we are afforded with each tweet enables us to have a voice, and we can each use our voice to promote and advance conversation, cooperation, and empathy. Our voices can provoke and catalyse change, having political, societal, and critical impacts. We can utilise these digital platforms to unveil corrupt social systems and conventions—making real contributions to people’s lives. With that being said, however, technological advancement has come at the expense of human connection. Social media algorithms drive polarisation and have plunged us into deeper isolation.
"If 2020 has taught us anything, it is the fact that we live in a borderless world, where a crisis in one city or country is in fact humanity’s crisis. What we call “unprecedented times” has been the reality for millions of refugees experiencing social exclusion, illness, poverty, and terror. The pandemic has been our call to action, a call for solidarity and unity. I often think of E.M. Forster’s poignant words and regard them as a presentiment and a warning: “Only connect! […] Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die”.
"Excuse me while I shamelessly toot my own trumpet: my book ‘Feminism Backwards’ was published this year and to my intense gratification, I’ve had responses such as: 'MADE MY BLOOD BOIL! CAN’T STOP SCREAMING! OMG, I’D FORGOTTEN HOW CRAP THINGS WERE FOR WOMEN!' Imagine having the power to make others blood boil? Brilliant, huh?
"Lockdowns have sent us scurrying back to the bookshelves, and not just the curated ones that appear in Zoom chats. Hurray! There’s something incredibly satisfying about the SILENCE of reading. Plus, you don’t have to go hunting for a charger, you don’t have to half kill yourself tripping over tangled leads. There’s no monthly subscription! I’ve loved books since I was tiny. They take time to make. And time to read. Time, of which at the moment we have plenty."
"In a world full of constant distractions, addictive technology and seemingly endless to-do lists, it has becoming increasingly difficult to slow down and feel comfortable sitting still. We pride ourselves on multi-talking. Stress has become synonymous with success. And many of us have become afraid of silence – of being alone with our thoughts without the buffer of a screen. There is one simple thing we can do though to bridge the gap from that exhausting world to a calmer place, and that is to pick up a book.
"If you’ve fallen out of the habit of reading, it can feel intimidating to know where to start but the perfect book is out there waiting for you. Booksellers and librarians love to work their magic to uncover the perfect recommendation for you so don’t be afraid to ask. If you’ve forgotten how good it feels to lose yourself inside the world of a book, a great adventure awaits you.
"During these difficult times, it’s more important than ever to take care of ourselves and each other. To find solace, hope, connection and to escape what can feel like constant stress and anxiety. Books have the power to transport us to other worlds, to kickstart our imaginations, to evoke empathy and provoke thought and to inspire us to dream, to act and to indulge in every emotion on the spectrum. They make us laugh, make us cry and offer a reprieve from whatever our own situation may be for enough time to give our minds and bodies a rest. I believe there is a literary prescription for every ailment.
"Reading is the closest thing I have found to being able to meditate and it has been a solace throughout my entire life. The healing power of reading is not just a romantic idea, however, as it has been proven by science to have bountiful benefits for our physical and mental health. Reading literally takes years off our lives. Books are time machines, portals to wonderlands, transportation to every corner of the earth, mirrors of our souls, roadmaps to new thinking, ointments to our woes. They are lighthouses to guide us on during dark times. And they are waiting for you. Just remember, reading is forever, and not just for lockdown. Happy onward travels."
Image cred: @gutterbookshop