We will be needing a mass grave for the texts that won’t have survived the pandemic

Kyoko YOSHIDA writes fiction in English, translates contemporary Japanese poetry and drama into English, and American fiction into Japanese. For 2019-2020, she’s an academic visitor at Oxford University and University of East Anglia. She is based in Kyoto. @kyoshidatwee, kyokoyoshida.net


A Letter from Oxford.

Right now, we are stuck in Oxford, England, where my husband Raphaël and I are spending our concurrent sabbaticals. From the very beginning of our yearlong stay in September 2019, our life became progressively sparer. When we arrived, the eighteen boxes we had shipped from Kyoto hadn’t arrived yet, so we lived out of our suitcases, shivering in summer clothes. We had to borrow blankets from the retired professor and his scholar wife whom we had only met once. Those blankets really saved our lives in the damp cold of the English autumn.

Eventually the boxes arrived on the last day of October, the morning I was about leave for a conference trip to the United States (I grabbed my winter coat before running out of the apartment), but we still live without TV, or microwave, or car, or bookshelves—perhaps the most important piece of furniture for people of our kind. Presently, towers of books have grown on the coffee table and the windowsills in the bedroom.

This fall, the UK universities nationwide went through serious labor negotiations, and more than a few lectures and events were cancelled due to what the British call “industrial action.” From mid-February on, talks and lectures got cancelled, and by mid-March, as the industrial action became blended with cautionary sanitation measures, we were witnessing the Oxford colleges—originally monasteries walled off from the sinful infection of the secular world—closing their little gates one by one, like going back to the medieval times. The Bodleian Libraries sent us an encouraging message that they’ll keep operating as usual, but within a week, after the government’s announcement to close everything except essential shops and services, the libraries closed their doors too, only three hours after sending out the e-mail announcement.

Now we are living as if at the ultimate writers’ retreat--we wake up at 7 am, read and write quietly till noon when we convene for lunch, after which we take a long walk or a bike ride, the precious once-a-day going-out for exercise allowed in this country. After the afternoon hours of more relaxed reading and writing, we have early supper—now that we cannot eat out, I try to cook something simple but comforting, though we allow ourselves takeout once a week—and as Raphaël does after-supper dishes, we listen belatedly to the 6 pm BBC news, a new habit for these two Americanists. We call it “the doomsday news” only jokingly because it starts with the alarming toll of Big Ben and the bell keeps tolling as the caster announces the top headlines, and the top news is indeed the nation’s death toll, so outside the confinement of household intimacy this isn’t too funny. After a few hours of evening work, we convene again to watch an episode of a drama series or half a movie on the tablet propped up on the bed in front of us. Then we read in bed till we fall asleep.

We can afford the simplicity of life in retreat because we are a family of two without children, we are visiting academics living in a foreign country away from all the troublesome details of work and community, we understand the language almost perfectly, and because we are not surrounded by milliard of little commodities we possess—the things—that we have to take care of or that distract our attention. In the eighteen boxes we shipped from Japan, there were plenty of clothes for this and that purposes. Some nice shoes you thought you would need, living in Oxford. These things have lost their significance so quickly that you wonder, looking at them, if you ever are going to need them again in your life.

So are some writings. Among the projects I’ve been engaged in, I’ve been helping to edit a special Japan issue of a London literary journal. It was supposed to coincide with the Olympics, like so many other Japan-related cultural events. From the beginning, Naoko Mabon, a talented young art curator based in Scotland and the guest editor of the issue and I were skeptical about the wonderfulness of the opportunity to become one with the rest of the nation, which was what the Japanese authorities seemed to promise with the Olympics, so from the onset the spirit of our issue wasn’t flag-waving at all. But from February on, the situation in East Asia deteriorated, including the episode of Diamond Princess, as if perfectly scripted for the live feed 24H news show outrage; then the calamity came to Europe, and finally the situation was officially announced as a pandemic, and Tokyo had to give up the Summer Games.

In the process, it really hit us that some of the writing faded especially fast in our editors’ hands. Other writing, on the other hand, remains solid, and some other yet even gains urgency. We experienced this rapid fading of some writers and literary texts over time since 2017 in the light of the #MeToo movement, but this time, some writing has wilted rapidly in the amazing fast-forward speed we are living. We will be needing a mass grave for the texts that won’t have survived the pandemic. We had imagined a bustling cityscape as a picture of a fast-forward life, but it is actually the deserted cities, devoid of human activities, that are fast-forwarding our civilization.

Yet, whether your writing will survive or not, this is the time to read and write. Now strangers say hello to each other while keeping two meters apart. Any one of us might not survive, which is why we wave to the delivery people from the distance and collectively applaud the health care workers on Thursday nights.

After we have gone through this, we will be able to touch and hold each other, but I believe many things will have lost their tangible presences—not just that we’ll have lost lives, but a good part of reality and human experience will move to the Internet for good. The US Postal Service, for example: we might come out into the world where postcards won’t be delivered. I am planning to send random dispatches of poems written by my friends using snail mail because right now I’d be happy to find in my mailbox a tangible piece of paper with a poem printed.