INTERVIEW APRIL 2020
ELLIOTT COLLA in LOCKDOWN IN WASHINGTON D.C.
Where you are currently living and are you needing to self-isolate in your country?
I was in Cairo in late February-early March, just as news of the first Egyptian cases were coming in. I was there to deliver a couple of lectures and also to see friends, conduct research, and collect books. One afternoon, I went on an errand that took me through Ataba, one of the densest quarters of that crowded city. And while walking through crowds of five or ten thousand people in the space of a couple of city blocks, my mind began to race as I tried to calculate all the people that we as a temporary collective had touched during the course of that day. This is to say: there are lots of places on Earth — and Ataba is one of them — where social distancing is not a realistic option.
Later that evening, I was in an old café, smoking sheesha with a journalist friend. We began to talk about the many other mouths that might have been on our pipes that day, or week. And soon all these microbiological intersections began to impress themselves onto our imaginations. In a crowded city like Cairo, there’s no stopping once you start imagining all the points of contact we have with people — strangers and friends — during the course of a day.
I cut short my trip and returned home to Washington, DC when it was clear a shut-down was coming. Since March 16, we have been at home, first under advisement and now under legal orders. Outside, our normally busy street is nearly traffic-free. But people are out walking and running during the day. The buses pass by without stopping, almost all of them empty. I go for longer and longer runs in our woods and along the Potomac River. Now, the way you show neighborliness and solidarity is by keeping your distance from people as you pass them on the sidewalk, trail or bike path.
Washington, DC is not a city at the moment. The municipality has ordered all non-essential workers to stay at home. Turns out, that means everyone who does not work in public works (like water, garbage collection, and electricity), service (like food provision) and health care. Teachers and professors continue to teach, via the internet, and students continue to learn, virtually. This means, at present, the highest-paid residents of the city — lawyers, consultants, economists, lobbyists — have all stopped reporting to work, even though they continue to receive paychecks. Meanwhile, the lowest-paid workers are more essential than ever. What will happen when the professional-managerial class — to which I belong, no doubt — realizes its non-essential character?
Even the seasons have changed this year as if to underscore the fact that we’ve been turned upside down. Usually, there are weeks — even months — between the blooms of our trees and bushes and flowers. This year, the snowbells, crocus, daffodils, hyacinth, tulips, cherry, pear, quince and peach overlapped with one another in a riot of color. On windy afternoons, it rains pink and white petals. Now the redbuds are exploding with buds, and the dogwood is threatening to do the same. The only thing that’s truly routine is that the shad are running in the Potomac, as they do at this time every year. The normally placid water seems to churn with electricity as the fish gather in huge schools before beginning their climb up local cataracts.
As a teacher, I believe that the most important thing I teach is that society exists, that we are tied to one another through our love and nurturing, our labor and consumption, building and trading and so on. It used to take a lot of effort in the classroom to show how points of contact — like walking in a crowd or drinking a cup of tea — mark a kind of meaningful human connection, a trace of the real ties that join us as a society. Now that these points of contact and connection register as vectors and risks, everyone suddenly recognizes the interdependence that undergirds society. The work to come will involve learning to see neighbors and strangers in positive, solidaristic terms as positive values, not just as dangers and threats. Unfortunately, there will be many in my country who oppose this sort of recognition, and who greet any crisis as confirmation of End Times.
How are these surreal days influencing your normal writing process?
It has not been easy to write or read during these past weeks. This is an emergency, only unlike other emergencies, we’re not allowed to gather together to discuss it in person, and we’re not allowed to go out into the street to take collective action to stop things from becoming worse. These are not normal times — and I don’t want to go about my day as if we weren’t living in an emergency. But what I can do is go back to my writerly habits: observe, take notes, connect, listen. If I can do one of those things a day, I call it a success.
I spent the first days scrolling through newspapers and social media feeds looking for any information about what was happening. My inboxes are filled with new email lists and text chains. My next-door neighbor gives me the same medical advice that my mother tried to give me, about how if you gargle with vinegar, you can’t get sick. How they are receiving the same rumors while thousands of miles apart are beyond me. But it tells you something about the collapse of a centralized or unified or even coherent messaging from the federal government. The problem isn’t just rumor and superstition: some of our most authoritative institutions are lying to us repeatedly about basic facts. And our corporate media broadcasts daily Trump’s snake oil shows as if they contained useful information.
The Federal government’s decision not to wield state powers to combat the crisis has left American citizens to fend for themselves. At first, Trump and his party and their media networks (Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, etc) ignored the problem and attempted to frame it, through their long-standing xenophobic rhetoric, as a purely “Chinese” problem. Then when it began to arrive on American shores, they denied its severity and attempted to frame it as a regional issue for Washington State or New York City. Meanwhile, there was good information being given in secret briefings, which some government leaders — Republicans, of course, but also Democrats — exploited to improve their stock portfolios. We’ve now entered a new stage in which Trump withholds or supplies much needed medical aid depending on how he “feels” about them. Florida, a key voting state for Republicans, has received all the aid it has asked for. After Trump felt that the governors of Michigan and New York didn’t appreciate him enough, their aid began to dry up. Just yesterday, Trump announced that the US military was delivering thousands of much-needed surgical masks to New York hospitals. Hours later, when pressed by journalists, a military spokesman clarified that the US military was delivering the supplies to an auction house in New York and that private corporations would bid on the supplies. In other words, these supplies would go to the highest bidder — and that might be a New York hospital, or it might be someone in another country.
When I learn of stories like that I find it difficult to write fiction. Though when I stop to think of this crisis, I think mostly of crimes, all the fraud, and mismanagement happening on a massive scale. Thousands will be dying in the coming weeks—and some of that will be directly related to profiteering and criminal negligence. Add to that the fact that the power elites of cities like Washington have now escaped to their second homes in the countryside, where they’ll weather it out on the ski slopes or on the beach. I expect there will be some late-night wealth transfers in the coming weeks, once working people start to come out a bit and see too many mansions effectively abandoned. Right now, the supply chains of medical supplies are collapsed. God forbid our food supply chains don’t also buckle under the stress, but that has already begun to happen in other places, like South Africa. People will do many things when they are hungry, especially when they know that others are hoarding essentials for themselves. For these reasons, expect some of the best fiction about this period to be crime focused.
What are the little things that are getting you through this extraordinary time?
We have a small garden and are out there as much as we can be. My wife and daughter play marathon badminton games when it’s not windy. We’ve been planting seeds in our spring garden (fava beans, chard, soybeans, pole beans) as well as flower seeds (hollyhocks, morning glory, and poppies). And I’ve finally taken an ax to my next-door neighbor’s bamboo thicket, which has been invading our yard at a pace of ten feet a year. We’ve managed to get the bamboo back to the property line, but now we have a lot of bamboo to mulch.
If you had to isolate yourself with one other writer, who would it be and why?
Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen. I need to laugh.
Do you have any local stories of kindness or good deeds that you can share?
Our stores ran out of cleaning supplies by March 20. Our neighbors used their last ration of vodka to make their own disinfectant and gave us a bottle of the stuff. It’s bright yellow and works like a dream.
What are you currently reading for pleasure?
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet has been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time. They’ve been there, silently judging me, taunting me, because I bought them years ago, in preparation for a summer reading challenge that I never lived up to. I finally picked them up and dove in. Each night, I’m transported to the dirty, living, breathing the Mediterranean. What bliss.
Is there a local dish or comfort food that you are eating more regularly at the moment, to get you through these turbulent times?
Cranberry beans. Lots of cranberry beans. Wrapped with cheese in a tortilla. Served in a bowl on rice. Baked in a gratin.