On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. As in other countries around the globe, life in Canada transformed rapidly. The nation’s borders were closed to non-essential travel, and provinces and territories began declaring states of emergency. Public health directives moved in-person schools online, and mandated the closure of many non-essential businesses and public spaces like community centres, playgrounds, museums, and shopping malls. The federal government called citizens back to Canada from around the world and mandated self-quarantines upon arrival. Social distancing measures were implemented and Canadians were asked to conduct their work remotely from home whenever possible. Around the world, professional and collegiate sports leagues at first played with no fans and then quickly shut down completely. In the early days, provincial health authorities recommended or even mandated (depending on the province) “lockdown,” where people were asked to stay home except for brief forays outdoors for exercise and grocery shopping. Over the course of a few days in mid-March, we entered what has repeatedly been called “unprecedented times.”
The 111 days after March 11 happened to coincide with my final 111 days as editor of Canadian Literature, a position that I handed over to Christine Kim on July 1. I have taken the opportunity of this confluence in this, my last editorial, to draw from my own archive of experience to document one story about the early days of COVID-19. Since March 13, my personal and professional worlds have collided in space (my home), and in that spirit this editorial is part personal lockdown memoire and part reading journal during a time of crisis. As I write this in the summer of 2020, British Columbia, where I live, has done well at “flattening the curve” of the virus spread in the community, although there is increasing concern about a second wave here as we witness the devastation of the virus as it rages in communities globally. So far, my family and friends have mainly remained healthy, in their own lockdown situations, with a few people I care for having contracted COVID-19 but having recovered. I am incredibly lucky to have a congenial home and a stable job that I can do remotely. And so my story is not one of loss and grief, or domestic concern, or financial fear, as are the stories of so many. It is a more simple chronicle, really, of coping with quick change and anxiety, and of turning to literature for both real and imagined communities. I know exactly where I was when I learned of the Montreal massacre, the 9/11 bombings, and the deaths of Elvis Presley, René Lévesque, Princess Diana, Jack Layton, and Kobe Bryant, but have never felt so personally a part of a global event. I know that I am living, today, at an important moment in history and so it seems imperative to share even the small stories for posterity. I think as scholars, mentors, teachers, and parents, much of the past three months has been about being open with our vulnerabilities and insecurities because there’s been a kind of solidarity in that—with students, colleagues, friends, and family—letting down the facade of being a composed professional and just being real in our community support. I admit too that keeping reading notes for this editorial served as a kind of coping mechanism for me over the months. I did not plan for forage, “Unless the Eye Catch Fire,” The Collected Poems of Bronwen Wallace, The Black Prairie Archives, or Little Blue Encyclopedia (For Vivian) to be the books that sustained me through a lockdown, but they did.
In the fictional post-flu-pandemic world of Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel writes about a virus that travels around the world via airline passengers. It spreads quickly and infects the entire global population over the course of a few weeks. Before this spring, I would have thought that the timing of the pandemic spread in the novel was hyperbolic. It was not. Looking back at the family conversation thread I had during March 2020, I am struck by how extraordinarily fast things turned. My son Simon was studying at the University of Geneva for a term away from UBC, while my son Owen was in Montreal finishing his first year at Concordia University, and my son Charlie, in grade 9, was in Vancouver with my partner Fred and me. In the first week in March, we were trading photos of daily life. The next week, we were frantically making plans to get everyone home as soon as possible.
March 10: Hi Simon, since Italy is now on lockdown due to Covid-19, I think you should go grocery shopping and stock up on some canned and boxed food supplies (and buy a can opener). Is there any talk of the virus there?
March 11: Any news from Montreal or Geneva about cancelling classes and putting school online and sending students home? They just did it at MIT, Harvard, MSU . . . We are talking about it at UBC. If it happens, there might be a brief window to get you guys home.
March 14: Hi Owen, what are you thinking about coming back to YVR? Any news on how long the cafeteria will stay open? Are there restrictions on how many people can be there at once?
March 14: Should we go online and find you a flight? I think you should move out and then you can easily move back in if things get back to normal before the end of April.
March 16: Laura Moss posted on Facebook:
Simon is home from Switzerland, after an epic journey. He just got home, ready for 2 weeks of self-isolation. Owen got home from Montreal last night. I am just so incredibly relieved. Stay safe everyone.
March 16: Laura Moss posted on Facebook:
Does anyone in Vancouver have an extra couple of masks? We have one building mask with sawdust still in it. Simon is in self-isolation and he can wear it. I understand that we are all supposed to wear masks at home but I went to 8 stores and could not find any and I just don’t know what to do. Amazon has them for delivery mid-April. I did find bleach, paper towels, and hand sanitizer. I also could not find TP—at 8 stores too and we will be out soon. Amazon is charging $29 for 12 rolls with $45 shipping. We’d be really grateful if anyone could spare a few masks for my family.
March 16: Laura Moss replied: RESOLVED 🙂
And then there was the speed with which anxiety and stress took over. I have a short attention span at the best of times but in the early days of the pandemic, it was minute. In the first month, all I read were news reports. I felt an imperative to keep up with information about the daily case count and the global spread of the virus, a real responsibility to know. For about a month every single story in every news outlet was about the coronavirus: the whole of The National newscast on the CBC, the whole of The Globe and Mail and The New York Times and The Guardian.
March 21: Laura Moss posted on Facebook:
Here’s the thing. I am scared and anxious. I have spent time this week sitting staring into nothingness. I have read too many news stories (but am weaning myself back now) and reacted with very shallow breathing. My phone tells me that my screen time has increased by a lot. It has been a force of will to get myself to push myself forward to look after my family, teach my classes, plan for the journal, and think of other people. I am doing a mediocre job at all of those things and right now that is a success. My children tell me I am on edge. (They seriously need to load the f’ing dishwasher though). I am in a safe home surrounded by family and I feel this way.
Here’s what I am doing to help myself and others. I am staying on Facebook because I need the community (3 weeks ago I signed off FB thinking I was done with it for good. I am glad to have it now). I have gone for a long walk every day and will continue to do so as long as I am allowed out. I have been talking to people on the phone while walking. I am going to bake something. Mainly, however, I have been emailing and texting people I know just to check in. I want them to check on me too. After my online class yesterday I stayed online to talk to students who wanted to stick around and socialize. A few did and they really needed to talk. I tried to make them laugh. I have emailed all my students and offered to talk on Skype, FaceTime, or the phone. I have checked in on all my grad students. I have friends living alone and friends living with others. They are all stressed. I think we should each create a list of 5-10 people we check on regularly who we might not normally check on. Everyone needs to be reached out to. I have seen the virus spreading charts where one person can infect dozens. I want to think of the same format as communication and care spreading charts. Networks of kindness and care. Take care everyone. How are you doing? Just checking in.
The move to take university classes online happened extraordinarily quickly as well. The following thread occurred over the course of a couple of hours.
March 12: Laura Moss posted on Facebook (with responses from colleagues across Canada):
“U of Manitoba has now sent classes online. Is that the first Canadian university? The rest should follow soon, right?”
“First was Laurentian”
“LU has asked everyone to prepare for that possibility, though hasn’t made the call yet”
“Same at UBC”
“U Waterloo too. And as of this afternoon, classes will continue, but all events of 50 or more people are cancelled.”
“Western just cancelled classes and is moving online. At this point, I think Congress should probably be cancelled.”
“I saw that. We’ll see how the days unfold, huh?”
“Ontario has just closed all public schools for three weeks. We’ll see if (and how) universities follow.”
“We are dealing with this. We cannot demand courses go online unless public health authority or provincial ministry decrees. We are asking colleagues to prepare to go online.”
“Fairleigh Dickinson University (Vancouver) declared on Tuesday that we will go strictly online on Monday.”
UBC also suspended all in-person classes as of Monday, March 16. Fortunately, I was able to inform my students in our final “face-to-face” classes that we would likely be shifting to an “online learning environment” (phrases popularized in spring 2020). The pivot to remote teaching was technically challenging and emotionally draining but it also motivated me to focus on something valuable other than news and family at a time of peak anxiety. It was so good to check in with the students during that first terrifying and numbing month. One student said that our class was the only contact she had with anyone all week because she was unable to leave her apartment. Another woke up in the middle of the night in Shanghai to attend our class in the Pacific Time Zone and apologized for having to speak quietly because her family was asleep next door.
The texts we studied during this time also took on new meaning. I taught P. K. Page’s short story “Unless the Eye Catch Fire” twice in the winter 2020 term: once in January in my Canadian Studies seminar on Environmental Art and Activism, and once in my English Majors class after we moved online. Eight weeks and a pandemic apart, the story resonated so differently in the two classes. In the Canadian Studies class in mid-January, we read Page’s work as prophetic of our most pressing issues around global warming, the climate emergency and ecocide, and government action and inaction. We marvelled at reading a story from 1979 that so clearly imagined what we were witnessing as wildfires then raged in Australia. It felt like we were joining in medias res with the story, ahead of where the narrator begins her own diary. In late March in my other class, we read the story as prophetic of the pandemic lockdown and the disintegration of time, of isolation and loneliness, and of pain and resilience. The story was still prescient of the apocalyptic possibilities of climate change but it was also a more personal story of loss and adaptation. In March, we moved deeper into the timeframe of the story, as the world shuts down around the narrator, than I could have ever thought possible.
March 30: Laura Moss posted on Facebook:
Hi friends: please suggest a poem of hope, love, or pure beauty that I can share with my students. It can be from anywhere at any time. Thanks in advance.
My classes next turned to Rita Wong’s poetry collection forage. In the past, I have focused on the ways in which Wong asks questions about the ethical relationships between science, technology, the land and water, human and non-human inhabitants, and consumer culture in her poetry. I have never stopped long on the poem “susurrus” that sits near the end of the collection. This year, however, it resonated. Wong writes,
the days passed by in fear & uncertainty
the days passed by in caffeine & deadlines
the days passed by in crunchy textures
. . . . . . . . . . .
the days passed by, all lassitude & turpitude, serpentine &
the days passed by in ritualistic meetings
the days passed by like a swig of beer ends up in the toilet
the days passed by in the hum of electronic appliances punctuated
by the sproing of the computer being turned on
the days passed by in email backlog
the days passed by like a repurposed stock market
the days (70-71)
Sitting in their own homes, each student read a line of this poem aloud to the class assembled via computer technology. The collective ah-ha recognition was audible. I then gave them a few minutes to write their own versions of “the days passed by.” Their lines adapted to 2020 were stunning, but I left them in the April air, lost in the ephemera of online oral learning.
After classes ended, the Collected Poems of Bronwen Wallace was the first book to pull me away from the news. Wallace and I are both from Kingston, Ontario. She writes about places and people deeply familiar to me. Wallace’s poetry operates the way my mind usually operates, but even more so in a global crisis—namely, it meanders. Think of “A Simple Poem for Virginia Woolf.” It too has a short attention span.
This started out as a simple poem
for Virginia Woolf you know the kind
we women writers write these days
in our own rooms
on our own time
a salute a gesture of friendship
a psychological debt
I wanted it simple
and perfect round
hard as an
egg I thought
only once I’d said egg
I thought of the smell
of bacon grease and dirty frying-pans
and whether there were enough for breakfast (80)
In this new comprehensive collection, I saw several of Wallace’s poems for the first time. What a gift. I appreciate the narrative completeness of her work. You can find whole lives in a few lines, like the internal conflict that pits desire against responsibility in “The Woman in This Poem.” And then I came to “Distance from Harrowsmith to Tamworth” and read about Wallace’s family history laid over the small towns of eastern Ontario, including the village of Bellrock where I grew up. During COVID lockdown in Vancouver, 4,426 km from my past, reading the poem was like driving down the Highway 38 of my own childhood. In her introduction to the collection, editor Carolyn Smart quotes Erín Moure on Wallace: “The assemblage, that made the poem whole, made her readers whole” (xix). Yes, exactly. Reading the assemblages of Wallace’s poems helped ground me, whole.
April 30: Laura Moss posted on Facebook:
Me in COVID-times update: Tomorrow is May 1, the day I was supposed to start as Associate Dean. I was asked to come in early because of the COVID crisis so I actually began as AD on April 1. Between the COVID response teams and the other committees I am now on, April was a busy month in this new role. I had 44 ZOOM meetings. I also finished up the 2 classes I had been teaching and finished editing an issue of CanLit. Today we are sending issue 240 of the journal to the designer and I am totally amazed that we hit the end of the month deadline we were shooting for. Yay team! I am so grateful to my staff at the journal for figuring out how to do everything remotely. It has been really challenging.
I can hardly believe that we made it through this crazy month in these pandemic times. April 2020 took somewhere between 20 minutes and 2 years. I hope May 2020 is slightly brighter.
I had been awaiting the publication of The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology for a while, having spoken with editor Karina Vernon about it over the years. It arrived on my doorstep in early May. I was surprised to see my name alongside many others in the book’s acknowledgments and Karina’s note about my “feminist mentorship from afar” (xiii). On the evening I sat down to dive into the book, alone in my home on the West Coast, it was a small but wonderful and especially meaningful moment of feeling connection and community across academic spaces. I admire this book. It takes scholarly resilience and deep editorial commitment to complete a project of this scope and scale. The anthology articulates the long presence of black men and women on the prairies (since at least 1779) and it explores their complicity in the colonial acts of settlement and displacement of Indigenous populations. The assembled black prairie archive “challenges traditional colonial conceptions of the prairies as a stable and boundaried territory by ‘diasporizing’ it,” as Vernon says (8). This anthology is a marvel of experiences and voices of the past and the present, and a truly significant collection of literary art. Three weeks after I started reading The Black Prairie Archives, George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis, and the crisis of a global pandemic was brought into relief against the historical and ongoing crises of racist violence, police brutality, and white supremacy in the US, Canada, and across the colonized world. As spring turned to summer in 2020, the resilience of anti-racist cultural work and the importance of artists and their voices in building this world differently were again palpable. This anthology amplifies generations of black Canadian voices that need to be heard.
May 15: Laura Moss posted on Facebook:
Exhausted. That’s the whole update.
About two months after the pandemic was declared, the provincial health office recognized that the curve had been almost flattened in BC, and restrictions started to ease. While the virus had spread dangerously in long-term care facilities, correctional facilities, and meat-packing plants, the spread was considered enough under control that we could begin the “restart” plan. It seemed early. Elementary and high school students had the option of returning to in-person classes a few days a week, some “non-essential” businesses like hair salons slowly opened up with social distancing measures in effect, takeout restaurants and online shopping continued to thrive, and traffic started to return to the streets that had stood nearly empty for months. The noise came back. As things eased, I became hungry for immersive reading.
The final book I turned to during these 111 days was Hazel Jane Plante’s Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian). The author had studied in our department many years ago and I like supporting former students so I ordered her book. It is brilliant. This elegy is structured as alphabetic encyclopedia entries for a wildly quirky fictional cult-classic television show, Little Blue, compiled by the narrator—a queer trans woman who may be named Zelda—as an act of grieving, remembrance, and love for her straight trans friend Vivian who has recently died. This heart-breaking and heart-warming story is accompanied by beautiful pen and ink alphabetical illustrations by Onjana Yawnghwe (another former student). In an interview with Emma Rhodes, Plante elegantly calls the form “realism via pointillism with pop art thrown in.” Rhodes notes that the “form functions at once as a manual for how pop culture can help soothe and mend us and as an exploration of oft-overlooked sources of pleasure.” During lockdown, I watched many hours of television and movies and I appreciate how seriously, and playfully, Plante uses pop culture as a way to navigate loss and grief in this book that also overflows with love, compassion, sexuality, humour, and the complexity of friendship and attraction. The narrator is raw and alone in ways I recognize from the past few months, despite our very different experiences.
As we settle into summer 2020 and I end my tenure as editor of Canadian Literature, it is impossible to know what the future holds in global health or in the health of the field. Both have struggled as of late. I know that I am leaving the journal in good hands. I hope it stays well and continues to thrive with Christine’s leadership. The recurring words of BC’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, seem pertinent here: “Be kind, be calm, be safe.”
July 22: Laura Moss posted on Facebook:
Today I cleared out of my office at Canadian Literature, my first time in that space since March. 17 years at the journal—11 as reviews editor and 6.5 as acting editor and then editor-in-chief. And now I am done. I have such mixed emotions: grateful to have had the opportunity to work on such a publication for so long, very proud of the work we accomplished, sad to be leaving the CL team, ready to move on, relieved not to have the weight on my shoulders, nostalgic already. All good things, etc. Bye CanLit.
Mandel, Emily St. John. Station Eleven. Harper Collins, 2014.
Page, P. K. “Unless the Eye Catch Fire.” 1979. A Kind of Fiction, Porcupine’s Quill, 2001, pp. 159-84.
Plante, Hazel Jane. Little Blue Encyclopedia (For Vivian). Metonymy, 2019.
Rhodes, Emma. “Little Blue Encyclopedia: An Interview with Hazel Jane Plante.” Plenitude Magazine, 17 Nov. 2019, plenitudemagazine.ca/little-blue-encyclopedia-an-interview-with-hazel-jane-plante/. Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.
Vernon, Karina, editor. The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology. Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2020.
Wallace, Bronwen. The Collected Poems of Bronwen Wallace. Edited by Carolyn Smart, McGill-Queen’s UP, 2020.
Wong, Rita. forage. Nightwood Editions, 2007.
Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.