El Nuevo Normal: The Coronavirus Crisis and Latin American Apocalyptic Fiction
As I watched the skyline of the Loop rush by on my way to the South Side, uneasy about the maskless Uber driver, I realized I had unconsciously conflated my return to Chicago with the promise of the much speculated "new normal". The pandemic had caught me halfway through a road trip that had started in New York and was supposed to end in Puerto Vallarta, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Instead, I had to trespass on a dear friend's hospitality in Nashville as we weathered the crisis. Two and a half months later into social distancing, I had packed my one small suitcase, doused myself with hand sanitizer and shared a flight with tens of jittery strangers. What I found in Chicago, however, was closer to the opening act of a dystopian movie than the awkward reassurance of a new normal.
Only days prior, thousands of people had taken to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota. Chicago police doubled down on protestors by arresting activists and imposing a curfew. In the Woodlawn neighborhood, where I was staying before moving closer to the University of Chicago, the local supermarket was boarded up, police controlled the flow of customers lined up outside and business hours were reduced. In the afternoon I heard children and teens playing with fireworks out on the streets; at night, helicopters and sirens sounded well into the small hours. I could only imagine what it was like to go through a pandemic like this in my Amazonian hometown of Manaus, Brazil, which made international headlines as the mayor rushed to open communal graves and the impending collapse of the funerary system forced families to part with their loved ones from a distance in the middle of the night.
As a PhD candidate researching apocalyptic themes in contemporary Latin American fiction, I felt at times that it was a bit too much to write about the apocalypse while actually living through it. The Transmigration of Bodies (2013), by Mexican writer Yuri Herrera, for example, hits too close to home with its observations about fearing contagion from one's own neighbors and the eeriness of empty streets in times of an epidemic. But, then, considering that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Latinx and communities of color across the United States and many countries in Latin America, it is also reassuring to know that we can turn to artists from these countries who have been asking themselves many of the questions we're dealing with at this moment.
Asteroids heading toward Earth, plagues, zombies and nuclear hecatombs are only a few examples of disasters that populate our apocalyptic imagination. We usually think of the end of the world as the obliteration of civilizations and life on the planet. However, one aspect of the apocalyptic event that doesn't get as much attention refers back to its original meaning in Greek. That is, apocalypse as a 'revelation' or 'unveiling' of a new order. In fact, British literary critic Frank Kermode understood apocalyptic narratives as a way of making sense of the present. Humans, according to him, have a nagging feeling that they are living in media res, always in the middle of History. By creating eschatological fictions, then, what we are doing is inserting our uncertain present into a narrative that makes sense to us in the grand scheme of things, a narrative that offers comfort to our fleeting existence.
In Herrera's novel, the protagonist known as The Redeemer, in the midst of an epidemic, navigates the deserted streets of an unnamed town while he negotiates an unusual exchange between two warring criminal families, each of them in possession of the body of a deceased family member of the enemy group. Between the paranoia of approaching people who are not wearing masks and the humorous desperation of a lover searching for condoms when all drugstores are closed, the novel offers an insightful reflection on the weakened social bonds that tie that society, a society that seems only too content to avoid dealing with strangers by adopting social distancing measures. At certain points The Transmigration of Bodies is even prophetic. The government's initial stance that the plague would come to nothing, and its belated scramble to respond, are all too familiar to us by now. But Yuri Herrera's beautiful prose also points to a new normal at a more quotidian level. As people pick up the habit of sneezing into their arms, rather than hands, the narrator makes a curious forecast. In Lisa Dillman's translation:
“Maybe one day people wouldn’t even remember when everyone had started doing it like that, instead of covering their noses with their hands. It takes a serious scare for some gestures to take hold but then they end up like scars that seem to have been there all along. Maybe they themselves would one day be nothing but someone’s scar, nameless, no epitaph, just a line on the skin.”
But there are other ends and other new beginnings. In Rita Indiana's Tentacle (2015), for instance, Acilde, a young trans man, is chosen by the orishas (deities of Yoruban and Afro-Caribbean religions) to travel back in time to prevent an ecological catastrophe from happening: the spill of biological weapons into the Caribbean Sea. In this authoritarian Dominican Republic of the late 2020s, Haitian refugees that escape their quarantine on the other side of the island are hunted and killed by government forces, and Christian terrorists fight against Dominican voodoo, which is now the official religion. As Acilde returns to the early 2000s he finds that not only science can save the Caribbean coral reefs but also art. By investing in local artists and performers he could raise funds to build the lab that would save marine life in the future. In this original crossroads of spirituality, gender fluidity and art, Rita Indiana (translated by Achy Obejas) asks us to consider whose voices are being heard in contemporary environmentalist movements and whose bodies are doing the work on the ground.
Moving on to one literal end of the world, the Argentinian Patagonia is the stage of the cyberpunk final section of Dark Constellations (2015), written by Pola Oloixarac and translated by Roy Kesey. In it, hacker Cassio and biologist Piera face the uncertain future of Latam (a Latin American version of the European Union) in a not so distant 2024: the head of their laboratory wishes to sell access to a database containing the genetic information of millions of citizens to the highest bidder. In a region of continental dimensions where governments gather a massive amount of data by monitoring pathogens in the air and citizens on the ground, the protagonists find a way to circumvent the sale of such crucial information through the cutting-edge possibilities of the cyborg body. The prospect of private companies owning people’s information is a development whose fuzzy ends they are not willing to accept. Ultimately, Oloixarac echoes twentieth-century anxieties over control (rooted in Nazism and South American dictatorships) and questions our ideas of citizenship and freedom in the age of cyberspace.
Since most of us are still reeling from the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the picture of a new normal is hazy at best. Meanwhile, people are taking upon themselves to look after their own communities where government support is lacking or inexistent. As universities, theaters, restaurants and other institutions figure out how to open again in the following months, the features of what is in store may slowly come into focus. Artists and writers in Latin America and elsewhere have been thinking about these issues for a while now and they can help us imagine what that might look like, whether that involves cyborgs and state-of-the-art labs or simply sneezing into our arms.