Years ago, I retreated to an isolated Sri Lankan village that English people had transformed into an Eden for foreigners: twice-a-day yoga classes that culminated in foot rubs, vegan feasts laid out in coconut husk bowls, a doctor to drip sesame oil up nostrils to treat dosha imbalances. A woman gave massages with her naked heels, balancing by gripping a rope hung from a thatched roof. By day, I read in a hammock by the swimming pond, which had its own island to which those seeking higher levels of enlightenment could escape; by night, I slept below a mosquito net in a hut shared by frogs and monkeys, as there were no outer walls.
But what had drawn me to this village were not its sensory riches, but a deprivation most people pay to avoid. There was no internet. In fairness, on the edge of the pond, 3G pulsed in clear weather, and in the colonial-style main quarters, a router emitted a signal I could hitch if I lingered by the mildewed German paperbacks. But given the delights, why bother? All around me were real, breathing bodies: the birds skittering over green water, the instructor lifting legs into a shoulder stand, the palm leaves shimmering in noon sun. Colombo was a rocky three-hour drive away, and the flight home even longer. When the man who would later become my husband came to collect me, he marvelled at the loose way I floated through space, attuned to surrounding bodies, liberated from the weight of the world’s information.
I am one of the first people I know to isolate. When the virus is still thought to be confined to China, I attend a meeting in London where a red-faced boy sneezes into my water glass. The next week, I get a call that an anonymous person—the boy, presumably—has tested positive.
The only symptom I exhibit is the prolific hoarding of food. I place orders with four different groceries for that coming month, expecting some of the deliveries to fail. I am right. I diversify my supply chain: fish caught on the coast of Cornwall, mushrooms from a warehouse in West Lancashire. I amass jarred okra, dried white mulberries, vitamin C tablets in case of a produce shortage brought on by a breakdown in imports or domestic farm labour. I lure friends into a London-wide WhatsApp group focused on food availability. Once the bathtub is full of 40-packs of ramen, I relax.
Those of us with refugee lineages understand we do not, as contemporary Western culture urges, need to thrive. We just need to survive. This is why food is central to many diasporic communities. It is a language; it is a link to a real or imagined home; it is the thing that maintains our bodies in a state of being. Our genes predate COVID-19. We or our ancestors survived Communism, the Holocaust, the aunt with the errant hands. For us, the virus is easy to comprehend, because its central thesis is that everyone can be a threat. I have believed this as long as I can remember.
But an odd thing happens. Flooded by information and isolated from bodies, I begin to thrive. Everyone else is anxious; therefore, I am fine. The stakes are finally high enough for my amygdala’s frequencies. Lost memories emerge. Lines of poetry speak in my sleep. I meditate. I make ice cream. I marvel at the babies of friends on other continents. I start writing two novels. I buy extravagant things that are not even discounted—thick artist’s paper and pastels—to participate in a class dedicated to drawing dogs.
After the honeymoon, I learn the world has cleaved into two universes: the still isolated and the “back to normal.” With the lifting of restrictions, English septuagenarians I know luxuriate in restaurants. Meanwhile, I am still shaping dumplings from flour and water. On video chat, millennial girlfriends and I shake our heads at strangers embracing in ballroom dance studios and motorcycling by the quarter million to meetups in South Dakota. The only thing that could merit breaking quarantine would be something so outrageous that it obliterates the reality of the virus, like a man kneeling on another man’s neck for eight minutes while intermittently slipping his hand in his pocket.
In his craft text How Fiction Works, literary scholar James Wood writes that words become lifelike when their writers “increase the extremity of this contrast between important and unimportant detail, converting it into a tension between the awful and the regular: a soldier dies while nearby a little boy goes to school.” Such detail can be called ironic. The corollary, then, is when the real world holds too much ironic tension, it starts to resemble fiction. During lockdown, I recurrently think of two novels: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and José Saramago’s Blindness, two worlds stripped of colour by epidemic or environmental disaster. A friend tells me about his post-apocalyptic grocery store—lights swinging from broken housings, mould blooming on walls—and I picture him at McCarthy’s abandoned shop with its lonely cans of food. In the broadcast of the Republican National Convention, Melania Trump wears a sharp-shouldered army green jacket that appears to be stolen from Claire Underwood’s closet on House of Cards. Chadwick Boseman, who in Black Panther portrayed the superhero king of the one nation I wish existed, dies of a human disease. I’m unsure if reality appears to be disintegrating because we have become too skilled at spotting its ironies, or because the center really cannot hold.
As boundaries fade between the real and the fictional, so too do they for the public and private. Blond journalists point microphones at refugees on boats drifting on the British coast, as if these almost-immigrants hold the same power and privilege as the gilt-robed oil ministers I once chased as a reporter along marble corridors. In Kentucky, at night, publicly funded police officers ram through the door of Breonna Taylor, a Black emergency medical technician, and murder her in her hallway. I attend a Zoom interview of one of the last survivors of the atomic bomb dropped 75 years ago on Hiroshima. The man, at the time a boy, explains how he tried to cross a river to find his mother but was blocked by floating corpses. Because radiation exposed all the film in the area that could have captured those first moments, he uses paintings to illustrate his talk: gashes of colour that coalesce in bodies slumped on the walls of water reservoirs. He removes his slideshow from the screen, and his head and upper body reappear. Outlined by his virtual Zoom background, an outer-space shot of a distant Earth, he resembles an alien or an astronaut. Later, when I try to FaceTime with family, I cannot shake the sense I am gazing on another virtual image. We seek closeness across the sea that separates, but see digitized, distanced selves.
Before the crisis, in the days following my stay at the prelapsarian village in Sri Lanka, I did not float back to earth. I fell. In a hotel room on the coast, cockroaches large as the hands of babies prowled while the Australian owners slept off hangovers from dinner served by their numerous local staff. At a safari park newly reopened after the end of a civil war sprung from the traumas of British empire, leopards lived among land mines. Late one night, playing the board game Risk for the first time, I discovered my instinct to invade, invade, invade. My spine hunched over the cardboard map; my fingers spirited weightless plastic tanks.
I could understand why travellers paid thousands of dollars to sleep in mud huts in the yoga village. It was not just for the absence of internet. It was for the frog nestling in the porcelain toilet, the women grinding coconut by hand while guests clicked cameras, the ayurvedic doctor treating visitors’ illnesses with a seriousness that the visitors did not return. It was for the illusion that coloniser and colonized, catapulted to a fictitious period that is simultaneously post-empire for the visitors and pre-empire for the locals, could co-exist under one artfully thatched roof. A half century earlier, postcolonial theorist Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth that the colonizer “makes history and is conscious of making it.” Now she is no longer aware she makes history. She believes she is practicing self-care or self-knowledge or another type of purification solely concerned with the individual. Thousands of dollars is a small price for immunity from history’s information.
In London, someone shows me a video of English nativists in London’s Parliament Square wearing khaki shorts, black socks, and wraparound sports sunglasses. (This summer uniform is favoured by declared White supremacists on both sides of the pond.) They are protesting against the BLM movement. To be accurate, they are protesting against Black people, as if people are another thing to be struck down by democratic referendum. Men claiming to be veterans march in military gear. As the phalanx stalks past steel barricades, supporters on the sidelines cheer and clap; they do not distinguish themselves with any special suits or socks. The person who shows me the video, who is White, thinks it is funny. I laugh.
After the video, I walk my dog. It’s the kind of sunny weekend that prompts locals to sunburn bellies and pile empty bottles in the park. Bodily isolation is temporarily over; information hops across my neurons. Blood beats along my ears as I pass the bacchanalia at the closed pub, whose patio has been commandeered by citizens I imagine have driven in from a suburb where a Black man was murdered by Whites in 1993. The tables are covered by empty containers of Gallo wine, and a woman is pouring Smirnoff into a plastic cup. I locate a clear patch of grass marred only by a box of beer and a man partaking while talking on his mobile phone. I unleash my dog and throw her ball, but she’s hyped up by my mood or the mood of everyone around us, and she runs to the man, barking.
The man spins and holds his emptied bottle like a weapon: I’m going to kick your dog. I reach toward her but keep my eyes on the glass: Please, stop, please, stop. A stranger rushes up, enough to distract man and dog, and I grab her and whisk her to the other end of the park, wishing an epidemic or an environmental disaster would whisk these people away, people who may or may not share the feelings of those who clapped at the English nativist demonstration. It is difficult to know without the information conveyed by a uniform. Loneliness, the in-law of isolation, is the loss of trust in one’s own perception, “that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experiences at all,” writes political philosopher Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. “Self and world, capacity for thought and experience are lost at the same time.”
Across the grass, two men ask about the breed of my dog. She was homeless, I explain, and they are coming closer, they are holding beers, one wants to know where I live, the other is touching my arm. We saw what happened. He’s one of our mates, and I step back. Again: We’re good people. I make it back to my building and up the stairs before I remove my mask. Not the one for the virus—I was not wearing one for the virus—but the other mask, the one I learned to wear a long time ago, the one that shields me from surrounding bodies, the one worn by me and all my friends whose amygdalas flash red – red – red. It is the mask we wear when there is not enough information to know who is a threat. It is the mask we wear to keep ourselves in isolation.
April Yee is a writer and literary translator. She reported in more than a dozen countries before moving to the UK, where she serves on the Refugee Journalism Project at University of the Arts London and tweets at @aprilyee. This essay was supported by funding from Collage Arts’ Creative Futures programme and Arts Council England.