When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Washington state and the nation hard in March, Seattle author and journalist Jennifer Haupt’s latest book deal was canceled. Like many others, her creativity felt stymied. “I just had no energy around fiction,” Haupt says, “which was for me very unusual.”
Haupt had wanted to put together an anthology before, but not until the pandemic did an idea crystallize. “A lot of people were feeling that they didn’t have anything important to say, they didn’t know how to use their creativity,” Haupt says. But as she solicited pieces from more than 75 writers and poets, many of whom are local to the Seattle area, she began to feel an energy around the work that would become “Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19.”
“The things that came in were so powerful,” Haupt said. “I call [‘Alone Together’] my lovely monster because I had no idea what I was creating. And as the stories came in, the pieces of this monster’s heart sort of came together.”
The thread in this anthology: connection. In a time when physical connection is dangerous, emotional connection continues to grow in importance. “We changed our lives because we didn’t want to die,” writes contributor Luis Alberto Urrea in an interview included in the anthology. “But now we need to work together for other changes because we want to live … We literally stopped our worlds for each other. Now it’s time to get [yourself] outside and live for each other.”
“Alone Together” compiles essays, poetry and interviews, divided into five sections — What Now?; Grieve; Comfort; Connect; and Do Not Stop — that serve as a kind of artistic time capsule of the early days of one of the most profound global upheavals of our time. The contributors express grief, numbness, even joy; through it all, they, like all of us, are reaching for each other, a collective holding on. The anthology also functions as its own kind of lifeline, specifically for Binc, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation. The foundation, which provides financial support for booksellers in need, is the recipient of all profits from the sale of “Alone Together.”
“Long before the pandemic hit, independent bookstores were the pillars of a worldwide literary community and the mainstays of neighborhoods across the country, providing inviting space to connect over ideas and coffee” Haupt writes in her introduction. “My local bookstores have been a big part of my personal safety net.”
In deciding where to donate profits, Haupt connected with local author, Seattle7Writers co-founder and Binc Leadership Circle Campaign Chair Garth Stein, who was fundraising for Binc. “I’ve always been really inspired by the Seattle literary community,” Haupt says. “The community has offered me a lot of role models over the years.”
Writing in the time of COVID-19
The pandemic, plus the ongoing civil unrest over stark racial injustices in America, all in an election year, have changed many artists’ relationships to creativity here in Seattle and beyond.
“My relationship to writing (and living) has been changing continually during this pandemic,” says Seattle poet Ching-In Chen, whose poem “Dear O” is in the Connect section of the anthology. “I’ve always used writing as a way to make sense of what’s happening around me and in the world — and I also think it’s important to have some kind of re-memory of some of the details while we’re living through it.
“I wrote ‘Dear O’ as part of a collaboration with another poet and artist, Jen Hyde. Growing up as a nonbinary person and Asian American, I felt stuck with a particular image of who others wanted me to be,” Chen says. “The poem and collaboration reflects the struggle and process to construct your own story and be more fully present in that story. This is something I’m reminding myself of a lot these days.”
For local multidisciplinary artist Amber Flame, the start of the pandemic coincided with a residency that got cut short. After a difficult journey home, “I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to find something to say again, ever,” she says. “That’s what it felt like. It was such a blank … I don’t know how to get back to what’s important, at this time, and why should any of it matter when people are dying?”
Flame’s poem, “What to Bring to a Die-In,” was first written years ago, about a die-in protest after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. It remains prescient.
“It’s one of those poems that just keeps coming back and coming back,” Flame said. “You come ready to die, essentially, if you’re going to do this. And you’ve got to be ready to sacrifice everything for it.”
This is true of social justice work, protests and pandemics. But there is joy to be found amid the pain, too. Seattle novelist Donna Miscolta’s lockdown has included joy in the form of a new family member, even as the virus hit close to home.
“During these months of sheltering, my husband and I are daily enamored of and enthralled by our infant grandson who arrived with our younger daughter from Ecuador in the early days of the pandemic,” Miscolta explained in an interview with The Seattle Times. “We wonder what kind of world awaits Ilio in the years ahead. Meanwhile, our older daughter is living alone in New York City,” where she contracted COVID-19.
“In such a situation, sometimes writing, though not a cure for anything, is a balm,” said Miscolta, whose essay “Disaster Unpreparedness” draws parallels between her daughter’s fight with the virus and her own memories of the duck-and-cover drills she did with her classmates in the late 1950s.
Parenthood is also of primary importance for Kristen Millares Young, the Seattle-based journalist, teacher and novelist, and mother of two young boys. Her essay “The Inescapable Joys of Motherhood” describes a short walk with her family in the early days of the pandemic, which already seems a long time ago. It explores continuing to be busy in a world that has ostensibly slowed down, and the new kinds of busy we find ourselves in.
“I’ve had some difficulty writing fiction these past few months,” says Young, whose debut novel “Subduction” published in April. “But the essays are coming thick and fast. It’s almost a fever that you’re trying to break. It’s possible to break it by drawing it into a kind of relief, which to me is the completion of a work that evokes a feeling that I have contained in my body. And once I get there, and I can help someone else feel it, then I don’t feel alone.
“When I’m writing, I’m trying to quiet myself down so I can be that reflecting pool.”
For novelist and Seattle University journalism professor Sonora Jha, the pandemic is “a way to encounter our mortality and say, ‘I’m still here.’”
“The pandemic gave me the sense that time is running out,” Jha says. “It brought me into deeper reflection on the human condition, our collective grief and, within it, my own purpose.”
Jha’s essay, “Alone and Awash in Desire,” beautifully renders a feeling of being untethered as a person living alone, and a simultaneous sense of desire. “The encounter with my mortality also freed me up to write this essay, my most deeply personal one yet,” Jha says. “The reminder of how fleeting life is, and how little people’s disapproval matters, lowered my sense of reserve and caution. Life is short; I’m going to write about sensuality and desire!”
Poet, essayist and translator Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, whose poem “Apex Gazing” appears in the collection, touches on the inherent cognitive dissonance of living in America in this time. “Much of what I wrote during the pandemic spring feels like a study in extreme contrasts,” she says. “The vacated freeways and silent classrooms only made the relentless blossoming and ebullient birds brighter and louder. And these contrasts deepened my awareness of our own excesses. The title suggests how far behind we’re lagging in our country, and the summer tells its own story. So many of our systems, mired in injustice, are failing us.”
“Alone Together” reads like a missive to and from our time. With so many Greater Seattle writers represented, it also feels rooted in this place, though it includes contributions from around the country. One question raised by the book is on many people’s minds in this time of illness and unrest: “What now?” This anthology catalogs the collective art that comes from that questioning, from a roster of exciting contemporary writers both established and emerging.
“It’s an amazing anthology, and it’s a lot more urgent and raw than it would be if it was done in any other way or at any other time,” says Flame. Indeed, this unique and star-studded book is a comfort, a snapshot and a challenge to keep making a new world — one where equity and humanity are prioritized.
Several virtual events are planned with the editor and contributors to “Alone Together” in the coming weeks. The schedule can be found at jenniferhaupt.com/events.