In light of the current COVID 19 pandemic, I wanted to interview Dr. Kelly McGuire, a professor and chair of the Women and Gender Studies Department at Trent University who has taught courses on epidemic and outbreak narratives and who researches medical history among her many research interests.
Interviewer: Derek Newman-Stille
Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Kelly McGuire: I am a faculty member of English and Gender & Women’s Studies at Trent, where I specialize in eighteenth-century literature with a focus on medical history, although my teaching reflects my varied interests in popular culture, social justice, and feminism. I am currently working on how the eighteenth-century practice of inoculation (and the care labour surrounding it) was imagined in the literature of the time (so I’m paying particular attention to the discussions around immunity and the development of a vaccine in relation to COVID-19).
Spec Can: What got you interested in reading pandemic and other viral narratives?
Kelly McGuire: I am really interested in how these narratives give us access to the world of epidemiologists, virologists, and scientists affiliated with organizations like the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the WHO (Wold Health Organization). They also read on some level as detective fiction (with the scientists tasked with “solving” the mystery of the virus, which in its own way has the status of a character – usually framed as a demonic enemy even though viruses exist only to replicate themselves). The centrality of the body in these narratives also interests me, as all of those nasty things we generally avoid talking about assume centre stage.
Spec Can: What got you interested in researching and teaching pandemic and viral narratives?
Kelly McGuire: A strange constellation of interests, beginning in an academic sense with my dissertation on suicide, which brought me into contact with the strange new world of public health as it emerged in the eighteenth century. I became very interested in how historically literature helped to imagine infection, and over time came to integrate my interest in popular fiction into this particular focus.
Spec Can: What are some characteristics of pandemic narratives in fiction?
Kelly McGuire: Priscilla Wald (Contagious, 2008) does an excellent job of tracing these characteristics in contemporary fiction and film, while I see some of these tropes being established much earlier in works like Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, which is a fictionalized telling of the 1665 Great Plague of London. So I’m not necessarily dealing with pandemic narratives so much as works that deal with outbreaks and epidemics.
Often we see a first-person narrator in these stories who is positioned to give us a first-hand and more intimate account of the epidemic as it unfolds. These narrators are by necessity characterized by a somewhat morbid and perverse curiosity, which propels them through empty streets and gives us access to eerie scenes and unusual behaviours that arise in times of quarantine. Another character that figures in many of these narratives is the healthy carrier or super spreader who becomes the chief vector of disease and is almost invariably scapegoated as a result (I’ll talk more about ethnic scapegoating below). The extermination of cats and dogs in urban centres is a recurring feature of these works, unfortunately, as is the flight from the city (always aligned with corruption and disease at the best of times) to the country.
In a narrative sense, the outbreak has its own kind of rhythm, generating confusion and panic as it slowly but inexorably begins to register in the consciousness of the people. We see the same kind of denial and slowness to act that has marked our experience of the pandemic, and a proliferation of rumour and quackery, as well as superstition (as epidemics to this day are read as an expression of God’s wrath).
It’s also interesting how the representations of “emptiness” that characterize depictions of urban plague scenes often give way to crowded, carnivalesque scenes of carefree behaviour. In his discussion of how the plague city represents authority’s ideal of the disciplinary society, Foucault relates how the experience of quarantine is met with both order and disorder, and this is certainly a recurring feature of outbreak narratives. But the general trend in these stories is towards fragmentation and the fraying of the social bonds that hold us together.
These can also be profoundly existential narratives, giving us access on some level to the ways in which humans confront their mortality, and contain a good many psychological insights about how we deal with trauma and the breakdown of our social order.
Spec Can: Why do you think people are interested in pandemic narratives?
Kelly McGuire: Some people (like Ernest Gilman) would argue that we are on some level haunted in a traumatic sense by a kind of shared memory of the plague, which lives on as a result in the popular imagination. This shared memory arguably informs the iconic appearance and behaviour of zombies, often thought to be inspired by early modern bubonic plague victims whose lymphatic swellings caused them to raise their arms and shuffle with their heads tilted at unusual angles).
These narratives remind us of our vulnerability, our porosity, our dependency on one another and, just like works of horror, function as a kind of release valve, confronting us with these fears in part to allow us to contain them. Ultimately, the kind of barriers and borders that the illness overcomes are redrawn at the end of these narratives, which are reassuring in their portraits of resilience (although in their rejoicing, survivors almost invariably forget the promises and vows they had made to live better lives and return to their old ways).
Spec Can: How do pandemic narratives relate to social fears and anxieties that are not necessarily about viruses?
Kelly McGuire: These narratives are always about xenophobia and the fear of the other on some level. We tend to align an idea of the self with health and associate disease with an idea of the “other” (other ethnicities, other countries). Many outbreak narratives like Albert Camus’s La Peste and Philip Roth’s Nemesis (which deals with an outbreak of polio in 1944 New Jersey), can be read on some levels as metaphors for the Holocaust or anti-Semitism more generally, and in this sense invoke ways in which Jewish peoples have been scapegoated historically (in times of plague in particular). These works often reflect anxieties around immigration, and, in more recent times, around globalization (see the film Contagion from 2011 for an example). In the 1990s, Africa was the target of a good many of these narratives, whereas Asia has been the focus since SARS.
Spec Can: How are viral narratives related to ideas of borders and border policing?
Kelly McGuire: My students and I always talk about how Western thought has encouraged us to see ourselves as bodies with clearly defined boundaries in keeping with the idea of the “sovereign self” and the ethos of individualism that pervades North American culture in particular. Viral narratives disrupt this idea of the “bounded body” by reminding us how we act on one another constantly and imperceptibly. What these narratives do (again, this is a central thesis of Priscilla Wald’s book), is render visible not only our movements through space but also our multiple and varied points of contact with one another.
In a geopolitical sense, these stories also expose the idea of the national border as a mere construct that viruses certainly do not respect and, on the contrary, traverse at will. In that way they reveal as illusory all of these arbitrary lines we draw to mark off territory we occupy as settlers from other areas.
Spec Can: How might the Coronavirus pandemic change the way that fictional pandemics are presented?
Kelly McGuire: That is a really good question! So far we have manifested much of the same behaviour and tendencies we see in a lot of outbreak narratives, but inevitably the role of social media in overcoming isolation and perhaps even facilitating the conditions so vital to the containment of infection will be an important addition to the kinds of stories we tell about epidemics. The language of “flattening” or “planking” the curve and the emphasis on collective responsibility is even more pronounced than that which we find in most stories of this genre, and I suspect this will become entrenched in the popular vocabulary of pandemic writing, as will the language of social or physical distancing. It is fascinating to me how quickly we have embraced these terms and have come to read historical events like the Spanish Flu of 1918/1919 through these practices. The direct experience of having lived through a pandemic and in some cases lost loved ones, or dealt with hardship and privation in varying ways, will shape how these stories are told in the future. Perhaps we’ll tell them through a more intimate lens, and one marked by mourning, (rather than by the ghastly intrigue of following a disease event that has spiralled beyond our control). Most outbreak narratives talk about the “leveling” effects of illness, but, as many people have remarked, this pandemic has exacerbated the structural inequalities within our society and disproportionately affects groups that are already marginalized: people with disabilities, people of colour, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ people, and women. One desirable outcome would be that these experiences will be highlighted more in subsequent narratives that will move significantly beyond some of the tropes and characteristics I’ve discussed above.
Spec Can: Many pandemic narratives (especially zombie narratives) tend to present the image of a society that becomes hyper individualistic and libertarian in focus. How might characteristics of the current Coronavirus pandemic shift this image? Or will it shift that image?
Kelly McGuire: I think in many pandemic narratives we actually see both tendencies. Most of these works represent the individualistic drive to self-preservation that manifests itself in hoarding tendencies or the refusal to sacrifice our comfort or pleasure to safeguard the vulnerable. But these stories also commonly trace the emergence of a kind of ethos of collectivity as contagion in some ways helps foster a sense of community. At the end of these stories, the inevitable triumph (often scientific in contemporary works) over the disease in itself is also imagined as a triumph of the human spirit. I see these same patterns being reproduced as this event unfolds. But my hope is that ultimately a more collectivist mentality and concern with social equality will prevail that will in turn allow us to confront other pressing concerns (like the climate crisis) that remain to be addressed when all this is over.
Dr. Kelly McGuire is an associate professor in the department of English Literature and the current chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Trent University. Her research interests include Eighteenth-century literature and cultural history; medical history; plague writing and public health; biothrillers and biopunk; disease and national character; women’s writing; and sermon literature.