An Interview with Dr. Kelly McGuire About Pandemic and Outbreak Narratives

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.

 

Border Walls and Barriers

Border Walls and Barriers

A review of Rich Larson’s “Porque El Girasol se Llama El Girasol” in Shades Within Us: Tales of Migration and Fractured Borders Edited by Lucas Law and Susan Forest (Laksa Media Group, 2018)

By Derek Newman-Stille

With “Porque El Girasol se Llama El Girasol”, Rich Larson tells a significant tale for a post-Trump world. Larson’s story is about Latinx people in a post-wall America who need to find a method of passing through a militarized border with a massive wall. Those who are caught in American territory are put to work building the wall further, often dying from unsanitary conditions, and those who are caught in the no man’s land around the wall are allowed to be butchered without remorse.

Larson tells his tale through the perspective of Girasol, a little girl who is trying to escape America with her mother. Although a small child, she is aware of the realities of being captured and killed in the process of escaping, illustrating the loss of childhood that many children have to experience when they are subject to political violence by oppressive regimes.

They are escorted through the wall by a man who functions as a coyote (a person who brings people across borders), but this coyote is quite different from others because he needs to take his passengers through a quantum level of reality in order to get them safely through the highly protected wall. He is called the Cheshire Man, evoking the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland for his ability to disappear and go where others cannot go.

“Porque El Girasol se Llama El Girasol” is a tale of loss, family sacrifice, and political violence, reminding readers of the violence that can occur in a political regime that casts certain people as unwanted and that justifies violence against them.

To discover more about Shades Within Us, visit http://laksamedia.com/shades-within-us-an-anthology-for-a-cause/

To find out more about Rich Larson, visit https://www.patreon.com/richlarson

Sharing Darkness

A review of Marie Bilodeau’s Destiny’s Blood (Dragon Moon Press, 2010)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover for Marie Bilodeau's Destiny's Blood courtesy of http://mariebilodeau.blogspot.ca/p/destinys-blood.html

Cover for Marie Bilodeau’s Destiny’s Blood courtesy of http://mariebilodeau.blogspot.ca/p/destinys-blood.html

The motivation to find home, to create a sense of belonging shapes much of our experiences. We are tied to ideas of family, place, and community. Marie Bilodeau’s Destiny’s Blood is an exploration of home from the perspective of loss, need, warring desires, and conflict. Even when venturing through the dark depths of space… we still keep getting called home, returning to a place of memories and we are always searching for a selfhood that is attached to the notion of connection.

Layela and her twin sister Yoma have been on the streets since youth, surviving through theft and constant movement to avoid any legal troubles, but after Layela was assaulted by a Kilita who ripped into her thoughts to see her visions, Layela’s life has been shaped by trauma. Seeing the future in her visions, she is nonetheless constantly mentally returning to the past, to that moment of pain and horror that has shaped her. Seeking to create a future for herself that is calm, that contrasts with the horrors she sees in her visions at night, she decides to create a flower shop, to settle down amid the relaxing scent of vegetation and create a sense of belonging, a place to be home.

But the future persists and Layela is ripped again from the calm she attempts to forge around her pained heart when her sister disappears, she is arrested without warrant, and the police destroy the home she tried to create for herself. She is uprooted, pulled from the planet that she hoped to turn into her home and is once again tossed into the abyss of space and a future that is not as uncertain as it should be.

Destiny’s Blood asks whether home can be a place one has no memory of, whether a distant star can call to one’s blood and stir up a restlessness that can’t find a home no matter how much one tries to create one. Layela is being called by the star around which she was born, a star that is linked to myth… and more personally to her own origins and sense of belonging and it is a star that feeds the universe with ether, a substance that several alien races depend on and that has dwindled in recent years, leaving many of them all but extinct.

Marie Bilodeau’s space fantasy maps out ideas of destiny and the longing for home that shapes people, propels them into the void, searching for something constantly and unable to settle. She charts the way that that need to belong lets people react with extremes: willing to sacrifice the present for a past that lingers, willing to kill to create home. Longing is like pain, like the emptiness of space waiting to be filled by a sense of the familiar, a place of belonging. Her characters are motivated by a persistent sense of loss, and yet they experience it in unique and nuanced ways, illustrating the complexity of loss: urged toward a desire to escape, to forget, to hold on to anything possible, to protect, or even to hate, to delve into the seemingly endless pit of vengeance that the persistence of loss can create.

Destiny’s Blood conveys a transient aesthetic, a constant searching that would be evoked by being tossed out across a cosmic void.

To find out more about Marie Bilodeau’s work, visit her website at http://mariebilodeau.blogspot.ca/ .

To discover more about Destiny’s Blood and other books in the destiny series, visit http://mariebilodeau.blogspot.ca/p/destinys-blood.html .

If you want to hear Marie Bilodeau do a short reading from the Destiny series, visit her author reading at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/06/24/speculating-canada-on-trent-radio-episode-9-a-mythic-night-an-author-reading-by-marie-bilodeau-and-karen-dudley/

Marie Bilodeau and Derek Newman-Stille at Sadleir House for the author reading A Mythic Night

Marie Bilodeau and Derek Newman-Stille at Sadleir House for the author reading A Mythic Night

 

Darkly Dislocating

A Review of Eileen Kernaghan’s Sophie, In Shadow (Thistledown Press, 2014).

Cover Photo of Sophie, in Shadow courtesy of Thistledown Press

Cover Photo of Sophie, in Shadow courtesy of Thistledown Press

Suspended in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean after the Titanic was pulled beneath the waves, Sophie’s life was forever marked, forever suspended between life and the icy, shadowy depths of death. Re-living her brush with death in her dreams, Sophie brings visions of tragedy into her waking world, piercing the veils of the present to experience tragedies and horrors of the past, present, and future, moments steeped in death.

Death chases Sophie like an impenetrable miasma, thickening in moments of dislocation from the quiet life and English gentlewoman is supposed to experience, and drifting in clouds of horror into Sophie’s perception.

Eileen Kernaghan creates a sense of wondrous dislocation for the reader, a darkly beautiful reminder that every place is haunted, every locale filled with ghosts of memory from the past. Sophie, In Shadow reminds readers that we dwell in a place of fantasy, of wonder and excitement, and that those dreamy places of magic and mystery are always steeped in the shadows of past horrors and veiled in secrets. We are always one step through the veil of time away from tragedy.

Kernaghan reveals landscapes written about as darkly mysterious in the era of British colonialism and scarred by that process of colonial control, made dark by the tragedies committed to maintain colonial control and mysterious by the secrecy and denials of those in power. Sophie’s sense of dislocation from a life marred by tragedy and her ability to see tragedies of the past, present, and future at a distance is mirrored bin the colonial world around her where British subjects try to create an English landscape overtop of the locations they seek to control, building “home” in other territories where they are forever reminded that these places are not home and any sense of home is fiction maintained by harsh regulation, segregation, secrecy, and violence.

Set in the early 1900s, Kernaghan creates a novel of secrecy, espionage, violent resistance, and the exercise of power (both within the body through the regulation of psychic abilities, and throughout India through British governmental control).

To discover more about Sophie, In Shadow, visit Thistledown Press’ website at http://www.thistledownpress.com/html/search/genre/Young_Adult_Fiction/sophie_in_shadow_p586.cfm

To read more works by Eileen Kernaghan, visit her website at http://www.eileenkernaghan.ca/ .

Life Drained by Residential Schools

A review of David Jon Fuller’s “Sin A Squay” in Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast (Edge, 2013)

Cover Photo for Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast courtesy of http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess17/t17-catalog.html

Cover Photo for Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast courtesy of http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess17/t17-catalog.html

By Derek Newman-Stille

Residential schools were a real life horror for indigenous Canadians. Taken from their homes, punished for speaking their own language, forced to abandon their own culture and lifestyle, subject to abuse and starvation, Canadian aboriginals from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s endured victimization by very real monsters.

David Jon Fuller’s short story “Sin A Squay” takes the very real horror of residential schools and overlays it with modern mythical monsters. Jenny and Marion were both subject to torture at a residential school – beaten, starved, cut off from their family and their heritage they had their lives drained from them… literally. While at the MacDonald Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, the girls were subject to both psychological and physical draining by the vampiric Miss Harrow.

Trained through violence to submit to others, Marion lost the empowerment that her werewolfism brought to her, her alpha status, and it is only through her confrontation with the person who subjected her to violence, Miss Harrow, that she is able to discover herself and her own power.

David Jon Fuller brings attention to the historical issues around the treatment of aboriginal people in Canada, particularly aboriginal women. He highlights the violence of the residential school system by showing two women drained of their lifeforce by a vampiric other, here representing a system that sought to drain aboriginal people of their heritage (their blood). Using the figure of the werewolf, Fuller brings attention to the way that the residential school system claimed that its role was to “tame” aboriginal Canadians and force them to submit to a white domestic culture in which they were treated as pets. Marion’s werewolf side has suppressed its role as an alpha to others because of this depriving of independence and freedom of thought.

He highlights the continued and very pressing concern about the disappearance of aboriginal women in Canadian history and its continuity today. When Miss Harrow is feeding on children and killing them, stashing them in the basement, they are ignored by the police who believe that any white woman working for the residential school system would be above reproach.

You can explore David Jon Fuller’s work at http://www.davidjonfuller.com/ .

Read more about the collection Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast on Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess17/t17-catalog.html .

Speculating Canada on Trent Radio Episode 3: An Interview with Greg Bechtel

As part of the Ontario leg of his tour for the collection Boundary Problems (Freehand Books), Edmonton author Greg Bechtel was able to swing by the Trent Radio studio to discuss his own work and some overall trends in Canadian Speculative Fiction.

In our interview we postulate that reality is a set of social conventions, a creation and that therefore speculative fiction is partaking in an overall realm of fictive subjects. We discuss the way that good realist fiction, like good SF, should complicate notions of reality and estrange us from taken for granted assumptions about “the way things are”.

Bechtel’s work blends and mixes the speculative and the realist in his collection Boundary Problems and this contributes to his overall sense that reality is a blend of experience and fiction.

Greg Bechtel brings attention to the short story as a focus of interest, not as a stepping stone to the novel. He discusses the potential of the short story as a place for experimentation since readers are more willing to take short ventures into experimental media.

Bechtel is interested in stories and letting stories tell themselves. He reminds listeners that the world and the self are both collections of stories. We discuss memories as stories –  flexible, changeable, and suspect. In our overall discussion of memory as it appears in his stories, Bechtel brings attention to the notion of trauma and the idea that trauma is a place where stories can be pulled into a black hole, a place from which nothing escapes. But, telling these stories of trauma, sharing them,  means that they are no longer black holes because the story escapes and proves that things can escape.

In our conversation, Greg Bechtel directly faces a challenge many authors who are also academics have – analyzing his own work.

Check out our radio interview by clicking on the link below.

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

 

This audio file was originally broadcast on Trent Radio, and I would like to thank Trent Radio for their continued support.

Make sure to allow a few minutes for the file to buffer since it may take a moment before it begins to play.

Is it Literary if it has Social Commentary?

A review of OnSpec #95 vol 25 no 4 Edited by Diane L. Walton
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo from OnSpec  # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

Cover photo from OnSpec # 95, courtesy of http://www.onspec.ca

 

This review is well- timed since I recently posted something about ableism, sexism, homophobia, and racism at fan conventions and have been thinking about ways to make SF fandom more inclusive. When reading OnSpec #95 vol 25 no 4, it occurred to me that the OnSpec editors are definitely doing their part to be inclusive by featuring stories that engage with a variety of different bodies and identities. One way that we can open fans to new ways of including diversity is to make sure that diversity is reflected in the SF works that we produce. OnSpec’s recently produced winter issue features works that engage with aging characters, LGBTQ2 or QUILTBAG populations, people in poverty, physical and psychological disability, and they do so in a way that raises questions about ableism, classism, and homophobia by giving the reader the opportunity to enter into the headspace of people who are often treated as abject by a society that discriminates against them.

Fiction provides us with an opportunity to exercise our skills in empathy, flowing in to the minds and experiences of characters as we read about them. Empathy is something that we all need to develop further and SF has the ability to let us venture into a variety of highly diverse minds and experiences.

Susan MacGregor begins this OnSpec with a discussion of the notion of “literary merit” and a reminder that a lot of the people who defend the notion that there is a “high literature” and that science fiction, fantasy, and horror cannot be it will often say that SF doesn’t make social contributions. Susan reminds the reader of the kinds of contributions that SF makes and mirrors some of the perspectives I have often espoused here on Speculating Canada that speculative fiction by its very nature opens things up to speculation, to question, and that by venturing into the weird realms of other worlds, other realities, and strange places, we can come back to our own world with questions, pondering the things we take for granted. It is very appropriate that this volume follows from her editorial with stories that feature characters who are often socially ostracized and exploring ideas about people in our own society who are treated like aliens and monsters. This exploration of those who are so often treated as ABnormal in situations that are abnormal (because they are set in the future or on other worlds or alternative histories) lets us question the idea of “normal” and come back to our own reality with a question about why so many people want to maintain a “normal” that excludes so many others. OnSpec 95, like other good works of SF opens OUR world to questions and lets us reassess it.

In addition to the -isms, OnSpec 95 invites readers to think about the damage caused by war whether it is physical injury to the body, environmental damage, psychological trauma, or damage to the community and notions of trust. The reader is encouraged to question our relationship to technology, deal with issues of addiction, plague, family violence, community secrets, memory, and the loss of selfhood itself. The fact that it does this social interrogation in a plague city of the future, in an alternative past full of necromantic powers and political intrigue, a future of prosthetic limbs and VR technology for coping with PTSD, a future of resource scarcity following international war, and a small town with a man who can sense truth makes it both incredibly entertaining and engaging.

OnSpec 95 binds narratives of loss together, creating a space for the interaction of future and past to talk about things that have become memory, things that we pine for, and things that we will feel the loss of in the future…. but these stories are ultimately about the present, about where and how we live NOW… and the authors ask us to question The Now to gain new insights about ourselves and the human experience.

We talk a lot about fantasy, science fiction, and horror as escapes, but I think that good speculative fiction is not an escape, but a temporary abstraction from reality that lets us come back to our own world with new insights, new ideas, and new ways of questioning the “norms” that we take for granted. Send me to an alien world any day if I can come back from it with a spaceship full of questions for this world!!

To read reviews of some of the individual stories in OnSpec 95, see:

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/performing-reality-living-fiction

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/between-coping-and-addiction

https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/a-necromantic-disregard

You can discover more about OnSpec at onspec.ca .