Review copies of Tina Shaw’s pandemic novel Ephemera landed in letterboxes just as the country went into lockdown. Here, she reflects on this strange new reality.
These new times have the uncanny feeling of fiction – of science fiction, or post-apocalyptic fiction. In other words, the unreal has become real.
I keep thinking of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel which portrays a North American world blasted by a killer pandemic that leaves only a small, scattered population. In March, Cloud Ink Press published my own sort-of post-apocalyptic novel. I can’t claim it’s anything close to Station Eleven, which is brilliant, but it’s a New Zealand take on the idea of a global catastrophe.
The significant difference between my novel and what’s happening now is that I used the scenario of a virus that attacks worldwide computer systems, not a biological virus. It’s still bloody eerie for me. Déjà-vu on a world scale. All I did was write a novel – a fictional story. What’s happening now is, obviously, all too real, there’s no comparison, and yet…
As we emerge from level four lockdown, I can’t help feeling that I’ve been here before.
In my novel, Ephemera, there are airport closures, fights breaking out over bottled water and in bank queues, and people getting stuck – here, and overseas – with people desperate to come back home. I created a Kurtz-like character (as in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad) whose family is stuck overseas while he is in this country. Another character, Nelson, is a capitalist who had the cunning foresight to stockpile pharmaceuticals from before the Crash. And in the novel’s ‘now’, hospitals have stopped working for lack of supplies and libraries are being used by the homeless.
Mainly, I wanted the lights and the internet to go out in my story – essentially to be a survivalist scenario – so invented a system break-down (hopefully Covid-19 won’t also lead to nationwide power failure and survivalist living!). In the world of Ephemera, seven years down the track, Aotearoa is still without power and internet. We are isolated from the rest of the world. And a bunch of normal people are trying to get ahead in a world that has irrevocably changed.
I write about small communities that have sprung up along the Waikato River as people reinvent their lives after the Crash. Hierarchical structures have changed – doctors are top of the heap, for obvious reasons, while fund managers have low value unless, of course, they have practical skills. Cynthia, the doctor in my novel, is being held hostage in one of these small communities because of her status value, while Adobowale Ackers (a Pākehā man who was once adopted by an African brotherhood) has found a living as a river trader on the Waikato. In my imagination, people would have adapted – or not. Ruth’s father, an insurance broker, vanishes early on, once it becomes clear what a mess the world is in.
Ruth is my narrator, an Ephemera Librarian (yes, there are such things) at Auckland Central Library. I’ve created scenes in which she goes into her workplace, even though it is dim (no electricity, remember) and most of the books have been taken to fuel cooking fires. She comments: “Since the Crash we had lost so many seemingly vital things, such as fuel to power vehicles, and electricity to power most other things. And don’t even get me started on coffee and tampons.”
Funny old Ruth worries. “What would happen to the Ephemera Collection without air conditioning, proper conditions: would the tickets and stubs and postcards grow mouldy and start to disintegrate? If things carried on indefinitely, would we lose the entire collection? The idea filled me with horror. The Ephemera Collection would truly become ephemeral.”
As books have been my whole life, one of the (many) things I’ve found bewildering so far with the spread of Covid-19 has been the library closures. Of course, books would be potential transmitters of the virus and places of congregation, so we had to shut the libraries. Yet books are also lifelines. Books are how we survive, emotionally. Thank God we have ebooks.
I could imagine some young person reading Ephemera one day in the future and, having not learned the history, saying “that couldn’t really happen”. But maybe my novel could be considered a kind of lesson plan. Fiction, I reckon, can actually be a kind of road map: here’s how you might navigate a new world.
I’m not saying it’s foolproof, but fiction can offer a possible way forward, especially when hope is being challenged, such as now. Fiction can, surprisingly, offer hope.
Of course, this is all just background to a story which I have created around Ruth’s journey to find drugs for her sister Juliana who has TB. She has a plan to cycle down south, assuming the roads are still open, to the old Huka Lodge “where the drug entrepreneur was apparently holed up”.
Just as a novel set against the backdrop of Covid-19 would be about more than just the virus itself – and I’d be willing to bet there will be novels springing up sooner or later from this fertile material – Ephemera explores a human story.
It’s what storytelling is all about: creating a world. It just happens that the world of my novel seems to have come true, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s also about the ways storytelling comments on real events. My scenario might have been imagined, yet in the future, there will be novels that draw on what is happening now in an attempt to interpret those events.
I believe that fiction has a secret superpower of portraying our deepest and darkest fears in such a way that we might come to better understand them. I believe fiction has the power to help us through these kinds of events and offer meaning. In five or 10 years’ time, books about Covid-19 will hopefully lend empathy and understanding to what was a traumatic worldwide experience which we all lived through, just like people once lived through World War II –we’re still writing books about that experience.
I just hope that we will all come out of this time relatively unscathed. Maybe then it will seem like simply fiction.
Ephemera by Tina Shaw (Cloud Ink Press, $29.99) can be ordered from Unity Books.