In this essay, submitted in the Imbawula ‘Love in the time of Social Distancing’ series, South African writer, storyteller and curator Ms Sisonke Msimang – who has lived in Australia with her husband and two children for several years – says that love in the time of Covid-19 looks exactly like it always has.
I can’t lie, Covid is showing me flames. I have no stories yet about love in this time because stories take time, and this situation is still unfolding. This is a principle I use in all the storytelling work I do and so I am realising it is time to take my own advice. We must guard against the need to resolve everything, to package and to pretend to understand it all too quickly. As I tell my story-tellers (at the Centre for Stories in Perth, Australia) all the time, a story can’t be told until it is over. What I do know is that I have spent the last five years focussed on establishing myself as a writer and a storyteller now I am unsure where I am going.
Not that I had it fully figured out, but I had been inching my way towards a formula for earning a living through my creative practice. I had begun to make a living by finding the right balance between writing, speaking engagements, book promotion, and special delightful things like podcasts and festival curation. All of a sudden this work is being altered in ways that will require real adjustments. As many of my gigs have been ‘postponed’ I have felt as though I am losing the parts of my work I love the most.
What do I love about my work? I love being in contact with people who have read my work. I love that reader who comes because they want to show me their book that fell in the tub and is underlined a thousand times. Events mean so much to me because after the solitude of spending a long time at my desk with words on my screen, I throw myself into conversations with people as a way to be in the world. The work I do as a curator – bouncing ideas off colleagues – and the work I do as a story trainer, also require a huge amount of face-to-face interaction.
“We must guard against the need to resolve everything, to package and to pretend to understand it all too quickly.”
I love listening to people. That is the best part of my work, what I look forward to the most about the events I participate in. There is always a moment (often, there are many), when someone says something really smart or funny or shares an idea I never would have had on my own; an insight that deepens my work.
I’m a classic extrovert. I get energy from being around others and from being connected to the world, so while I’m glad there are ways to connect electronically, they are still poor substitutes. I’m still resisting the idea that this is what the world looks like for a while – disembodied voices, faraway people.
But you cannot mourn forever so I have (grudgingly) started to enjoy certain things. The time with my kids has been hilarious. Monopoly, dancing to Drake, making new contraptions. There have been frustrations but mainly I’ve been grateful to have healthy happy funny children.
“I’m still resisting the idea that this is what the world looks like for a while – disembodied voices, faraway people.”
I have loved cackling with my sisters in South Africa and my best friend in America. I have loved the memes sent by friends all over the world. It’s made me realise how many ways humans have to be funny and ridiculous. Trashiness is global. There is something reassuring about not knowing what the hell is going on at the exact same time as 7 billion other people. There are no grown-ups, though there are still plenty of people trying to mansplain the whole thing to us. Everybody’s an expert suddenly.
I have loved the spontaneous music, like the Insta post of Brooklyn giving respect to Biggie and the Italians singing on their balconies. On a Zoom call the other day a friend and her husband sang ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ in a language that less than 40 people in the world still speak. They are part of a community of people who are 80 000 years strong and they are singing still, speaking in the tongue of their ancestors. I cried because the moment punctured the feeling of overwhelm I have been trying to contain since the beginning of these strange times.
There are many things that will be different as we go forward, but who we love and how we love has very little to do with a virus. Love in a time of Covid looks exactly as it always has. It looks like staying connected. It looks like checking in. As bell hooks reminds us, “A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming. In the midst of such love we need never fear abandonment. This is the most precious gift true love offers – the experience of knowing we always belong.”
May you have love, and may you belong.
Photo: Erick and Ian Regnard