Pass the COVID-19 crown
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - March 28, 2020 - 12:00am

The coronavirus looks like a nest that has morphed into a crown, with pink spikes and red globes jutting out from all sides. This crown is a colorful thing, but it’s filled with danger. When it enters the body through droplets on your skin, it will quietly work its way down your throat and lodge in your lungs. There, like the machines of China dredging the corals in the West Philippine Sea, it will destroy the organ that makes you breathe. In days you will be dead.

This virus might shut down the whole of Italy for months if not a year or more, is now rampaging through Spain, and has locked down many countries in the world. I left the Philippines on 15 March, the day the lock down began, because the government refused to work early and fight this pandemic. The President, in true “kenkoy” fashion, even cursed the virus and said, even if he is not a medical doctor, “That this virus will just die a natural death.” And his Health Secretary, who is more bureaucrat and politician than doctor par excellence, concurred.

That is now we face this massive problem. It’s good to lock the main island down, but where are the social safety nets, especially for the poor and the informal settlers? The President just tossed the responsibility blithely to the barangay officials, who are under-funded and mostly untrained in disaster management. So we face the spectre of mass hunger and the equally grim spectre of many people untested for the virus because the kit, the kit is simply not here. Or the kits here are being used by your tinpot politicians.

When I left Manila I had with me a suitcase of newly-pressed clothes, five bottles of tuyo (dried herring) in corn oil, five cans of local corned beef, five boxes of arroz caldo (chicken rice porridge) and five boxes of champurrado (chocolate rice porridge). Five is my lucky number and I knew, deep in my bones, that I have to prepare for the long haul. Thus, I also bought with me powdered preparations for afritada, caldereta, longganisa, menudo, palabok, and tocino. Philippine food gives me comfort and consolation; it has helped me survive coup d’ etats, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions.

I had just moved to a new condominium unit in Kuala Lumpur, finally leaving behind the kampung (village) in Kajang, where the mall is the size of my rich friend’s house and fierce, black dogs roam the street at night. To furnish my new place, I also bought with me things that reminded me of home: two carabaos carved from dark wood, coasters made of dyed coconut midrib from Palawan, a small and colorful trophy I received from the Embassy of the Netherlands, a photograph of my partner and I framed in mother-of-shell, and a Mexican-like image of Jesus Christ on the cross, painted on thick carton, to drive away all things supernatural and viral from my house.

Someone wrote to ask me what am I doing in this now-one month lockdown in Malaysia? Well, life goes on. I’m the Head of School, English, at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, so I attend Faculty Management Board meetings online three times a week (we used to do it monthly). I also cascade down information to my academic staff and students about online learning platforms, extension of deadlines, immigration matters for international students, and alternative final assessments (papers or online examinations), among others.

I am also holding classes. I have just uploaded my Echo 360 (Engage) lecture in Moodle for my class on Popular Literature in the 18th and 19th centuries. Our novel this week is Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus” (1818). One fellow academic staff and I are team-teaching this module, and I’ll teach Shelley’s Gothic novel, as well as the following hugely successful books: “Jane Eyre” (1846) by Charlotte Bronte, “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson, “Dracula” (1897) by Bram Stoker, and “Selected Short Stories” by Oscar Wilde.

By an act of serendipity, many of these works deal with the idea of the double, the shadow of the self, the layers of consciousness beneath the conscious, every day one. They also deal with the horrors wrought by the Industrial Revolution, when farms turned into towns and  towns turned into cities, when farmers became factory workers raging against the machine, and when the “Satanic mills”, in the words of the poet William Blake, began despoiling the beauty of England, spewing pollutants into the air and coating the buildings in soot and grime.

So in the span of a week, this 57-year-old professor has to learn the new tools of the educational trade. Aside from Echo 360, I have to learn Microsoft Teams for discussions. Moreover, I have to upload my PowerPoint Presentations not only for Popular Literature but also for the Creative Writing Workshop for my postgraduate students. We have finished the module on writing poetry and we will begin writing short fiction. We are starting with the elements of fiction, and then we will discuss the lyrical short story and the Joycean epiphany. Afterward, we will go full steam ahead and charge into the waters of the grotesque, the fantastic, the tale, magic realist and end with fantasy, reality, and metafiction. A story about the COVID-19 virus can take any of these forms.

My textbooks for this Creative Writing Workshop include “The Art of Fiction” by professor non pareil John Gardner and “Short Fiction & Critical Contexts” by Eric Henderson and Geoff Hancock. One of the surprises of the latter book is it includes “Heartland,” a story by my friend and teacher Jose “Butch” Dalisay Jr. His story basks in the happy company of stories by Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Vladimir Nabokov.

I am also translating into Filipino the ”ambahan” poems of Quintin Pastrana and translating into English the novel “Banaag at Sikat” by Lope K. Santos for Penguin Books. And for Penguin as well, I am writing on contract my next book of fiction. It is a supernatural tale composed of three short and interlocking novels, when malevolent spirits roamed the land, disguised as a devastating virus and a politician who would not die.

(Danton Remoto is a Professor of Creative Writing and the Head of School, English, at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. His email is danton.remoto@nottingham.edu.my)

Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com

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