And we came outside and saw the stars again

Reading about a pandemic while living through it is not everyone’s idea of staying safe and well (as we’ve wished for each other so often this year). There was a patch in the summer, however, where things were looking up a bit, and reading in a hammock in the sun felt safe enough; perhaps everything would be alright again soon?

That’s when this book was published – August 2020.

In the eye of the storm this spring, writers around the world were recording what they thought, felt and saw. Translators around the world put their stories into English, and Restless Books published them. Together, they document a moment that felt unique, but by the end of this year now feels sometimes wearily familiar. We don’t know when and how this will end.

The contributors come from thirty countries; more from the States and Latin America than other places, but from every continent. They write

from “an island locked in on itself like a closed fist” (Shenaz Patel tr. Lisa Ducasse, Mauritius);

from Rumney Marsh, where “it took three years after the English settled for smallpox to claim its imperial toll” (Rajiv Mohabir, US/Guyana);

from Rome, “not the productive heart of the country but its administrative backside, so to speak. But will our lethargic streak keep us out of trouble as Italy cautiously reopens?” (Frederika Randall, US/Italy);

from Moscow, where “he kept singing and singing—vigorous, patriotic songs. He’d have loved to sing democratic ones, but there just weren’t any” (Maxim Osipov tr. Boris Drayluk, Russia);

from the beach, where “the crabs have sealed their caves with small pieces of mud. A-le can no longer tell which tiny mound is left by her monk crab.” (Wu Ming Li tr. Jenna Tang, Taiwan);

from two places at once, which has been particularly hard for many of us this year: “for many of my German friends, this was the first time in their lives they were experiencing such government-imposed restrictions. For me, the lockdown in Berlin, where I live now, brought back memories of the first Intifada” (Majed Abusalama, Palestine).

I can absolutely understand why you might not want to read this now. I’m in three book clubs and two of them have already said a firm no to reading anything pandemic-related. So what prompted me to read this book? Immanuel Kant’s questions, which have accompanied me throughout 2020:

“What can I know, what must I do, what may I hope?”

Reading books like this at times like this help me answer Kant’s first question, so I feel ready to face questions two and three. Reading about something helps to process it, to know what to do about it, what to hope for.

So do buy And we Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again. It’s a record of a moment that might help you or someone you know in other moments to come.

Other brilliant books that have helped me think and feel through the storm of this year are written in English – all but one published by Penguin:

Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars (Pan McMillan 2020)

Ali Smith’s Summer (2020)

Zadie Smith’s Intimations (2020)

And Boccacio’s Decameron (1348) translated by G. H. McWilliam is on my shelf for when I feel up to it. If you’re reading through this pandemic by reading about it, I’d like to know what you’ve discovered.

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