Each night at 7:30, the sounds of applause, cheering and cookware being struck echoes between the apartment buildings of a once lively downtown Toronto and in many other cities across the globe. It’s now one of the ways we show gratitude to the essential workers who bravely put themselves in harm’s way each day. The Toronto International Festival of Authors would like to extend a sincere thank you to the healthcare workers, food and beverage providers, delivery persons, transit drivers and many more who work tirelessly to keep our lives moving during these unprecedented times.
This month marks National Nursing Week, which in 2020 comes with the theme: Nurses: A Voice to Lead — Nursing the World to Health. Nurses address a wide range of health challenges, which reveal new heart-wrenching stories that often go untold every day. In times of crisis, we turn to both nurses and storytellers for perspective, strength and healing. This May, in recognition of nurses everywhere, we asked leading voices in the literary community what they think the world might need to heal right now. Here's what they said:
Janie Brown, author of Radical Acts of Love
In Radical Acts of Love, oncology nurse Janie Brown recounts 20 conversations she has had with the dying, including people close to her. Each conversation uncovers a different perspective on- and experience of- death, while at the same time exploring its universalities. Offering extremely sensitive and wise insight into our final moments, Brown shows practical ways to facilitate the shift from feeling helpless about death to feeling hopeful; from fear to acceptance; from feeling disconnected and alone, to becoming part of the wider, collective story of our mortality.
“The global pandemic has catapulted nurses into relationships of shared vulnerability where our well-being is entangled with our patients in ways never experienced before. For the world to heal, we as nurses must find our courage to work when we are afraid and serve when we are in grief. When I am frightened or sad I turn to books that inspire me and give me courage. Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations by Richard Wagamese is a book I read when I need to find my courage to work another day. The author’s words console me and his warmth helps me to feel connected to the world. He reminds me to tap into the fortitude of my ancestors who lived through wars and pandemics and prevailed, and helps me to trust that the world can heal and that I can play my part.”—Janie Brown
Sarah Leipciger, author of Coming Up for Air
Born in Canada, Sarah Leipciger now lives in London, U.K., where she teaches creative writing in prisons. Taking inspiration from a remarkable true story, Leipciger’s Coming Up for Air is a bold, richly imagined novel about the transcendent power of storytelling and the immeasurable impact of every human life.
“I’m not alone in my belief that this virus is a message from the Earth: take better care of each other; be grateful; slow down; consume less; everything you need for a beautiful afternoon is literally in your own backyard.”
“I hope we have the strength to move forward with deference and to rid ourselves of our false sense of impunity. A poem that speaks to this message, written in 2015, was recently shared with me. It’s called Hold Your Own by British writer and performance poet Kate Tempest. Look her up. Watch her perform this poem. This is how we heal.” —Sarah Leipciger
Sarah also provided a version of Kate Tempest reciting Hold Your Own, live at the Glastonbury Festival in 2015.
Sidura Ludwig, author of You Are Not What We Expected
Spanning 15 years in the lives of a multi-generational family and their neighbours, Sidura Ludwig’s You Are Not What We Expected draws an intimate portrait of a suburban Jewish community and illuminates the unexpected ways we remain connected during times of change.
“In this time of isolation, reading can be both our opportunity to escape and to engage. Right now I’m reading Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, by Jonathan Auxier. Every night, when I dive into the story before bed, I get to escape the monotony and anxiety of the world today and live, for a few chapters, with a chimney-sweep girl in Victorian London. Following the footsteps of someone else’s imagination feels like a deep breath when our current reality is so unpredictable.”
“But reading is also a chance to engage in a story or setting outside of what we know. Being isolated at home means we have fewer opportunities to engage and therefore empathize with others. I’m worried that the longer we are isolated from each other, the more disconnected we will become. When the world recovers from the global impact of COVID-19, I hope we remember how to listen to each other and value each other’s stories and experiences. And I think reading now will help.” —Sidura Ludwig
Bahar Orang, author of Where Things Touch
Drawing on her experiences as a physician-in-training, Bahar Orang considers clinical encounters in her book Where Things Touch, and how they relate to the concept and very idea of beauty. Throughout, beauty is ultimately imagined as something inextricably tied to care: the care of lovers, of patients, of art and literature, and the various non-human worlds that surround us.
“I’m not so convinced that reading is a healing practice, but I do believe that books can help us to clarify and articulate the sorts of worlds we want to build. These are literatures that interrupt us, befuddle and reorient us, disorder our beliefs, and stay with complexity and contradiction. Poetry can hold some, and sometimes all, of these experiments. As many others have already said, what the world needs is what it’s needed for a long time, which is radical social transformation. Perhaps what the pandemic has so painfully illuminated is the utter necessity and simultaneous devaluing of care work, which might be the only essential thing, after all. What’s recently been helpful reading for me is the “Care in Uncertain Times” syllabus from Duke University Press.” —Bahar Orang
Munira Premji, author of Choosing Hope
Munira Premji’s Choosing Hope explores her battle with three advanced cancers: Stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Stage 3 multiple myeloma and Stage 3 breast cancer, within a period of five years. Throughout the book, she shares her many experiences with healthcare professionals and dedicates an entire chapter to Manny, a nurse at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.
Munira was scheduled to launch Choosing Hope at a Toronto Lit Up book launch event at the PMCC this April, but in view of the public health emergency related to COVID-19, her event was postponed.
“The world needs to choose hope over fear and have faith that we will emerge from this pandemic a kinder and more compassionate human community. Choosing Hope is a book about my journey through 3 life-threatening cancers. There are parallels between the pandemic and cancer. In both cases, we must go through stages of grief - from denial and anger to bargaining, depression and acceptance – so we can move forward constructively and design a new normal. Both underline the extraordinary value of healthcare professionals. Both are a reminder of the fragility of life and an invitation to embrace every moment.” —Munira Premji