Five months ago, on exactly March 18th, I decided to confine myself to home. My work allows this, since I’m the manager and administrator of my brain and my hands; of my imagination and my writing.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, I would have left Nicaragua on April 19 for Albuquerque, New Mexico, to present the memoirs of my friend Margaret Randall, the poet, photographer and chronicler. From there, I was going to fly to Vermont to give a talk at the University; then from there to Canada to the Metropolis Bleu Festival, where I was scheduled to receive an award.
Later, I was planning to continue on to Madrid, because the Casa de America was dedicating the Week of the Author to me. From there I would have gone on tour in Germany to present my book of essays Rebeliones y Revelaciones [“Rebellions and Revelations] that was published in German in May. It would have been a tiring trip but important for my craft and my career. A trip where I would have seen friends and gotten to know Montreal, a city I’d never been in before.
My world, like that of the majority of its inhabitants, was paralyzed. I confess that in the spirit of “putting a good face on a bad time”, I thought that – after all – the free time wouldn’t be so bad for me, in order to write with calm and without the interruptions that travelling signifies. I’ve never been able to write while I’m on these tours. There’s a lot to do, and I end up tired at night.
There’s always the tension of doing things well, of sounding “intelligent” all the time: the interviews, the conferences, the encounters with the public and their questions. I’m sorry if I sound churlish, but as the saying goes: “things look different close up than from far away”.
Since that moment in the modern world when the publishers decided that we authors should be the promoters of our books, these are working tours. There are dinners and meetings with friends mixed in, but going from one country to another all the time without seeing more than the hotel or some restaurant isn’t the “joyride” it would seem.
What I didn’t expect is for the virtual world to enter through my computer and demand of me a similar number of public appearances. The programs offered by institutions and cultural sites, by universities and festivals, all forced to go virtual due to the plague, began knocking on my door.
I don’t know how many times in these months I’ve made appearances on Zoom, presentations on Zoom, readings on Zoom. I find it hard to say no, and I feel almost obligated to support this world of culture that’s been swept to the edge and must depend on the social networks, the Facebook, Instagram and podcast transmissions.
I think about the people confined in their apartments, craving to hear about books, needy for entertainment, and I want to help soothe the general boredom. I think how books help pass the time, and how we writers should take advantage of this. If we don’t stimulate reading in this situation, we’re not fulfilling our commitment to them, nor to ourselves, who, of course, need the readers.
I confess that I began with enthusiasm, but little by little, as my sensation of being locked in rose, as the number of dead rose, as an end to the pandemic couldn’t be seen, as it still can’t be seen, and my awareness increased of what it will mean for the entire world: unemployment, poverty and premature mourning, the unreality of the new reality shook me. I’m an inhabitant and reticent actor in a new incorporeal experience.
The screens, the life in those virtual salons, the webinars, the interviews via Zoom, end up being curiously exhausting. To be on a screen, looking at yourself, conscious of being alone but under the scrutiny of many, is tiring.
You miss others’ eyes, their reactions, their laughter. You even miss hearing coughs in the auditorium. Nothing can compete with the sounds of life, with the presence of others. I find that when I finish one of those virtual presentations, I need a drink, a look at the garden, to return to feeling like a being of flesh and blood.
No doubt it’s good that we have these means of communication. When I was a child, such advances were only seen in movies about outer space, or futuristic science fiction films. But it’s obvious that we’re not made for this to be the medium for exchanging ideas, or a substitute for the presence of the rest. And the last straw was that my illusions of free time dissipated. Sometimes I think that I’m busier than before.
Nonetheless, I don’t regret my decision to stay home. I’m grateful for the privilege of being able to continue working from my home. This pandemic is dangerous, and each one of us is responsible for their own health, especially in a country where the State acts against all dictates of reason, promoting multitudes while the rulers jealously guard their quarantine.
But I yearn for a return to the days of community. I hope that the virtual world – the networks, the television – stop being the only permitted human contact. I hope that we can put the brakes on the contagion by all taking care of ourselves, so that we don’t have to pay the price of so much death, separation and Zoom indefinitely.