Saleema Nawaz is a novelist, not a prophet. But by applying imagination to intense research over six long years, the Canadian author has crafted a work of fiction that reads like the real world playing out on the page.
In Songs for the End of the World, a highly infectious novel coronavirus – one that begins as a weird flu in a province in China – is devastating New York, making thousands ill, forcing quarantines, shutting down businesses and then spreading across North America. It takes place in 2020.
The prescient novel, originally scheduled to be published in August, is being released as an e-book next week – McClelland & Stewart decided to move up the date because of world events.
It’s been odd for Nawaz to suddenly find herself living through situations similar to the ones she imagined for her characters. “It has felt very surreal and a little bit unnerving,” Nawaz says during an interview from Montreal, where she’s in isolation with her husband and their five-year-old daughter.
As a reader, becoming immersed in Nawaz’s fictional pandemic while self-isolating during a real-life one has also been a little unnerving, even eerie, but – and I certainly did not expect this – weirdly comforting.
More a character study than science fiction, the book focuses on how the pandemic changes lives – something we’re all experiencing right now. The similarities in events and details are almost astounding. In the book, the public remains largely unaware or unconcerned as the first cases hit, and they continue living life as normal. But over the course of just a few weeks, the world changes: Foot traffic slows, runners begin wearing masks and people start to keep their distance from one another.
Nawaz’s disease, ARAMIS (Acute Respiratory and Muscular Inflammatory Syndrome), differs in some respects from COVID-19. Most significantly, children are particularly susceptible, which brings a whole other level of horror to the story.
But the book uses vocabulary and depicts scenarios that a few months ago might have been unfamiliar to most readers and are now part of our new normal: physical-distancing ordinances, aerosol transmission, personal protective equipment, voluntary quarantining to slow the spread. People must have their temperature taken before they enter a hospital. There are anti-Asian hate crimes, World Health Organization advisories, a booming commerce in food delivery and ethical dilemmas about who gets access to ventilators, which are in short supply. N95 face masks and generators are also scarce, and people hoard food and other supplies.
Nawaz, who was born in Ottawa, first had the idea for the book in 2012 and began writing it in 2013, completing it last year.
“I wanted to write a realistic novel about a pandemic that explores those ideas we have from disaster movies – postapocalyptic ideas of societal breakdown in a crisis – while still following my instincts about how people would for the most part behave with goodwill and social responsibility,” Nawaz says.
For research, she read medical journals, epidemiological studies and emergency preparedness plans. She learned about disease modelling, and studied the effectiveness of community mitigation strategies such as quarantine and contact tracing. She studied previous outbreaks – SARS, MERS, the Spanish flu. She read sociological studies into how people behave in times of disaster.
That research made her keenly aware that a pandemic wasn’t so far-fetched. Still, watching it unfold after completing the book was unexpected.
“There were a few weeks where I felt kind of numb, and it was hard to believe it was really happening,” Nawaz says. “Then, once I did accept it, probably around the first week of March, I was sort of surprised that even spending years imagining what might happen doesn’t necessarily prepare you for how you’re going to feel.”
As this was going on, McClelland & Stewart decided to move up the publication of the e-book to April 14. (The physical book will still be published Aug. 25.)
“We started talking about it then and watching it really closely," M&S publisher Jared Bland says. "As things got worse and the situation accelerated, we began a series of discussions around what to do, because the answer was not at all clear.” Bland says Nawaz and the book’s editor, Anita Chong, felt strongly the novel could be helpful. He agreed.
“We believe readers who come to it will find within it ideas and characters and a story that will make them feel hopeful, and make them believe in community and connectivity and the sorts of things we value even more right now,” Bland says.
To further the art-imitating-life weirdness, one of the book’s storylines involves an author, Owen, whose prescient book, How to Avoid the Plague, becomes a bestseller as a result of the actual pandemic. “[T]hanks to the latest CDC alert, it looks like we’ll be calling another printing any day now,” Owen’s publisher writes in an e-mail to him. “Terrible about the virus, of course, but what a silver lining for us.”
I asked both Nawaz and Bland if they were concerned that the early release of the novel would be perceived as an opportunistic marketing decision.
“I can certainly understand why someone would think that, if they heard the bare bones of the situation," Bland says. “But I can’t really imagine anyone who engages with the book seriously thinking that, partly because built into the book is a critique of that very thing.”
“Obviously the last thing anybody wants to do is to capitalize on other people’s pain,” Nawaz says in a separate interview. “I wrote this between 2013 and 2019, before COVID-19 existed. I’m grateful the book is out now, because I feel like it can contribute to the conversation in a positive way. Because I think it’s a hopeful story about how community can come together, and that’s what will get us through this.”
To be honest, I was a little wary about reading the book. Holed up at home, I’m currently seeking distraction from reality in the art and entertainment I consume. Do I really need to read about a fictional pandemic while I’m stuck inside experiencing a real one? And reading Songs for the End of the World certainly has been trippy. At one point, while I was deeply immersed in a chapter depicting an ARAMIS benefit concert in Vancouver, my son burst into the room asking whether he could donate to an online COVID-19 fundraiser hosted by one of his favourite YouTube gamers, Jaiden Animations.
Then, while sitting at my desk doing interviews, I was talking about an early chapter in which one quarantined character runs on his treadmill while watching the world change outside his window. I looked outside and saw one of my neighbours running up and down the street, wearing a mask.
There were a few weeks where I felt kind of numb, and it was hard to believe it was really happening.— Saleema Nawaz, Novelist
But the book is surprisingly reassuring. If someone could have imagined what we’re going through in such vivid detail, it somehow makes the situation less scary, less unpredictable, more knowable. There were so many things that resonated, such as this thought from one of the characters: “She hadn’t realized how much it had mattered to her: the affable friction of other lives bumping up against her own.”
Songs for the End of the World explores the power of connection, something many of us are experiencing right now – either by desperately missing the proximity of our Before-Times lives or by finding ways to connect despite the physical barriers we’ve been forced to shelter behind. Connecting with a real-feeling work of art had a similar effect for me.
As the fictional band that headlines the ARAMIS fundraiser says toward the end of the novel: “If we’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that sometimes a voice in the darkness can reach out and save you from feeling alone.”
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