The Pandemic Residency

Nearly a year and a half ago, I applied for a residency. Massey University, paired with the Square Edge Community Arts Centre, has a writer-in-residence every year. I only applied to practice applying for things. I didn’t expect to get it—and I didn’t. The 2019 residency was given to another writer . . . but would I be interested in coming in 2020? Yes, I said, I would.

This residency has never been given to a speculative writer before. I think they gave it to me because New Zealand is hosting WorldCon this year, and having a science fiction writer would be thematic.

WorldCon is a virtual convention now. Pandemic put paid to that. It has put paid to a lot of things.

I arrived less than a week before the entirety of New Zealand went into lockdown. Even then, contagion was changing the expectations of residency. My library reading got postponed. So did the workshop. Then the library closed entirely. The welcome event at the university was scaled down, and then cancelled. I have an office, apparently, in the department of English and Media Studies. Somewhere to be creative.

I’ve never seen it. The university is shut down as well.

Both Square Edge and Massey asked if I wanted to go home. They were very kind; it would be understandable. I chose not to go. I can self-isolate just as easily here as there . . . and there is something very present about a residency that is so very divorced from expectation. We are all of us, up and down the country, forced to live in the moment.

We are also, I think, forced—speculative writers particularly—to examine our expectations, and how they have turned to prejudice. Many of us have engaged with apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic writing at some point. It’s a literature of desolation, and mine has been no different. The experience of emergency, however, has shown our narrative bias in a clear light. People are being kinder, mostly. Across the country, they are putting teddies in windows so that kids, out on their lonely daily exercise, can have a bear hunt. This is not the stuff from which dystopia is made. We’re better than we think we are.

As artists, our creations should reflect that.

I’m struck, particularly, by two of my own post-apocalyptic, post-plague stories, written a couple of years apart. The first was published in Reckoning. “The Feather Wall” was about a conservationist, stuck on an off-shore island with an endangered species of bird. Alone. Unhappy. The second, which has just received a tentative acceptance from another publisher, tells of community recovery. People coming together, learning to write about—to talk about—the effects of apocalypse in diverse and inclusive ways. It is a far kinder story.

It is, perhaps, also the more realistic, because it is the kinder story.

Pandemic is a terrible thing, it’s true. But it is not the only thing, and it does not define us.


—April 2, 2020


Author: Octavia Cade

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. Her stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Shimmer, amongst others. She attended Clarion West 2016 and loves post-apocalyptic stories and science. One of her bucket list goals is to see a live kakapo (at time of writing there were only 148 left, but their numbers are slowly rising).

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