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Writers Worldwide Contribute To Anthology About The Pandemic

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Many of us can often feel like we're suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic all alone, but a new anthology of essays, poems and images is a reminder that the virus has touched nearly every country.

ILAN STAVANS: To offer a response from writers that are seeing the exact same thing with very different eyes in different locations of the world.

MARTIN: Ilan Stavans is the editor of "And We Came Outside And Saw The Stars Again." He talked with Noel about the collection.

STAVANS: The anthology offers this exquisite moment, in my perspective, of somebody who is trapped in her house and sees an ant and does nothing but try to rescue that ant from the pillow in her bed, where she first found her. There is, in the anthology, a statement of looking at the book of Genesis. And what is God doing about all this? There are moments in the anthology where writers write about entering their apartment, their brand-new apartment for which they were saving money, and now feeling that that apartment is a cell. I think that writers do that. Writers talk about just average moments in a way that is both very personal and very universal.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: I really liked that metaphor about the ant and about the woman trying to take the ant off her pillow and move it outside. Who is the ant?

STAVANS: I think the ant is just an insect that is absolutely disinterested with what's happening with the human condition, just wanders into a bed, transported inside the newspaper that has just been dropped in the poet's house. And the poet now notices that ant, realizes there is much more in the newspaper than simply the letters that detail what is happening in the world. And what does she do? The big act of her day is to rescue that ant, to bring it back to the outside world and writes a poem about it. This is what I did on the first day of quarantine; I saved an ant.

KING: Is that a true story?

STAVANS: As far as poetry goes, I would say yes. The literature has a truth unto itself that is very different from the truth of history or the truth of journalism. I don't know if there was an ant in her pillow, but I know that she wrote a beautiful poem about an ant in her pillow.

KING: The title of this anthology, "And We Came Outside And Saw The Stars Again," is from Dante's "Inferno," from the end of the "Inferno," correct?

STAVANS: The very last line.

KING: When they emerge out of hell and back out under the night sky.

STAVANS: Mmm hmm.

KING: I got the impression reading the anthology there was a sense that, at some point, all of these writers and, therefore, all of us will emerge from this hell out into the light again. Do you see light at the end of the tunnel?

STAVANS: I absolutely see light at the end of the tunnel. But there is the sense that, in the struggle that we're facing, we are going to emerge more vigorous, more enlightened. I'm not sure that that is the case. It seems to me that this pandemic is so ingrained in how we are being reconfigured as individuals that the new chapter is going to be absolutely different from anything we can imagine. We are being humbled to the core, and we are being forced to spend more time looking ourselves in the mirror. It is in times like this literature pushes you to ask, in what way are you going to emerge triumphant, and what does it mean to be triumphant when so many people are dying and so many communities are being shaked to the core by all this?

KING: Do you have an answer to that question - what it means to emerge triumphant?

STAVANS: I don't have an answer; my answer is my question. Let's allow what we are experiencing to be written down.

KING: I am very used to anthologies being all poetry or all essays, and one notable thing about this particular anthology is you have nonfiction essays. You have poetry. You have photographs, including Instagram photographs. Why did you decide that it would be beneficial to put all these different mediums together, as opposed to confusing or chaotic?

STAVANS: Noel, the world is confusing and chaotic.

KING: (Laughter).

STAVANS: And trying to give it a semblance of order might be more deceitful than the act of really straightening things out. But I also think that comes from my Latin American background. I was born and raised in Mexico. And when you enter a bookstore in Latin America, nobody divides the books in fiction and nonfiction. Everything is together because the world is fictional or the world is nonfictional, and things get confused all the time. These literary forms cross-fertilize. They talk to one another. Good poets can be good essayists, and good essayists could be good memorialists.

KING: That is a fascinating answer, and it leads me to a last question about time. As I'm reading the anthology, I'm noticing that you have people writing back in March from, for example, Italy, when everything in Italy is going crazy, and at this point, a few months later, Italy is doing all right. And I wondered how you wrestled with the idea that, by the time we get this to print, even though it's a few months later, some of this will be out of date.

STAVANS: (Laughter) Happily, I am in the business of literature, and in literature, there is no chronological time; all time is simultaneous. The books are always in the present tense, and whatever is delivered in writing, in literary terms, happens as the reader opens it and enters that world. So I think that the pieces that are written about Italy in March of 2020 in many ways are contemporaries with Dante writing the "Divine Comedy," the "Inferno" and Flaubert writing "Madame Bovary." That's what I love in terms of literature. You go to a library and the books are sitting next to one another. They come from different centuries, but they are contemporaries, and the reader makes them all be in the present tense.

KING: Ilan Stavans is the editor of "And We Came Outside And Saw The Stars Again," a new anthology about the coronavirus pandemic. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us.

STAVANS: My pleasure, Noel. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLOS NINO AND MIGUEL ATWOOD-FERGUSON'S "MEZAME (AWAKENING)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.