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The Suffering Body Problem

As a millennial, what was I to do when I got COVID but announce it on the internet?

I was miserably ill with the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus. I ran the typical fever, had the characteristic fatigue and the long cough. I had not been so sick in decades. I felt the sapping of my energy—physical and mental—so keenly that I legitimately worried about my ability to rise from the bathtub once I got down into it. I languished. I had no doubt in my mind that if I had caught this strain of this deadly plague without the benefit of having been vaccinated that the infection would have threatened my life.

Naturally I told the internet. I could see no one—my partner and I quarantined absolutely the second we realized what we probably had. I had been largely locked in my house for a year and a half already, and I had gotten infected the moment I’d broken that lockdown. I was lonesome for company, craving the extrovert’s perfect drug, and frustrated as an artist who lives to eavesdrop and people watch. All I had was the internet. I told the story of my symptoms and my discomfort, my misery, and my gratitude that it was not worse.

Unexpectedly, friends in the SF/F community reached out to share not just solidarity but real advice. When I worried in the open about long COVID and my (still ongoing but much diminished) parosmia, I got a DM from S.B. Divya, a talented author and early COVID sufferer. Divya has been open about her infection and its long-term consequences, but I hadn’t read the story yet. She reached out and explained how it had been for her, offering her sympathy and an opportunity to talk. I was overwhelmed with gratitude.

My friend and fellow genre writer Effie Seiberg also wrote fearlessly about her experience with myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), which is an autoimmune disorder that has been triggered for some people following COVID or other viral infection. Seiberg has been generous in this conversation, enduring the projections of people who live in fear of living as she does, advocating for herself and people like her while also recommending that folks do everything they can to avoid catching COVID.

Thus armed with the compassionate nonfiction of my friends, I returned to my endless unrefreshing COVID sleeps and tried to force my brain to read fiction. I gave up on trying to get it to make fiction in the early days, but I was lucky enough that I could keep reading.

I wanted to read about disease and suffering, but the great COVID novels are still slouching toward New York, ready for their time to come around. I thought of old and new favorites: of Stephen King’s plague opus The Stand with its 1970s style reliance on institutions and the American-do spirit that sees town hall democracy standing watch against demonic powers and small-town politics alike. In all its hundreds of thousands of words, The Stand has the room it needs to describe a respiratory illness turned deadly, featuring first-person suffering of breathlessness, mucus production, and the delirium of fever between the boiling of a brain and the comprehension that evil walks the world in cowboy boots.

I turned back to Scalzi’s Lock In because we were all locked in, weren’t we? Not like the people in his novel who suffer from Haden’s syndrome and cope with their comatose consciousness by walking around in AI-integrated robotic transport bodies. Scalzi shows us the body in the sickbed, needing care but nearly forgotten, even by its owner, for the crime of becoming moveless. However, as COVID dragged me through a third week of breathless exhaustion, I would have said an enthusiastic goodbye to my suffering body and yes to such a device.

Plague and zombie novels are as common as table salt. More difficult to find were the stories told from inside the suffering body. Even inside the fog of desperation, I could not help but think like a writer—why is it so hard to tell people how it feels? Is it that suffering is too universal, to repetitive, too inane to be compelling? I searched for proof that that wasn’t the case, and I found it.

I returned to Nicola Griffith’s 1992 debut novel Ammonite, winner of the Lambda and Otherwise awards that year, for her particular view of suffering. Marghe, Griffith’s linguist and explorer, intentionally allows herself to get infected with an alien virus in order the comprehend it and become one with the people who suffer from it. Marghe’s decision leads her to deeper understanding of gender, as this is a sex-linked plague, and to a trance state that allows her to adjust the conditions necessary for conception on a world without men. Ammonite makes suffering into something useful, something meaningful, rather than just a difficulty to be endured.

I took Sarah Gailey’s advice about meeting what I needed in a short story and read “Tongtong’s Summer” by Xia Jia (translated by Ken Liu). I followed a girl who cared for her aging grandfather as he recovered from surgery, reading the careful and caring way Xia describes the suffering of the body as it is compounded by age and eased by the love of those close to us. I delighted in Rachael K. Jones’ “Six Fictions About Unicorns,” especially the way she juxtaposes the everyday expense and suffering of a disease like diabetes with the wonders that a magically gifted animal can and cannot perform. Scrolling in the middle of a sleepless, delirious night, I stumbled across a letter by novelist Frances Burney to her sister about her experience undergoing a mastectomy—a process that by 1811 could be completed successfully and leave her to tell the tale, but was as yet administered without the benefit of anesthesia. I found “Desire” by Kiini Ibura Salaam, an indulgently beautiful story that mixes the heavily erotic and sensual with suffering, where the god of disease pursues even as we enjoy the prime use of our bodies. I felt that in my bones—the endless forest fire of desire never surrendering, even when sickness seems it will never abate.

Since S.B. Divya had been my tour guide as I began my descent into COVID’s dank basement, I riffled through her published works and found “Microbiota and the Masses: a Love Story,” a prescient 2017 story about what we are willing to brave the risk of infection for, how we regard the thrill of exposure to both love and disease. Divya is that rare kind of writer whose prose is delicate and accurate, who doesn’t flinch from the reality that a character trades a night on the toilet for an evening of heady romance; a quality I find admirable beyond words. Someone reminded me of Nisi Shawl’s “The Things I Miss the Most,” from Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and I howled at the sense of loss and suffering only increased by a dubious cure that does not consider the whole person who has gained something valuable from how they have learned to live. C.L. Clark writes excruciatingly about the suffering that is essential and inescapable in what the body must do, what it must be made to do in “You Perfect, Broken Thing.” I read John Wiswell’s “We Are Not Phoenixes” about how the tone and focus of suffering changes when we accept that there is only one way out, and it is coming soon enough. There is no need for platitudes or pyrotechnics when suffering is at its final end.

Rivers Solomon’s searing novel Sorrowland dives right into the suffering of the pregnant body, the world-rending agony of birth and then the recovery from birth, before proceeding into the specific suffering of a body as it changes. Solomon’s Vern must feel her body changing in ways that are unexpected and inexplicable, largely in isolation, in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had to live with an illness without a name, without research or support or a celebrity spokesperson. Sorrowland and all of Solomon’s work are uniquely fluent in the language of loneliness and how it is often the largest dimension of any suffering the body may feel.

Searching for hope, I found My Real Children, and elegant and complicated novel by Jo Walton. The main character Patricia (Pat/Trish, depending on the timeline) is suffering from anaplastic thyroid cancer caused by the detonation of nuclear weapons, and a kind of confusion that presents as dementia but may just be the effect of living two lives at once. A talented prose writer, Walton makes suffering new and individual each time it occurs, dragging the reader through Pat/Trish’s mental anguish over the life lived and not lived, while also dwelling deeply in the body as it suffers the indignity and exhaustion of prolonged pain. It is a masterwork of fiction that show us what it means to live, and how life is always a sacrifice to itself. Walton sanctifies the personal and the political pain of living. My Real Children is a perfect sickbed read.

To be a body is to suffer. Suffering is as profound as any other individual experience, and as inane as any universal one. The suffering body is not one at rest, as anybody who has had COVID will tell you. There isn’t enough sleep in the world to make a brain feel rested when it cannot get enough breath. There isn’t a story that can be read in that bed that will make the suffering stop, any more than having a unicorn will solve all a girl’s problems. But given the choice between suffering with a sympathetic story or without one, I will always choose to open that humble SF/F magazine, pick up a book, or let the podcast reader tell me a good one. When it comes to suffering, there isn’t a cure. But there is always a comfort.

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Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a science fiction author and feminist essayist. Her debut, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, won the 2014 Philip K. Dick award. She is a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. In 2020, she published her first collection, “Big Girl” with PM Press, containing the Locus Award-winning novelette, “The Pill.” Elison’s first young adult novel, “Find Layla” was published in 2020 by Skyscape. Her thriller, “Number One Fan,” will be released by Mira Books in 2022. Meg has been published in McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and many other places. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

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