Welcome to Hillbrow…

A recurring theme of Contagion literature is death – and boy did the authors come up with creative ways to kill off our beloved characters amid pandemics. Some deaths were as memorable as the singer in Orpheus collapsing in the spotlight (Camus), others were private as Tarrou’s final exhale (Camus), and few were revealed abruptly like the child narrator in Ding Village (Yan). This time around, the author Mpe wasted no time in dropping the death bomb on his readers by opening the novel with an almost eulogy-reciting sentiment:

If you were still alive, Refentše, child of Tiragalong, you would be glad that Bafana Bafana lost to France in the 1998 Soccer World Cup fiasco.



Narration is a weird thing to think about in this work. The direction is singular – someone appeared to be writing to the dead Refentše in some monologue capacity. We first followed the omnipresent narrator on a walking tour across the district of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, in a swift fashion akin to that of tourism drone videos showcasing the highlight of this town while flashing the slogan “Welcome to our Hillbrow.” At times, we forgot that the “you” was addressed to Refentše and invited ourselves to be the audience of this narration (as other works have invited us to do this semester). We marvel at the liminality and disposability of migrant lives, we marvel at the gore of news reports (five men’s ribs being ripped off by a butcher’s knife?), but then we are gently reminded that this is a story of Refentše, for Refentše, as the narration zoomed in to follow Refentše on his first day arriving at Hillbrow en route to his cousin’s house. We have so many questions – so we thought we would share a list of them here (#6 might haunt you!):

  1. Who is this narrator, and why do they know about such intimate details of our protagonist (like his affair with Sammy’s girlfriend Bohlale)?
  2. Why is the narrator recounting the life of Refentše TO Refentše himself?
  3. Oh no is this The Book Thief all over again?
  4. How long did this narrator know Refentše so that they could write about his first trip to Hillbrow and then suddenly fast forward to his post-college job as a lecturer?
  5. Why was the narrator able to know what was on Refentše’s mind when he leaped out of that twelfth story window to a “luring suicide?”
  6. Am I actually Refentše and the narrator is writing to me?

  Narration and the narratives it creates are also a prominent topic among people around Refentše. We see Refentše’s mother detesting Lerato, a “Hillbrow woman” as labeled by Tiragalong village people, despite never meeting her. The predominant narrative that city people are corrupt and cunning overpowers Refentše’s attempts to humanize his partner to his mother. We also see Refentše’s old lover Refilwe leveraging her position in the village to rewrite the narratives on events leading to Refentše’s death, and that narrative persisted even after proven false by Lerato’s family visiting the village. Refentše is dead, but who decides the narrative of dead people and what is their intention? In a post-apartheid Hillbrow, historically-oppressed people of color submitted a rewritten narrative that it was migrants who ruined this town, in a story eerily similar to how they were oppressed during the apartheid. People recount historic events with slight alterations that shine them in a better light – perhaps because they remembered it differently, perhaps because they were reckless with the power of storytelling after being robbed of their agency prior. Small alterations added up, and the past was longer how people individually remembered it – a new collective memory is laid forth, but to whom does it serve? Who is Refentše to us anyway, but a collection of memories seemingly mourning him?

Welcome to Hillbrow…

“…there was another word for foreigners that was not very different in connotation from Makwerekwere or … Except that it was a much more widely used term: Africans…

A theme that is closely connected to the concept of narrative in this reading is language. Because, as Ghirmai Negash’s introduction says (don’t read introduction if you don’t want spoilers), “in Mpe’s text the what (narrative representation) and the how (language) are blurred entities.” So, it is interesting to see how in this text, language (consciously or unconsciously) affects the narrative that is presented to the reader. One of the obvious examples would be the censorship that the main characters of our novel face. For instance, the main character of the book by Refentše wrote a novel in Sepedi – her native African language. The narrator describes that choice of language for writing as a curse and a big mistake. A character, seeking a better future by working day and night in a kitchen and trying to finish her Bachelor of Arts at the University of South Africa, knew English but chose to write in Sepedi. And as a result, her novel was then called vulgar and offensive due to the naming of ‘shit’ and ‘genitalia’ by their correct names in her native tongue. Here, we can see how the power to represent your cultural heritage, as well as simply the freedom to express yourself in your native tongue, is deprived of the Afrikaan indigenous communities. Essentially, their natural right to represent their rich culture can only be practiced among that culture and nowhere else, as it is viewed as something barbaric, vulgar, and inferior. Unfortunately, there is nothing that these people can do, as the readers and overall audience of their works follow the will of reviewers, as those represent their preferences and needs. In our case, preference and favorism of the English language, where naming genitalia by their correct names in biology books – even including graphic illustrations on the side – was considered completely fine. 

This shows us how systems of oppression persist within the society and several institutions despite the end of apartheid (shoutout to the previous convener’s post that goes into details of the context of apartheid and its role in the novel). They continue to slow down the development of communities – such as indigenous South African communities – after the damage done by the segregation systems implemented based on race. What is even more horrifying is probably how these systems actually cause members of indigenous communities to reject their cultural heritage and adopt ‘English culture’ as their new identity. In a way, acculturation of a new cultural identity becomes the only way to succeed or even survive for individuals from indigenous communities. An obvious example is the main character Refentše who wrote his novel in English; being aware of the limitation of his native language, he knew that writing a novel in Sepedi was a dead end. So, with that understanding, he rejects his native languages and pursues opportunities created by the language that dominates his culture. Another example would be the cousin of Refentše. Whenever his actions are described, the author includes “Like most Hillbrowans, Cousin took his soccer seriously” or his words of complaints about foreigners being responsible for the physical and moral decay of Hillbrow that are “echoed by many others.” We can see how another part of the indigenous community becomes accultured to their new identity, by literally rejecting their native ways of living and copying the “native” Hillbrowans or more specifically, by appropriating the white characteristic and culture. Starting from his violence towards unfortunate Nigerians, ending with the refusal to return the greeting of his fellow indigenous brother who is homeless on the streets. This all seems to speak of great difficulties South African indigenous communities face in reclaiming their heritage or more specifically in promoting their culture, saving it from being overpowered by politically and economically powerful entities. So, the question is, “How do the struggles of the main characters of the novel represent difficulties in building a new future for South African indigenous communities after the apartheid?”

Welcome to Hillbrow…

Makwerekwere, convenient scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in people’s lives”

The Migration Experience and Multiple Identities - Online Research ...
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 In addition, to the issues of reclaiming one’s cultural heritage, Mpe also focuses on the topic of the corrupt system that is used to oppress minorities. Evident from the passage,

“Makwerekwere knew they had no recourse to legal defense if they were caught. The police could detain or deport them without allowing them any trial at all. Even the Department of Home Affairs was not sympathetic to their cause. No one seemed to care that the treatment of Makwerekwere by the police, and the lack of sympathy from the influential Department of Home Affairs, ran contrary to the human rights clauses detailed in the new constitution of the country.”


On top of the xenophobia and passing pandemic, the citizens of Hillbrow felt that the justice system served as a barrier rather than a bridge to help them. A previous post focused on a YouTube video that showed police beating the citizens. Here, we see how the cousin prefers to use torture against Makwerekwere which is even worse than beating. So, as a policeman, instead of fighting for justice, he is promoting violence and colluding with the enemy to bully the victim, the minorities. In a way, that promotes his sense of belonging to that community.

Welcome to Hillbrow…

Press me!

This moves us to another central element to this novel is a place and belonging. The importance of spatial identification is made clear to us from the very first chapter, which is literally called “Hillbrow: The Map.” It is rather strange that the narrator is explaining to Refentše his own neighborhood. In fact, the narrator spends a good portion of the first chapter recalling the streets and shops that Refentše passed through on his first day in Hillbrow to register for university. What is the purpose of this hyper-focus on recreating Hillbrow for a character that supposedly lived in Hillbrow for several years?

These passages have the important effect of mapping the urban violence and segregation of post-apartheid Johannesburg onto the page. All around Refentše are markers of crime and prostitution and a seedy underworld; his first night in the neighborhood is punctuated by the echoes of gunshots, and his cousin’s introduction to the streets of Hillbrow includes a wry nod to a local brothel. Likewise, the text is littered with references to racial tensions. Hillbrow’s existence and the daily challenges that its inhabitants must navigate belie the fact that segregation laws in South Africa were supposedly repealed in 1991.

This emphasis on how Refentše orients himself in his new home emphasizes the importance of belonging. The narrator constantly refers to his friend as Refentše of Tiragalong and this repetition establishes a dichotomy between the frenzied and (especially in the eyes of his mother) dangerous life in Hillbrow and the more rural village where he is from. Refentše is a stranger in Hillbrow trying to find his way, just like the many migrants from neighboring countries who are despised by all. Despite Hillbrow’s violence, it is a “monster…full of career opportunities” for all who come, whether from Tiragalong or beyond. Yet this attempt to belong comes at a cost to all, whether it is the foreigners who attempt to form relationships with policemen or those employed by white families to protect themselves from deportation or Refentše himself who commits suicide feeling that he is without relief in this city.



Welcome to …

Image made by sleep-deprived Tamaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan



In conclusion, there are several themes that the author raises within the novel. Some of them we discussed in our post, the rest can be added in the comments. So far, the central issues seem to be related to concepts of Narrative and Language, Belonging and Acculturation, as well as Systems of Oppression. Now, the question for the audience would be, how is the AIDS epidemic connected to all of these issues? How does it tie with all the issues?

Made by lovely Sofia, Ludien, Taman and Mohammed <3

Lifeblood and Money

Selling blood in an Atlanta laboratory in 1974.
Selling blood in an Atlanta laboratory in 1974.

In Yan Lianke’s Ding village, blood represents the possibility of prosperity and creates a chance to increase one’s economic standing. The commodification of blood indirectly leads to a lot of the deaths we see in the story through the reuse of infected needles. The irony is that the blood, intended to give life, instead takes it away in the context of Ding Village. It got me wondering more broadly about the state of the plasma economy today – and it turns out demand is still pulsing.

Plasma — the golden liquid that transports red and white blood cells and proteins through our bodies — is something of an elixir. It’s used to create lifesaving medicines for people with hemophilia, immune disorders, burns and other painful conditions, and it cannot be replicated in a lab.

Although illegal in many developed countries, business is booming in several economies, such as the US, China, Germany and Hungary, where people can make $30 donating plasma in the US, up to 104 times a year. It’s now a $20 billion industry, with global exports worth more, in 2016, than global exports of aeroplanes. 

But there is an underside to all that growth, one which mirrors the reality we see in Ding Village: The industry depends on the blood of the very poor. Plasma companies strategically locate their collection centers disproportionately in destitute neighbourhoods, according to Heather Olsen, who, as a graduate student researcher at Case Western Reserve University, examined 40 years of data on collection centers across the country.

A number of people at the CSL collection center in North Philadelphia confirmed that the money they received there was their only income; they were putting it toward food, rent and bus fare. Some, like Kevin Hayway, were veteran plasma sellers; he estimated that he had sold his plasma more than 100 times a year for the past three years.

However, the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, a trade group, naturally disputes the idea that the industry depends on desperate people.

“When I go to centers, what I see in those centers is people of all walks of life. You see mothers, you see students, you see employed people, you see unemployed people,” said Jan Bult, the group’s president and chief executive.

Although I initially found the concept of blood selling potentially exploitative and unsettling, especially as it is not presented in the most favourable light in the novel, I found some articles that argue it should be legalised in more countries. Their argument rests on that it is a safe practice today, and that the limited medical and social risks are dwarfed by the benefits. They say that bans on paying for human blood distort a vital global market, as global demand for plasma is growing, and cannot be met through altruistic donations alone.

Is the business exploitative, taking advantage of desperate people? Or is it beneficial, offering much-needed income to those who have few avenues to make money? Should we encourage people to sell their lifeblood so frequently, or make it harder to do so?

Bottles with blood plasma derivatives stand on a packing plant at the Octapharma company in Dessau, eastern Germany.
Bottles with blood plasma derivatives stand on a packing plant at the Octapharma company in Dessau, eastern Germany. (Eckehard Schulz / AP)

Coffins & burials

Just wanted to share these very relevant articles that I read a while ago.

The Coffin Business Is Booming in Central America Due to Gang Violence

This first one is almost a modern-day mirror of the events of Ding Village as it follows how one family in El Salvador switched from the bakery business to producing coffins in the wake of high rates of gang violence. The article eerily echoes many of the same elements that we saw in the novel including family disagreements, levels of coffin intricacy, and ethical concerns about profiting off of death. Unlike Ding Hui, these families building coffins still seem to be struggling to earn a living profit because of the mass proliferation of the coffin industry in their city.

To Be a Field of Poppies

This second article deals more broadly with burials and death and examines changes in US traditions around coffins. The article follows a company called Recompose that aims to essentially compost human bodies rather than embalming and burying them or cremating them.

What constitutes desecration of a corpse is culture-bound; one man’s desecration is another’s honorable final disposition… The only characteristic that funerary mores seem to share is intentionality. Disposing of the dead in an arbitrary manner—leaving a body where it fell on the battlefield, or tossing it with others into a mass grave, limbs akimbo—is a universal sign of disrespect. Intention is how we signal care, whether or not we believe that the soul persists, or whether we believe in a soul at all.

Although the workers at this company take a very different approach to burials than the residents of Ding Village, there is still a common thread of purpose and care for the dead. These dilemmas over how to bury our dead signify an ongoing preoccupation with honoring them, despite the fact that the dead do not know whether they have been cremated or decomposed (in the eyes of some).

Ding Village: UWM Great World Text site

Thanks to this semester’s conveners for Dream of Ding Village, we discovered the site at University of Wisconsin-Madison dedicated to reading the novel as a Great World Text. (The program brought the novel into 26 high schools across the state.) A number of resources are compiled there, including a 30-minute overview of the text and its contexts and a 127-page (!) handbook on teaching the novel. Here’s its table of contents:

Anyone who missed one of our discussions should probably listen to the overview. Anyone intrigued enough by the novel to think about using it in your final paper/project may benefit from looking at the guide.

It’s all sick – the whole body.

In a previous conveners post, Listen to the Dead Man Sing, the authors explained how “in Chinese culture, there is the idea of doing good (积福)to pay back your sin, so you will have a good afterlife [and how] these themes and ideas are also shown throughout the novel.” The authors highlighted how in Chinese society “the collectivity of a community comes before each individual”. They built on this explaining both the positive and negative implications of this belief. While reading this I was reminded of a Hadith I was taught in middle school which says: 

عن النعمان بن بشير رضي الله عنهما قال‏:‏ قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏”‏ مثل المؤمنين في تواده وتراحمهم وتعاطفهم، مثل الجسد إذا اشتكى منه عضو تداعى له سائر الجسد بالسهر والحمى” ‏

This translates from Arabic to: “Nu’man bin Bashir (May Allah bepleased with them) reported: Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When one of its limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever”. 

We were taught this Hadith in Islamic studies to highlight the impact every single individual has on the society and community at large. The Hadith highlights both the positive and negative implications of this collectivity. The benefits and risks so to speak. I find the use of the body as a metaphor for society to be particularly interesting. As well as the metaphor of the disease. When one part of the body aches and suffers, the entire body becomes feverish and ill.

“In society we are seen as one”, wrote the conveners. And in that Hadith, the metaphor suggests that we are quite literally like one body. If one tiny part of the body gets a virus, it’s not just a single part that becomes hot, and lays awake at night. The entire body heats up, becomes feverish and weak in response. The whole body slows down. The insomnia and struggle to fall asleep isn’t something experienced by a singular part. Our elbows, arms, or ears don’t stay awake fighting an infection on their own. The whole body -in its entirety- suffers from insomnia and struggles to rest and sleep. 

What I find particularly interesting in the Prophet’s Hadith is the contrast between the first and latter part. The first highlights noble and positive values like kindness, compassion and empathy. Whereas the latter focuses on suffering and disease. It seems to warn that the lack of the values listed first (in a few individuals) will cause the latter; and affect the whole body, as in all of society. We see exactly how this played out tragically in the Dream of Ding Village. It was the greed of a few individuals (the officials in Henan provinces) … their  lack of empathy, kindness and compassion; combined with some of the villagers’ poverty and blinding desperation for wealth that brought about the entire village’s doom. People who never sold their blood were at risk of dying and getting infected. The many masses were harmed and hurt by the actions of the few. One limb suffered from greed and made the whole body ill and feverish. 

I really appreciate the duality of the metaphor in the Hadith. Yes, the believers, (the community), are like one body which gets to enjoy the rewards of reciporical kindness, love, compassion, and empathy. But that same body is vulnerable to every limb in it and can be easily affected by it. It’s an appreciation of our collectivity as a community as well as a warning.  

Let us be whisperers


While researching the author of Dream of Ding Village, Yan Lianke, I came across this speech that he delivered to his graduate students at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. It addresses the prospect of celebrating the “end” of the COVID-19 pandemic, which feels relevant to our current situation following Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed’s announcement that the UAE has overcome the COVID-19 crisis.

Yan’s speech (presented translated into English) focuses on the concept of memory, a theme that we have traced throughout the majority of our readings this semester. He introduces the capacity for memory as a uniquely human trait:

“The ability to remember is the soil in which memories grow, and memories are the fruit of this soil. Possessing memories and the ability to remember are the fundamental differences between humans, and animals or plants. It is the first requirement for our growth and maturity. ”

He goes on to call on his audience (creative writing graduate students) to continue remembering their own personal experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, resisting the urge to buy into the collective narratives demanded by nations and other entities engaged in the act of writing histories. I found this to be a powerful reminder of the “real-world” relevance of many of the skills we’ve been developing in this class (or, more accurately, a reminder that the study and creation of literature is “real-world,” but that’s a whole other convo), and I would encourage you all to take a few minutes to read it (it’s short and engaging!)

He finishes the speech with the following advice to his students:

“If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories.  Having experienced the start, onslaught, and spread of Covid-19, let us be the people who silently step aside when the crowd unites to sing a victory song after the battle is won—the people who have graves in their hearts, with memories etched in them; the people who remember and can someday pass on these memories to our future generations.”

Listen To the Dead Man Sing

Dream of Ding Village, written by Yan Lianke, one of the most influential (and bravest) contemporary Chinese writers, is a depressingly realistic tale of an AIDS village in Henan, China. The story is based on actual blood sales that happened in Henan province when China faced a blood shortage in the 1980s. The Chinese government ordered each government official in each province to collect a certain quantity of blood donations. The officials in Henan provinces jumped at the opportunity for economic growth and marketed blood selling as a way of easy money to its people who are mostly farmers. 

Poverty and desperation for wealth blinded the Ding villager’s eyes and drove them to hop on the trend of blood sales. When the classrooms are turned into the dormitories for the sick and they are discussing why they first sold blood, most of the people were driven to it due to poverty, like the girl who sold her blood so she “could buy a bottle of nice shampoo.” The higher-ups were using the villager’s circumstances to pressure them into selling blood by successfully convincing them that blood-selling is more profitable than farming and keeping them in the dark about the practices being used and the long-term dangers. Although the older generation was worried about the consequences, the potential economic development in this rural town made blood sales irresistible to the villagers. The village grew rapidly on the “blood money.” Soon, the limit of the frequency of blood selling became ignored. People were selling more and more blood. People’s greed and ignorance obscured the potential harm this rapid development would have in the village. The blood heads started luring people into their business and into selling so much blood that the narrator says you could often spot people standing upside down to get their blood circulation back. Those blood heads became “bloody rich” indeed and were the main culprits of the AIDS pandemic that followed.

Dream of Ding Village | UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

The novel is about the AIDS pandemic in China, yet, it feels like a subtle commentary on China’s rapid economic growth. In the past 30 years, China has had great opportunities for a fast development the world has never seen before. However, the consequences of this fast development will have a cost on the land, nature, and the people in the foreseeable future. Just like the people in the villages, the blood-selling business gave them a new street and new houses, but the cost is only paid after a few years when almost the whole village feels sick and dies. The brand new houses then become the skeleton that reminds people of their blinding greed.

In the AIDS-stricken Ding’s village, we see that people “are dying like falling leaves. Their light extinguishing, gone from this world.” “If you hadn’t seen someone in the village for weeks, you didn’t ask where he or she had gone. You just assumed they were dead.” Not only did people who sold blood die, but others died like falling leaves as well. Girls were married into families and contracted AIDS without knowing their husbands were carriers. Our narrator died without ever selling his blood. No one in the village foresaw their fate (unless they read Camus), yet they were all stricken down by what made the village flourish years ago – blood sales. 

Death is central to the story not only because people are dying in almost every chapter, but also because from the very beginning of the book, we are told that the story is narrated from the grave: the omnipresent narrator Ding Quiang died of poison at the age of 12. The main story also unravels itself as we listened to the songs of Ma Xianglin, who then died on the stage. This is why we named our post “Listen To the Dead Man Sing.” 

We want to ask the following question: what does death mean?

One answer is that death means salvation. 

Throughout the book, Grandpa wishes his first-born son Ding Hui were dead. Ding Hui is certainly a sinner. A swindler and a scammer before and after the AIDS pandemic, he ripped people off from selling blood to selling coffins. As the biggest bloodhead in the village, he was a direct cause of the spread of AIDS. We also shouldn’t forget that because of his wrongdoings, his son–our narrator–was poisoned to death at the age of 12. Ding Hui wasn’t bothered by his sins, as he continued to earn “blood money” through his coffin business, but his father – Grandpa – was, deeply.

In the beginning, Grandpa started begging Ding Hui to get down on his knees and apologize to the villagers, but of course, Ding Hui never did and even threatened Grandpa that he would not support him in his old age or even go to his funeral if he brings this topic up again. At Ma Xianglin’s performance, Grandpa tried to choke Ding Hui to death. But what would Ding Hui’s death do? Perhaps, Grandpa wanted his death to serve as an apology and free him from all the sins he had committed in this village. Grandpa is also very specific about the way he wishes Ding Hui to die – in front of the public. This makes us think of an execution of a sinner. It also reminds us of the rats dying in streets while people dying in their homes in Camus’ The Plague. After what Ding Hui has done, he seems to have lost his value as a human, degraded into the likes of rats, and should now die in the streets.

Another answer is that death (or the sight of it) is the revelation of human nature.

Within the school where the AIDS-inflicted people gather, the worst of human nature flourished. We see lies, thefts, incest, betrayals, abuse of power … This reminded us of people in Defoe’s Journal of A Plague Year breaking into houses and robbing the dead. But it is even worse in Ding village because those people at the school are doomed to die. They have nothing to lose. 

HIV is growing so fast among Chinese youth that a university is selling  testing kits in vending machines — Quartz

But it wasn’t just the worst of human nature that prevailed. In a way, we also saw the formation of the school as voluntary quarantine and a way of doing good. The school was a utopian environment for the almost-dead to enjoy their last days. Inside this utopian society, since everyone was sick, the identity of AIDs patients was ignored. People started to view each other as humans, yet still contemplating their actions with traditions and values. In Chinese culture, there is the idea of doing good (积福)to pay back your sin, so you will have a good afterlife. These themes and ideas are also shown throughout the novel. In the previous readings, sin is often a result of an individual’s choice and action. Here, the sin is approached in a collection as a family or a community. The grandpa created the school as a way to pay back the father’s sin of starting the blood-selling business.

This also brought us to think about the element of family in this story. Family is worshipped as the single most important unit in Chinese society. The collectivity of a community comes before each individual, meaning that people think from and for the family. In the positive aspect, the villagers tried to turn a new leaf and provide a better life for their families. They strived for the betterment of the tight-knit community. However, on the negative side, the bond could become suffocating shackles that bound you to the faults of other family members. The narrator was poisoned for his father’s cruelty. The villagers were blamed for carrying the virus. Both took the consequences of others’ sins. The sins do not only harm the wrongdoer but also infect other family members. In society, you are seen as one. It was interesting to see that the villagers tried to find a sense of community within the school like the citizens of Oran. In both the Plague and Dream of the Ding Village, we could see how they committed terrible deeds against one another. Selfishness shone through before they could find a common ground. However, as they bond over the shadow of overseeable death, the anguish of the disease, and the discrimination and isolation from the outside world, the villagers came together to fight the disease.

In Ghosts, the Plague, and now Dream of Ding Village, the theme of victim-blaming persisted. Even though everyone was impacted by the disease, the victims were, directly and indirectly, distorted as the perpetrators of the tragedy that did something to deserve the disease. In Ghosts, Oswald deserved to die because of his freethinking and exploring his authentic self. In the Plague, the citizens of Oran paid for their sins with their lives. In this Henan village, the villagers deserved dehumanization because they tried to make a living by “cheating the system.” Their sufferings were justified by “logically” connecting what they did to what they received. People that blamed the victims were making sense of this shock by not making any sense and sensible conclusions. So how can we stop shifting blame for the mere sake of finding the scapegoat? Moreover, how can the scapegoats survive the approaching blade of the public? 

Increase in number of HIV cases in China raises concerns | Financial Times

Camus wrap-up

Camus: the tattoo via

As promised, I am creating a post here for us to discuss the swimming scene. However, as I was preparing to post this I discovered that during the 2012 class, I must have fallen sick for the session in which we would have finished our discussion of this novel, and so I had created a wrap-up post at that point for the class to conclude its discussion. In the spirit of remembering bygone generations, let’s use that original post as the place for your own comments about the swimming scene (or any other aspect you wanted to comment on but didn’t have the chance). Feel free to respond to the original batch of comments left by that original group of Contagion students. I wish you’d had the chance to meet them, and vice versa.

Descartes says “I think, therefore I am”, Camus says “I resist, therefore we are.”

In order to aid our discussion about Camus work “The Plague”, I decided to choose article by VOX – “What Camus’s The Plague can teach us about the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Tap, tap, tap!

Honestly, the article is great and all, but the reason why I chose it, lies solely on the phrase that you can see as the title of my post.

“I resist, therefore we are.”

Such a short phrase that has so much meaning (at least for me it does). Not only it connects some of the major themes of the novel – interdependence within the society, as well as individual identity being crushed by the collective, it quite possibly can pass of as a motto of the narrator of the story – Bernard Rieux.

The character of Bernard is probably one that is (for me) the most empathetic and strongest out of all. The reason being is the power I see in silence and his attempts to remain strong throughout the exhausting plague outbreak. This is ironic I guess, because his approach is (or at least supposed to be) very clinical, which means more on the dry side when it comes to things like descriptions, emotions, feelings, sufferings. However, I feel like the reader can’t help but feel great amount of strength behind Rieux’s attempts to fight through a plague by living in the world of abstractions. His coping mechanism of trying to dissociate and focus on routines (shout out to Severance, whats up, i swear i talk like this, not a thug) and “getting things done” without any hope for the future astonished me.

One of the episodes that hit close to heart were when Tarrou died.

“But what about isolating me, Rieux?”

“It’s by no means certain that you have plague.”

Tarrou smiled with an effort. “Well, it’s the first time I’ve known you to do the injection without ordering the patient off to the isolation ward.”

Rieux looked away.

This quote… THIS quote. I felt my heart flip over, go jump off the cliff, climb up again and fly to the sky. Its such a simple thing of how Rieux looked away, but seeing him maintaining his composure throughout the novel and never letting ANYONE take any risks by putting caution above all and then this…

Reading these lines is one the greatest moments of the story. The wall Rieux build around his heart has an opening made by Tarrou. This man that wouldn’t budge for anyone when it came to his duties and obligations, but for the first time ever, is seen vulnerable and so sensitive, without all the abstractions used to escape and survive.

We all have this person in our life who is so principled that you can never catch them breaking those, but when they do, it means so much. It shows that the situation and person are special. It creates so much meaning and intimacy. It is special. Very special.

And because this scene translates a very dear moment in life for me, that’s what Camus “The Plague” has taught me about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bernard is the best.

I rest my case.

Breaking up in COVID

This line in Part II struck me hard:

“Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one, who had kissed one another good-by on the platform and exchanged a few trivial remarks, sure as they were of seeing one another again after a few days or, at most, a few weeks, duped by our blind human faith in the near future and little if at all diverted from their normal interests by this leave-taking—all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing one another again, or even communicating with one another.”

Camus, A., & Gilbert, S. (1991). The Plague [E-book]. Vintage. at Part II.

The struggles here persisted during the beginning of COVID. Travel restrictions and visitation limits uniformly imposed physical separation between loved ones, when not everyone signed up or have experience in long distant relationships. On campus in March 2020, I heard and saw parents pleading and strongarming their kids back to their home country despite there not being a clear way back to campus amid the travel bans on inbound traffic to Abu Dhabi. This extended between couples too – but what we do know is that COVID raised the divorce rate for people in lockdown by a significant amount. This reminded me of what a friend recently said to me, “COVID didn’t kill relationships, it merely expedited the end for relationships that already don’t work.”

Example of a contextual breakup text during COVID.

Many people found the experience of breaking up during a global health crisis a mixed bag. While the social seclusion from work responsibilities during lockdown allowed for ample space and time for healing and processing, people found themselves “to suffer the heartbreak in the same place where they experienced the good times”. The narrator didn’t really dive into the pain and desperation of the towns people at this point – but I would assume that they wouldn’t be writing positively about it.