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Digital writing in the time of Corona

Viral literature in and from Latin America

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Covid-19 changed the way that writers in Latin America created and shared their work, and we cannot risk forgetting their real-time literary accounts of the pandemic.

Mexican writer Jorge F. Hernández found himself confined in Madrid during the first wave of the pandemic and early lockdowns in Europe. His response was to create on the social media accounts of the Cultural Institute of Mexico in Spain the series Cuentínimos para la cuarentena (Tiny Stories for the Quarantine). He published a micro-fiction daily —from 17 March 2020 to 31 May 2020. The stories appeared on Facebook, X and Instagram, where they were posted as short videos featuring a montage of Hernández’s voice narrating the text over an illustration.

Hernández’s work ventures from tales that directly address the unique conditions created by the pandemic. In Campanitas tubulares (Little Tubular Bells), he tells the story of a socially distanced exorcism. In some of the other tales, references to Covid-19 are completely absent. Yet even in these, Hernández’s cuentínimos say something about the role of literature in a worldwide crisis: that stories, like a virus, spread and provide a sense of companionship to readers even when traditional literary circulation channels are shut down.

YouTube video of Hernandez’ Cuentínimos. Also on Facebook.

The poetry of the Bolivian author Lucía Carvalho also addressed the fears and anxieties of Latin America’s pandemic experience. For instance, her poem “N-19” 1)Lucía Carvalho kindly agreed for her poem to be featured in the archive we’re building references the alarming, contradictory and war-lexicon-riddled messaging that freely circulated in the media in 2020. The stanza quoted below brings back memories from the days of the virus and opens a window into a life experience unavailable once the pandemic became less of a concern globally:

El enemigo es un número de ayuda que te dejó en espera.

El enemigo es un mapa lleno de puntos enfermos.

El enemigo es una prueba que nunca se realizó.

El enemigo está en la pantalla (Lucía Carvalho, 2020)

[The enemy is a helpline that left you on hold.

The enemy is a map covered by diseased spots.

The enemy is a test that was never taken.

The enemy is on the screen.]


Carvalho’s “N-19” circulated via the author’s YouTube channel, where she shared her pandemic poetry alongside a series of images which resonate with pandemic experiences across Latin America and beyond.

In search of public space during lockdown

The experience of national lockdowns in Latin America saw many writers take to social media and other digital platforms to share their writing. These literary productions explored the unprecedented experience of the pandemic. New narratives emerged, but also old stories took on new meaning as life changed due to stay-at-home orders. Writers disseminated their work in the most public space available to them, including platforms like Facebook, Instagram and X.

However, social media-networking sites make unstable archives and some of this rich pandemic creativity risks being lost if it is not acknowledged and archived.

Latin America has a rich tradition of minificción (sometimes referred to as flash fiction), poetry, and testimonial writing. Writers often share their works in brick-and-mortar public spaces, such as poetry readings, conferences, and workshops. The challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic made these spaces unavailable during national lockdowns. As a result, digital platforms, including social media networking sites, became a space of increased activity and shaped writing and its circulation during the pandemic.

An archive to preserve literary responses to the pandemic

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Our project, ‘Archiving Real-Time Literary Responses to the Covid-19 in Latin America’, housed at the University of Birmingham and funded by a BA/Leverhulme Small Grant, aims to document some of this literary production in this exceptional period of global history. We will make a body of viral literature in Latin America available through open access for future researchers and the wider public before it is lost. For this purpose, in collaboration with research software engineers at Birmingham, we will soon open a website showcasing the archive at https://covid-in-latin-american-lit.bham.ac.uk (See main image, above).

A common misconception is that social media posts will be there forever when, in fact, they are fragile and prone to being lost. Writers use social media as an integral way of creating, promoting and sharing their work and the Covid-19 pandemic only increased the use of digital media platforms for these purposes. If we do not acknowledge and register this production, it may be lost forever and, with it, part of the cultural memory of the Covid-19 pandemic. Importantly, we risk losing access to the narration of the pandemic as it was happening, not as we remember it in hindsight.

Our project is collecting fiction and non-fiction texts by Latin American authors that circulated during the first two years of the pandemic via social media and other digital platforms, from the first case reported in the region in February 2020 to March 2022. This was the most severe period of the health emergency, when Latin America suffered 28 per cent of the deaths attributed to the virus worldwide and became the region hit hardest by the pandemic. 

​During this period Latin American writers who were experiencing the pandemic alongside their audiences produced an online body of writing deeply engaged with the fears and anxieties caused by the virus around the world. Collaborative tales assembled and shared via X, testimonies written on Facebook walls and fiction recorded on smartphones and distributed as WhatsApp voice notes created a body of writing derived from —and in dialogue with— the isolation, self-distancing, xenophobia, violence, illness and death that Latin America experienced in the time of Covid-19.

Help us to map the texts

Our project will display Hernández’s, Carvalho’s and other identified texts on a map, pinpointing their author’s country of origin. So far, we have found texts linked to Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Mexico, among others. Interestingly, we have also found transnational connections, evidence of collaborative literary projects spanning Latin America and reaching Europe and Africa. These fascinating transnational clusters of activity show the links that many writers made with others who lived hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles apart. We will try to trace these connections, too, and make them visible on the project’s map.

Inspired by Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera (2001), we employ the term ‘literary production from Latin America’ conceived of broadly instead of suggesting there is singular Latin American literature. We are interested in work that might have been published or conceived of in Latin America, and we would like to see international connections writers made at this time.

We need your help to identify more work to include in our archive. As this archive is open access, anyone can use it for research or general interest. If you are a writer who thinks your work should be included in this project, please get in touch with us via the contact form on the project’s website. At the moment, we are only accepting work published in Spanish, but we hope to be able to include work written in Portuguese in the future. We only ask that the work was posted online (on social media, websites or online groups) at some point between February 2020 and March 2022. Authors will always retain their copyright.


About the team:

Dr Luis Medina Cordova is the Principal Investigator of the BA/Leverhulme-funded project “Archiving Real-Time Literary Responses to the Covid-19 in Latin America”. An expert on contemporary Ecuadorian literature and Latin American literature in Spanish, since the start of the pandemic in 2020, he has studied the use by writers across Latin America of social media and other digital platforms to narrate the health crisis in real-time; with Andrea Espinoza Carvajal (University of Exeter), co-edited a collection of essays on pandemic narratives in Latin America.

Sebastian Bustamante-Brauning is a South West & Wales Doctoral Training Partnership PhD candidate at the University of Bristol & University of Exeter researching digital memory spaces in Latin America. He has recently worked as the Assistant Director of the Essex Collection of Art from Latin America. His research interests include photography, museology, art history, digital heritage, human rights and memory in Latin America and the interstices between these areas.


Main Image: The homepage of the project website features this design by Ecuadorian artist Melisa Mejía

References

References
1 Lucía Carvalho kindly agreed for her poem to be featured in the archive we’re building