Diaries of Disaster
Rhian Hutchings tackles the topic of diaries during lockdown, and how they can help us better understand ourselves in these uncertain times.
Diaries can be described as providing the flesh to the skeletons that are facts and figures. They capture a microcosm of humanity, giving historical events emotional gravitas and moving even the driest textbooks. This is undoubtedly a significant year in history following the devastating fires in Australia, a global pandemic and the protests following George Floyd’s death. Our diaries will shape how future generations understand the events of 2020. They reveal raw emotion, replacing the commas in facts and figures with grief, confusion and the ‘what ifs‘ that refuse to leave us at night. Anne Frank wrote arguably the most remembered diary in history and as she says, “paper has more patience than people”. The undeniable intimacy of pen on paper has historically given us the voyeuristic opportunity to understand the lives of soldiers, politicians, and schoolgirls, such as Anne Frank, to name only a few examples. Therefore, the idea that in some countries, the tentacles of state censorship will suffocate the voices of those documenting personal experiences is concerning.
“The undeniable intimacy of pen on paper has historically given us the voyeuristic opportunity to understand the lives of soldiers, politicians, and schoolgirls…”
Fang Fang, a Chinese novelist in her mid-sixties, has documented her feelings and experiences of enduring the pandemic in Wuhan. She describes the mundanities of everyday life, the distrust, and the crippling fear of this invisible enemy from within the very city where it all began. These diary entries, posted on the popular Chinese social media platform WeChat, have been compiled and translated into German and English. She is a celebrated novelist who was the winner of the esteemed Lu Xun Literary Prize in 2010. Her accounts illuminate sensitive topics in China, including the Chinese government’s response at the beginning of the outbreak; hospitals at full capacity; and the trials of what can and cannot be said in the media. With increasing tensions between China and the US, the publication of these diary entries by Harper Collins has been heavily criticised by Chinese nationalists who believe that these accounts are providing ammunition for opponents of the Chinese government.
These diaries project the human side of Wuhan to the rest of the world, the city which we are so accustomed to seeing written in black and white on the news or in newspapers. There will be countless stories told about the Coronavirus in years to come, but Fang Fang ensures the longevity of everyday emotions and their place in the history of how a family coped with a global pandemic. The New York Times’ Dwight Garner commends her exploration of “boredom and terror” and how it is “not a combination human beings are accustomed to”. It is precisely this combination that is so appealing to the reader. The proximity between the mundane and the heart-wrenching is one of the most overwhelming characteristics of the past few months. In the United Kingdom there will be a collective memory of the coronavirus and lockdown. We will all remember clapping every Thursday to thank the NHS for their sacrifices, our one daily exercise, endless zoom calls and the rise of the Tiger King documentary. Despite this collective memory, individual memory must also be honoured, whether that be in diaries or articles exploring personal accounts of the lockdown: remembering that desire for face-to-face contact with a friend or family member or that winded feeling when you see the death toll increasing from your living room. Diaries are what will separate our experiences, yet perhaps when we read them together in years to come, they will make us feel more united than we could have ever imagined at the time.
“A diary is a way to process trauma or simply unload the fairly ordinary events of the day.”
Despite backlash and censorship faced by diaries of history and of the present moment, they must be protected at all costs. Their historical reliability should not trump their human and literary purpose. To grasp an era, or to understand motivation behind actions, the words shared between a pen and paper are essential. I believe that Fang Fang’s brave account of her personal experience will be celebrated in years to come, but now we must continue to write. Writing a diary is of course a cathartic exercise and not everyone writes a diary with the intention of it being published; in fact that idea is terrifying for most. When it is being written, a diary is a way to process trauma or simply unload the fairly ordinary events of the day. Years later it becomes a capsule connecting feelings and history, the psychological with the factual.