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The Bare Life Review

Two months ago, in the bleak early days of Coronavirus isolation, when the pandemic’s impact could be sensed like a shadow, but its severity and pervasiveness were not yet known or charted, we sent an email to our contributors inviting them to write something about it. It was not, to be frank, a deeply considered idea, nor was it an unselfish one: we were disturbed, saddened, at a loss, so we turned naturally to the same artists whose work has consoled and given us purpose throughout these last three tumultuous years.

The first piece to arrive in response to our call was Jianan Qian’s “I Am Chinese: Do You Hate Me?” a moving and plaintive account of standing buffeted by the storm of emergent xenophobia kicked up by the current President’s speech. Subsequent entries explored the virus’s impact on undocumented labor (Sergio Aguilar Rivera’s “House Cleaning in the Time of Corona”), activism (Arash Azizi’s “A May Day Without Crowds”), family relationships (Shubha Sunder’s “We Had Time”), and memory (Anca Roncea’s “Quarantine,” Maija Mäkinen’s “The Sound of Sirens”). They touched upon politics, both here and abroad, (Iheoma Nwachukwu’s “Good Neighbors Are Hard to Find,” Mehdi Kashani’s “In Isolation, But For Once Not Alone”), and staked a claim to the persistence of beauty in the midst of often unbearable suffering (Donna Hemans’s “Importing Color,” Rooja Mohassessy’s “Pestilence”).

The authors of the ten entries in this series hail from seven different countries. As we read their contributions, we were struck, alongside this diversity, by a common ethic, a recognition that what is precious in the everyday and the commonplace is not diminished but enriched by mortality, the assertion of which, like migration, is basic to the human story. They reminded us, as we watched nations retreat, cast blame, and close borders, that too often we turn away from each other precisely in response to those phenomena that most clearly illustrate all that we share.

Reading through submissions for our next print issuecentered around the climate crisis—we are reminded daily that, even in the midst of a plague, there remain other crises, other urgencies. And as we resume reading general submissions to The Latest, we can see that neither crisis has extinguished people's urge to tell new stories and to write about the possibilities of the world.

David, Nyuol, and Etan

The Bare Life Review

Mehdi M. Kashani

[Editor's note: The following is part of a special series on the coronavirus pandemic, featuring original poems and essays by contributors to The Bare Life Review. New entries will be added every Tuesday and Friday. Previous entries in the series can be found here.]

In Persian we have a saying, roughly translated: “No one knows of their tomorrow.”

It captures rather perfectly the norm of life in contemporary Iran. In that homeland of mine planning, short-term or long, can easily be compromised or rendered irrelevant—say by a sudden collapse of currency, street turbulence, arbitrary manipulations of laws (not that laws necessarily mean much). Guided by an instinct for survival, we’ve grown accustomed to the vagaries of fate. We’ve even learned to embrace them.

To an Iranian expat like myself, someone who inhabits a state of instability and precariousness on a daily basis—from restrictions on travel to the unorthodox methods required to transfer money to or from a country under sanction—the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t seem terribly novel. It feels familiar, however uncanny that sounds, another manifestation of uncertainty, another ripple in our already raging sea of unpredictability and contingency. That’s not to play down its massive scale: In fact, Iran was one of the first countries to be dramatically affected by the spread; as I’m writing this, the relentless virus claims lives in the hundreds every day and spirals our already bankrupt economy deeper into a chasm.

But there is something noteworthy—I want to say hopeful, at the risk of sounding insensitive to the fact that we are dealing with a tragedy—about this new order the Coronavirus has brought about. Iran, for once in decades, is not alone. Originating in the far east, the unbridled beast slouched on the Silk Road, trampled over Iran on its way to Europe and is now engulfing the new world. Everyone is at risk.

The pandemic is global and that fact makes it relatable, a shared reality. By virtue of this ubiquity it imposes upon the world a veil of fairness. The sense of isolation and the impossibility of planning for the future applies to everyone. But to us Iranians there is a kind of familiarity about it, a hint of jaded déjà vu.

I am tempted to say we were vaccinated against the new shock. But no, COVID-19 has indeed brought us hardships like any other nation—with some, at times funny, silver linings. At least now the American and the Canadian passports are as useless as the Iranian one. The next time we lament to our neighbors and colleagues about the difficulties of being an Iranian they won’t just politely nod. They’ll have experienced the throes of isolation with their own flesh and blood. They will relate. Or so I hope.

I am not naïvely optimistic. This is not a movie. People will not simply make up and live happily ever-after in the end. A country under decades of isolation like Iran will not simply be embraced into the community of nations just because a pandemic forced the world to share a singular experience. I am only hopeful that this collective reckoning may draw people closer, force us to acknowledge our shared fate, nurture empathy. And that empathy may be something upon which we can build.

It is true we are a forgetful species. Our oblivion has a way of returning once a crisis has passed. This, too, must be a survival mechanism. But maybe this time will be different. Never in modern history have we faced such a profound struggle against a common threat. Perhaps the repercussions, too, will prove unprecedented.

As the saying goes, no one knows what tomorrow brings.

Mehdi M. Kashani lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. His fiction and nonfiction can be found in Passages North, The Rumpus, Catapult, Wigleaf, Bellevue Literary Review, Four Way Review, The Minnesota Review, Emrys Journal (for which he won 2019 Sue Lile Inman Fiction Award) among others. He has work forthcoming in Epiphany and Zone 3. His short story, "Bazaar Bozorg," appeared in TBLR Volume 3. To learn more about him, visit his website:

Maija Mäkinen

[Editor's note: The following is part of a special series on the coronavirus pandemic, featuring original poems and essays by contributors to The Bare Life Review. New entries will be added every Tuesday and Friday. Previous entries in the series can be found here.]

In the crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus, before it was too late, many immigrants had to consider the meaning of “home.” What if I get sick? Should I be here or should I be there? What about my immigrant partner? What if my parents, in my country of origin, contract the virus, and I don’t make it back in time—or if I do, I’m quarantined and not allowed to visit? What if I leave at the wrong time and the borders are closed and I can’t get back? And if I stay, what if I apply for unemployment and am deemed a public charge, and my citizenship application is denied?

Before New York’s stay-at-home order, a handful of my friends left, including some immigrants I know. But in the unfamiliar bubble of silence that hangs over New York in the midst of the pandemic, I feel anchored here, in part because of the history of losses and calamities, personal and monumental, that the city and I share.

The inward-turned social isolation of quarantine is rich with the nostalgia we usually reserve for youth and countries of origin. Ordinary life suddenly appears as a sepia-toned thumbnail in the wrong end of the telescope, eerily similar to the nostalgia I feel vis-à-vis Finland—that haunting unreality of another place and time, out of reach.

The last time it was quiet like this was, of course, after September 11th. Now as then, as the hum of everyday life falls away and the brain searches for meaning in an unprecedented situation, my own immigrant mind returns to particular totems of the past, in my case, my Finnish past.

Under the quiet skies I hear the sirens of ambulances and think of my grandmother, dead since 1993. We in the city are used to the constant wail of emergency vehicles, but these sirens are too frequent, and you cannot help but be aware of each one. In some moments you’ll be listening to one when another begins in a different direction, and the sounds join together like the howling of wolves in the night.

As another Senior Care ambulance passes by on its way to one of the Brooklyn hospitals, I imagine someone’s grandparent or mother or brother speeding toward their death the way my grandmother sped toward hers in the spring of 1993, in Turku, Finland, while I was shopping for produce in Manhattan’s Union Square greenmarket.

After she was hospitalized, I waited in limbo for travel arrangements and more news, trying to reach out to her across the Atlantic through telepathy, willing her to feel how I was holding her calloused hand. Later, I calculated that while she lay in the ambulance, alone, I had been buying rhubarb at the greenmarket, and thinking of her. That turned out to be my only solace, because, as is true for many loved ones during the COVID pandemic, I never made it to her bedside before she died.

I have often wondered where her unconscious mind traveled on those last two days she had in this world—I am fairly certain it homed east, to a time and place before she became a refugee in her own land, before the Soviet Union redrew Finland’s border and took her hometown of Viipuri. As if in continuation of her thoughts, I asked myself after September 11th, as people were leaving the city and everything seemed uncertain, Would my grandmother have left Viipuri if she’d had a choice? In my mind, New York had become Viipuri. I will not leave, even if bombs start falling on Broadway—I will never leave, I told myself.

This is how we become part of America.

On television, the Pope gives his Easter blessing to an empty church in the middle of an empty St. Peter’s Square—alone with his thoughts and observations in the midst of a setting that is both incontrovertibly real and by all appearances a stage set. Outside, our world has been reduced to such a set, with streets devoid of people, cars parked in the same spot for weeks, and stores shuttered, and we all feel some of that disconnect that new immigrants experience in a new country. Each July Fourth, the newly arrived sit at their windows, wondering at the sudden silence and deserted streets.

Yet another totem from my Finnish past emerges when the televised daily COVID task force press briefing comes on, and I see the expressions on the faces of the officials behind the President. They are similar to the face of Finland’s President, Sauli Niinistö, during his visit to the Oval Office last year. As the American President launched into a tirade, I recognized in Niinistö’s stoic expression the face of his entire generation—the face of living next to the Soviet superpower, keeping your thoughts to yourself. The same expression is often on the faces of immigrants, of workers, of the abused—of anyone disempowered. It says, inside, Oh Christ, you can’t be serious, what a freak/asshole/monster! On the outside, the face says, Just biding my time here, being polite, because otherwise you’ll invade me, levy a tax on my cheese exports, or imprison my family, or deport me.

The crisis of this particular moment requires no embellishment from old memories and associations, yet I can’t stop myself from appliqueing the past onto the COVID-19 present, trying to make a whole. It occurs to me, in fact, that throughout my three decades in this country, I have been doing the same thing: superimposing Finnish memories over an American life, weaving, weaving, as though someday the past and the present might become one country.

Now, in the midst of the pandemic quarantine, I have begun to see “home” in a new way. Instead of a place, or one’s present life situation, or the site of our memories, I think of home as a decision—the decision to stay.

Maija Mäkinen is a Finnish-born writer and translator whose writings on place, belonging and immigrant memories, along with her literary translations, have been featured in Porter House Review (Pushcart Nomination), Broadsided Press, SAND, Gulf Coast, LA Review, and others. She is the winner of the 2017 Nadia Christensen Prize in Translation and the University of Cambridge Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, and holds an MFA in Fiction from Boston University. Her essay, "Finland Is Not Real," appeared in TBLR Volume 2.

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