Over a year ago when our editorial team gamed out our upcoming issues, we decided that the theme for this April 2022 issue would be “Out of the Ashes.” The concept was based loosely on the idea that we would by now be contending with the new, post-COVID world. How would it look? How should it look? What would be the Next Emergent Paradigms?
I wasn’t so sure. As early as summer 2020, big corporations had been running feel-good commercials “welcoming us back,” talking about “what we all just went through”– in past tense. As someone of Irish Catholic extraction, I have more than a bit of superstition in me. Us folk might be likely to call this whistling past the graveyard. I would look at the television wide-eyed. Went through, lived through? What are you on about, Applebee’s?
As wave after wave of the pandemic emerged and politicization did too – at times spawning fearmongering, conspiracy theories, fanaticism, and violence – those of us who had considered past-tense discussion of the pandemic premature were, sadly, vindicated. Meanwhile – either quixotically or as a glutton for punishment – I had signed on as issue editor for “Out of the Ashes.” And at every editorial board meeting, I’d gulp quietly to myself. Board meetings that coincided with the third wave, the fourth, the fifth. What had I gotten myself into? What ashes? And how in the world were we out of them?
Today it’s quite clear. If we had stuck with the concept of “Out of the Ashes” as “contending with a post-COVID world”– well, we’d have had to bin the whole issue. As I write this from Ottawa, the highest wastewater levels ever have been found in the city this past week. As we all slide right back into yet another – a sixth – wave, the US has passed one million deaths. All this at a time when provincial and federal governments have, in some cases for political reasons, “relaxed” all restrictions and removed regulations. Seemingly taking the Applebee’s approach: if we simply wish hard enough for something to be over, it can be over, right?
Yet any good student of historical and literary axioms could tell you that such wishful thinking has never worked as strategy in human history. Just because you’re through with the past doesn’t mean it’s through with you. One of my favourite quotes ever, from Faulkner: the past is never dead. It’s not even past. And Shakespeare, of course, had some passing interest in the idea, too, with “past is prologue.”
How many of us have sent the infamous email in the last two years, the last two weeks? “In these troubled times.” “I hope this email finds you well, despite it all.” Let’s face it: we are always “in these troubled times,” COVID and non. Some just feel more troubled than others.
As we publish this issue, the old ghosts of WWII have re-emerged. World war looms, with the horror of emergent war crimes the order of the day. Improbably, shockingly – we go to press here at a time when the world braces for the possibility of global conflict the scope of which hasn’t been seen in eighty years.
Events move so quickly, so horrifically. What in the world can we say about “out of the ashes” in relation to Mariupol? Kharkiv? Now, Bucha?
Heaviness. Not just COVID, not just war and genocide in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Mali, numerous other spots on the globe. Climate change disaster and environmental collapse. Poverty and inequality, racism, misogyny, and hate, corruption and corporate crime. Where do we find the space for optimism? Might it work better to think about individual transformation, when getting a handle on global catastrophes feels out of reach? Is there space for hope?
None of us has the answers there. We are all living this moment, holding our collective breath – whether behind masks, or not.
In terms of this issue, though, I have to say we did something right. Something we couldn’t have anticipated as we called for submissions and chose literary and artistic works. But something that created a spooky synchronicity all the same.
As COVID ground on, we decided to build our call for submissions around the idea that we are always burning, smoldering, rebuilding. Coming to disaster and yet trying again. Shiva dances, turning the universe to ashes. From ashes, the phoenix rises. The concept of a new world emerging from a twilight period lives across cultures, centuries, global issues.
And when we moved the issue away from the impossible “Reckoning with a post-COVID world,” something beautiful began to emerge. A theme via brilliant local, national, and international submissions that we could call “Politics and Poetry.”
It allowed us to curate an issue of which we are very proud – a synergy of the personally creative and the politically reflective, with works that collectively swirl inside the chaos in which we’re all swimming. It’s an issue that, eerily and often, echoes pasts that are just now, suddenly and improbably, horrifically, becoming the present again. Even as we were already reckoning with an uncertain present.
Käthe Kollwitz was an antiwar, antifascist, towering art figure of the 20th century’s world war period – famous for standing up to the Gestapo and for her portrayals of mothers and children, and the working poor and their struggles. How fortunate, then, for us to receive Miriam Edelson’s personal essay on Kollwitz’ legacy in her own family, accompanied by a tender portrait of a mother holding her child. Serai has added an interview with Edelson by editor Rana Bose, and a haunting Kollwitz sculpture that spotlights the burden of war on women and children civilians.
We are equally thrilled to include a unique interdisciplinary and interactive text here in this similar vein of the world wars through art and thought: an interview with Guy Sprung, the son of decorated WWII intelligence officer turned eminent Canadian philosopher, Mervyn Sprung. In it, Guy walks us through his father’s work and concepts, particularly finding the historical, the autobiographical, and the political within them.
Remarkably, as Chernobyl is so suddenly and uncannily back within the world’s purview, Hungarian-Canadian poet Ilona Martonfi offers a poem by the same name, accompanied by photography of the (now disturbed) exclusion zone. Her poetry’s associations of Eastern Europe – Pripyat, babushkas, Geiger counters, and Birkenau – are evocatively and sometimes chillingly present once again.
Our own longstanding editor Maya Khankhoje reviews Montréal writer Cora Siré’s Fear the Mirror. Yet again serendipitously, this issue includes discussion of a book of short stories built upon the interlocked lives of displaced peoples in North America, thrown together by the aftermath of European world war.
Award-winning poet and previous Serai contributor Nicola Vulpe once again provides fantastically otherworldly and allusory work. His imagery of cannons, hunger “tomorrow, again,” and a world in which “everything had burned” is prescient. Vulpe’s contribution holds intergenerational depths as well, with his poetry accompanied by artwork from his daughter, international artist Leonor Vulpe Albari.
Novelist Jim Upton offers up a personal account of being a visitor in the dangerous heart of an occupied land’s insurgency. This is not a piece from Baghdad of the 2000s or Kyiv today, but rather one that vividly lays out the terrain of Belfast, 1981.
With reckonings closer to home, Serai editor and McGill Islamic Studies associate professor Pasha M. Khan writes about the 2017 Québec City mosque attack, reflecting historically on its roots in white male supremacy, past and present, in Canada. Many of us just lived through weeks of the convoy occupation of Ottawa, with non-white residents and women terrorized and hate flags flying. Indeed, a mirror image mosque attack was, amazingly, thwarted outside of Toronto just weeks ago. Once again, the past isn’t past at all – and this piece clearly holds a renewed urgent meaning, now even more than it did when we began to conceive of this issue for the magazine.
In a similar vein of reckoning with past and present in homegrown racism and genocide, Serai’s Jody Freeman interviews Vice-Chief Sipi Flamand of the Atikamekw Council of Manawan. The interview features the Atikamekw nation’s incisive call for sweeping cultural changes in the wake of Joyce Echaquan’s death. Her grieving community has brought forth a straightforward plan of action to inculcate respect and recognition for Indigenous peoples’ rights. Out of the ashes of devastating racism, “Joyce’s Principle” offers a concrete and comprehensive way forward.
Our final group of contributors work within the cycles of burning and rebuilding, not in the sphere of wars or social affairs, but of planets, epochs, and the human soul. Poet Elana Wolff writes in terms of eons and on the most macro of levels, dealing with concepts of cosmic and universal destruction and rebirth. She contemplates the light from millions of light years away being sent forth on the night a loved one is born, unknowable but present: imploding stars, nebula, ash.
Maya Khankhoje offers readers a second book review that, like Wolff’s poetry, deals with planetary destruction and renewal, but on the urgent and human sociopolitical level. She approaches novelist and biologist Ann Eriksson’s 2022 must-read climate change tome, Urgent Message From a Hot Planet.
Finally, celebrated US poet Kathryn Jordan takes us to the land of neither political nor ecological destruction, but the personal. In moving explorations of the grieving of a lost family member, her poems evoke the common experience of the bereaved trying to make sense of where the lost life ends and the continuing damaged, wounded life begins.
We also count ourselves fortunate in this issue to be able to include the artwork of Mexican-Canadian artist Eric Carlos Bertrand. His pieces grace our landing page (Maximum Density) and this editorial (Posada postema), powerfully referencing the times in which we are living, with themes ranging from human statistics, epidemiology, and the one-of-many-in-the-crowd, to the primeval, the fire, the chaotic moment of destruction in the dispersal of the tribe.*
It’s clear: COVID – not to say world war, genocide, and totalitarian fascism on the march – aren’t through with us yet. Some days, one wakes up and scans the news on their phone only to be reminded of nothing less than Yeats’ rough beast and his lost falcon. Things seem, simply put, to be getting really bad. Aficionados of tarot and the Jungian collective unconscious might say we are living right now a moment of a particular card: the Wheel of Fortune, reversed.
What will come of it? What can we do? Who can say? What is certain is that we’re going to need art, and thought, and sadness, and joy – common sense and science too – to get us through this moment, cultivating the seeds for rebirth. Each author and artist in this important issue of Serai offers us that gift.
* For more on Eric Carlos Bertrand’s work as a painter, conceptual artist, gallery director and writer, please visit his website, Instagram page and non-profit gallery in Montréal, Cache Studio, which promotes under-represented artists.