Literary Works In the Time of COVID-19: Faculty Offer Suggestions

Dr. Caki Wilkinson ’03 and Dr. Gordon Bigelow of the Rhodes College Department of English

With the Rhodes community scattered across the globe this semester as a result of the pandemic, literature has served as a solace for many. “Literature can provide mental respite from the present, even if you’re identifying with a character in a book who is in a related situation,” says Dr. Gordon Bigelow, professor of English. “But literature can also help us imagine a better world,” Bigelow adds. “It helps us to see the need for change, rather than just trying to avoid it.”
Dr. Caki Wilkinson ’03, associate professor of English and director of creative writing, agrees that literature can foster a sense of unity in a time when so many are divided on issues and physically far apart. When it comes to the pandemic, she says, “While certainly all of our experiences are not the same, there’s something that is common.” 
Bigelow teaches courses on 19th-century British literature and has written for university presses and literary journals. In 2019, he participated in a campus discussion about slavery in America and its aftermath. Wilkinson’s poems have won many awards, including the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship. 

Alumni and students have been reaching out to professors in search of reading recommendations, and Bigelow and Wilkinson have compiled a list of literary works that can serve to educate, entertain, and inspire readers.
Severance by Ling Ma
This 2018 novel follows a young woman from a Chinese immigrant family as she navigates life both before and after the Shen Fever, a fictional fungal infection that slowly destroys global civilization. Bigelow describes this book as a “window into the global economic system from a very individual point of view,” until the pandemic hits and everything falls apart. “Severance confronts questions we have to confront,” Bigelow says, “during this crisis, and afterward.”
Trances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle
Wilkinson recommends this collection of poetry, which is an imaginative take on the rifts and paradoxes in the world. Ruefle uses wisdom and wit to help readers appreciate some of society’s “redeeming strangeness.” Wilkinson calls the poetry both weird, yet accessible.
The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson
Johnson, an historian, examines America’s complex racial dynamics in this 2020 book through the lens of the city of St. Louis, MO. Bigelow says the book emphasizes the kind of historical and factual insights needed to understand present conditions in America. 
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrence Hayes
Acclaimed poet Terrence Hayes tackles broad topics such as racism, American values, and love in this poetry collection. Wilkinson says, “There’s this realization of ‘Oh, someone else has been through and felt this thing.’” 
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
Wilkinson says she has a new appreciation for the ways in which literature can take readers somewhere totally different. Link’s collection of short stories about astronauts, iguanas, and superheroes, for example, does just that. Link uses her wit and humor to take readers, Wilkinson says, to a world “a bit stranger than ours, but somewhere that’s familiar, and with human emotion that is familiar.”

By Madeleine Wright ’21