Feature Articles / Roanna Gonsalves on How to Be Resilient in a Pandemic

Slowly you realise that the word resilience is charged with the act of springing back. It is ok to revolt, to recoil, even if from yourself.

In the morning, when your alarm rings, do not seek the snooze button. Instead, bound out of bed quickly and attend to your To-Do list. Work through the first three items on the list by mid-morning at the latest. Tick each one off upon completion. Soon you will be able to, in a moment of detached omniscience, look upon the ticks with satisfaction and add to them, buoyant and blazing with motivation.

In order for this to happen, you must, the day before, make a To-Do list. This will involve reading up on the following: how to ensure that 20 per cent of your work drives 80 per cent of your outcomes; the secret to writing eight bestsellers in three years; the seven basic routines that all Nobel Laureates follow. You must put aside all thoughts of almond ice-cream and Persian love cake and that yellow dress that’s featured on the Friday Frenzy ads that pop up on your screen.

You must invest time in building up your ability to withstand.

In order for this to happen, you must focus on the items on your To-Do list so that you are not letting 80 per cent of your labour result in only 20 per cent of your outcomes. This means you must cut back on catching up with the latest Winterson or the earliest Marx. Do not lasciviate after the food bloggers, the sourdough-bakers and the kombucha-makers. Do not get side-tracked by the tweets of Amitav Ghosh, Scroll.in or randoms featured in the New York Times. Ignore their potential to lead to an interesting essay about point of view or plagiarism. Hurry up with the lecture prep, the tutorial slides, the marking, the meetings, the parenting. You must acclimatise yourself to working efficiently before your neural networks insist on being set in their ways, like bone. You must not diversify or digress or distend. Understand the five core challenges of being a working mother, the seven key provocations of being the eldest daughter, the nine ways to network with communities that matter. Take your parenting and confine it to a frame.

In order for this to happen, you must keep yourself for yourself.

But you are made from many.

You are unable to keep yourself for yourself.

You are made from the stars and from the earth and from the structures of your childhood and from the words of those who held you. You are made from joy and from rage and from sorrow and from grief and also, maybe, from a leaf, browning at the edges yet uncoiling still. Hmmm. Are you reaching for perceptiveness, or just for the appearance of it? Are you corkscrewing deep into yourself or are you hoping you can get away with a pastiche of profundity? You need a bit more sunlight.

You want to resist the To-Do list. But old accusations of laziness still have bite, still shackle you to your desk long after the accusers are no longer in sight. You want to be liked. The To-Do list keeps growing faster than the ticks at the top. Soon it is a chore to continue to make the list. You can’t be all if you can’t end all. The minutes and hours of your life are currently compressed like the fine print on a Terms & Conditions document.

Some people need lists to order their days, to ground them, to provide structure, momentum, closure. But your To-Do list is quickly scurrying into the gaps and cracks in your life, asphyxiating the very spaces needed for ludic sprouting. Suddenly you are unable to do what it takes to be liked.

You need to wonder. You need to observe. You need to sleep. You make apologies. “Sorry for the long delay,” you say. These frequent apologies are tiresome, especially to you. So you stop apologising and say instead, “Thank you for your patience.” You admit that maybe sometimes the most you can do is only whatever you can get away with. Slowly you realise that the word resilience is charged with the act of springing back. It is ok to revolt, to recoil, even if from yourself.

You remember reading the words of Alexis Wright:

Even the idea of story is a cultural understanding that story involves all times and realities, the ancient and new, the story within story within story — all interconnected, all unresolved — and this perspective is a truly wonderful way of seeing and embracing the world of the imagination. 

You remember these words in Wright’s essay ‘The Ancient Library and a Self-Governing Literature’ in Sydney Review of Books. She is talking about Indigenous sovereignty in the imagination and in reality, one and the same thing. You remember her words slicing through your crowded, listed-out mind. You inhale this oxygen. It is not directed at you but you feel your airways opening up.

You are working on a project, historical fiction it is. You begin to speculate about what the early colony would look like if shaped by the hands of Alexis Wright or Melissa Lucashenko or Tony Birch or Jeanine Leane. You think of what Marlene Gilson has done with paint, what Michael Cook has done with photography. Can you admire without being seen to be sucking up? You find the word “heimat” through the work of Bill Ashcroft. It is Ernst Bloch’s conceptualisation for a home that one senses but has never experienced or known. What is the word for the professional envy that you feel for a work that has not yet been written, in a place where you are a perpetrator? You are looking in the wrong language.

You are a first-generation immigrant, an adventure immigrant. You came here because you could. You are a coloniser. Your lack of intention does not absolve you. Your tramping colonisation is different from the first colonisers only in degree, not in kind. You see the deep generosity and the generative possibilities of Alexis Wright’s thinking, of Aboriginal thinking, the interconnectedness of the giving despite the one-sided taking.

This is what it means to withstand.

You begin to resist the To-Do list. You hit the snooze button, repeatedly. You are so relieved to learn, through the kindness of collaborators, that some deadlines can be repurposed. You are surprised, yet not, that your efficient colleagues too must gather themselves inwards before they can rebound. You eat the almond ice-cream. You will go to the gym when it re-opens. You tell yourself that the fat you need to burn off, for health reasons, has been destined for you on account of your South Asian heritage blooming with paddy fields, pulau, payasam. An almond ice-cream or two will not make much of a difference. You also eat the Persian love cake.

You listen to your children. You have never had a desire to do so before. The drudgery of the early years was easy compared to this excavation of the self. They need a different part of you. It is a part you have to invent on the fly. Or perhaps it was always there, buried beneath conferrals of fat, of failure, of gain, beneath the useless accretion of aspiration. You reach for that part of you, the part that secretes honesty rather than wisdom. Your children spring away from you. You understand that this means they need to spring back. They are the souls of your soul. They exceed your confinement of them. Your reaching is more painful than anything.

“What do you think of abortion?”
“Are you a lesbian?”
“Why not?”
“I don’t want to live in a world that is ending so quickly.”

You look at your parents. They are the best kind of Jesus, the only kind that matters. Despite painful fingers, Dad is making chicken curry and sauce for lamb shanks from scratch. YouTube is his guide. Mum is sweeping up the fluff from the carpet, folding clothes, making Sunday Egg, even though her muscles are tight with age and years of working for other people. She is tracing back your father’s family tree.

You have a Malayalee great great grandfather. He was a fisherman. What is the word for stepping into a place for the first time and feeling like you are made of its curling waterways, its shocking green? You now see why strangers speak to you in Malayalam when you are in Trivandrum, Kochi, Kozhikode. You withhold yourself because you are constructed from the ribs of Bombay and Goa and Karwar and Mangalore but your body sings in Kerala even if you don’t lob the language back. The comings and goings of conquerors, their trails of blood and buried mother tongues, your own inevitable ebb and flow around whiteness, your own coveting of prestige — all of these movements ensure that it is English that will settle in your brain, that will set like bone. You are made of more than you will admit, more even than you know.

You see, again, your parents and your children. Their kindness is amplified precisely because of their ignorance of strategies of amplification.

“I’ll do the dishes because you have better things to do.”
“Dad, you’re spoiling the boys! They have to learn.”
“They can learn some other time.”

There is laughter.
Dad really does do the dishes.
Despite their trauma unspoken, time stretches out through their acts of care and kindness, through their commitment to joy, to intergenerational joy.

This is what it means to withstand.

It is a factual observation that everything is interconnected.
It is ok if the time for learning is forever deferred.
It is ok for things to be unresolved.

You bookmark many threads on Twitter. You flit between tabs and between pages, remembering words and dreams, writing them down. You begin to read the latest Winterson. You don’t yet have the mindset for the earliest Marx. You binge-watch Schitt’s Creek and Emma and Bridgerton and Never Have I Ever and Thalaivii late into many nights. You know that not even No Doz will help you the next day. You keep watching anyway.

You rest upon one particular kombucha-maker. You listen to a podcast that has nothing to do with the projects you are working on. You follow it as it leads you to water. You can see a home on the other side. You see it is this hinterland that nourishes you, the 80 per cent of time unspooling off the page, building up in the gaps of an elsewhere as yet unrevealed.

There is no outcome.
There is no income.
There is no object.

Yet this, too, is what it means to withstand.

Finally, you make a different kind of list.

3. Let your mind wander.
2. Coast towards a clarity that may or may not come.
1. Unfurl towards recovery, slowly.

Writing NSW has commissioned ten Australian authors to reflect on the complex relationship between writing and resilience. This series is supported by Create NSW

Commissioning editor: Kirsten Krauth

Roanna Gonsalves is the award-winning author of The Permanent Resident and a four-part ABC RN series On the tip of a billion tongues, an acerbic portrayal of contemporary India through its multilingual writers. Roanna serves on the Board of Writing NSW and works as a Lecturer in Creative Writing at UNSW.

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