What is the value of literature during a global pandemic? What is the utility of words during times of isolation, distance, and division? Bertolt Brecht once asked, “What times are these when / To speak of trees is all but criminal / Because it implies a silence about so many wrongs?” He, like we today, experienced times of great polarity. Times in which every action or inaction could not help but carry the weight of its society and politics—times when the truths of words become distorted by the burden of their proliferation. It is in times like these, I think, that literature proves its greatest value. Because literature alone can both speak and see the forest for its trees. 

Literature alone of our communicative skills permits us to find beauty, redemption, resilience, and salvation in a single line of text. It provides a roadmap through our shared differences and illuminates our common core: transcending and transforming language as it goes.

2020 is the first year of my adult life that I have not spent time abroad. The first year that I have not left Northern California, save for a few harried forays across neighboring state lines. All things considered, this is a very minor setback in a year of unprecedented environmental, social, and political degradation. But it is yet another confirmation of this year’s transformative weight. 2020 is a year of mourning; a year of righteous anger: a year to seek out common cause and will to survive against a world increasingly turned on its head. A year to face your inner truths. And it is, again, in literature, that I find this common cause. In no other time more so than during quarantine—a devastating social experiment which has albeit saved untold lives, but has also served to sever many of the tenuous fibers of our fragile social webs. Literature continues on where our tangible experience leaves off because literature is much more than mimesis [representation]. Literature is also poesis [world making].

And so it was that it was words from the American poet Maya Angelou—scrawled across the barricaded storefronts of Oakland—which provided our community with solace as the State responded with its predictable force and violence to the outcries of the oppressed: “You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

It was in the words of German poet May Ayim that I found comfort as I watched the rightwing violence from across the Atlantic—from a much more than social distance—spreading again across the heart of Central Europe: 

i, too, have a dream, brother
that one day people
will no longer come screaming into the world
but laughing
in rainbow hue […]

i carry my dream
behind
an upraised fist
in pepper hue
and i start very small
start at long last
with my sister
and my girlfriend on my hand with
my brothers and
if it must be
also alone
— so at long last things must
change!

The impact of 2020 on the global artistic community will resonate for years to come. Literature and the work of literary festivals have long provided an open window into the soul of a language, and so, into the soul of a community. Their value only grows as those traditional markers of identification, belonging, and association disintegrate—severed by sickness and political division, or pixelated away through our growing digital solitude. They maintain a kernel of resistance and exchange in a world of deafening silence.

It is with this in mind that I applaud the ongoing work of associations like Versopolis and festivals like Hausacher LeseLenz who persevere and face the challenges of our new normality head on—understanding, as they do, the incredible cultural value of the service they provide. Faced with the instable realities of COVID-19, this year’s “LeseLenz 2.0” has combined the very best of both analog and digital platforms to carry the fire of communication onward as the global stage grows dark. LeseLenz’s combination of live and live-streamed performances, its ongoing commitment to illuminate this year through weekly and monthly contributions to the international literary scene, and the willingness of its participants from across the world to take part in this experiment give me hope. We live on in a different, changed world, but it will be the inspiration we draw in these times which guides us forward—our ability to transcend language and division despite each new challenge we must face. 

“What times are these…?” Brecht asked in 1939. Contemporary Berlin poet Max Czollek responds to Brecht’s open question: “truly i live in times / where the unhappy cry / no more, we simply / write on.”

Jon Cho-Polizzi is this year’s Versopolis Guest Editor for Hausacher LeseLenz