I’ve just published a novel called Sweetness and Light, a kind of thriller set in the seedy underbelly of expat hangouts on the international tourist circuit. It was a love letter to travel, something I always thought of as a wonderful, consciousness expanding thing. Once in a while you would find yourself in an unfamiliar place and experience a true intellectual or spiritual epiphany through exposure to different cultures and unfamiliar places. You would realise, fundamentally, we’re all in this together.
As of last weekend, this all seems hopelessly nostalgic.
As I write this, I’ve got friends all over the world who a week ago were living and working overseas and are now being corralled into cramped holding areas in airports, trying desperately to get home. The Covid-19 outbreak, and the consequent implosion of social and political norms, has thrown into sharp relief how much about travelling we take for granted.
Some of those friends are tossing up whether to stay where they are: in countries where deeply ingrained social and political contracts seem to be containing the virus better than we are. This is a confronting idea – in times of crisis it’s hard to shake the feeling that home is the safest place to be. Or that there might be better homes out there.
I’m one of the lucky ones: I’ve never had to worry that the invisible lines on the map would become impermeable; that freedom of movement was anything but an inalienable right. Travel was something I used to live for, in the halcyon days before I became aware that every flight I took inched the world closer to climate crisis, viral pandemic and/or economic collapse.
In the space of a week, aeroplanes went from a symbol of privilege, to a flying petri dish of nightmares, real and imagined, to something I would only get on in the case of emergency, to something jarringly absent from our skies. Australia is a big country. It suddenly feels claustrophobic.
States are shutting borders and families dispersed across the continents are having to make snap decisions to uproot and abandon homes, careers, partners, in order to be close to loved ones before the lockdowns.
When I started writing Sweetness and Light, I imagined the sort of book you might pick up from the bookshop to read on an aeroplane. It published into a world where both airlines and bookshops are shuttering up. Being a novelist has never seemed more farcically anachronistic.
In the novel I tried very hard to evoke a world where travellers are undone by their own hubris and privilege, where a vaguely sinister religious fundamentalist preyed on complacency and confusion.
Then I turn on the television to find that an administration whose political rise was framed around “stopping the boats” had failed to prevent landfall of what is, for all intents and purposes, a medieval plague ship. The prime minister deals with it by handing down new policy at midnight in the form of a sphinx-like riddle and all I can do is throw my hands up in defeat. On a purely narrative level, I can’t compete with this level of absurdity.
Maybe this was inevitable. A society with few uniting principles beyond hedonism and the acquisition of wealth is always going to be sorely tested under hardship. But I didn’t expect us to figuratively shit the bed and literally shiv each other over toilet roll so quickly.
I’ve never wanted to get out of Sydney more, and I’ve never been more cognisant of the hubris and selfishness of running away from one’s problems – a thing I’ve literally just written the book on.
It was my hope that this book would make people think about what they took for granted about their own travel habits – those foundational, opaque layers of privilege that so many of us abused for so long. In some ways, it’s a horror story about the limits of empathy, the dehumanising of people born across the border from you.
It’s about people who talk about wanting to “find themselves”, when what they mean is they want to find themselves in an economy where the exchange rate lets them live life with the consequence of a Monopoly game. Now Covid-19 has made clear that none of us are insulated from what’s coming.
As a species we are careening into unprecedented territory, a viral epidemic that far outstrips our global capacity to treat it – and an extant global crisis in trust and empathy.
The planes are grounded, and for the feckless and flighty like me, there’s no running away from what’s coming. It could be that those layers of privilege, comfort and safety we never think to appreciate are on their way out. Once again, the epiphany: we’re all in this. And we’re in it together. Stay inside. Look after each other. And please – buy my book.
• Sweetness and Light by Liam Pieper is out now through Penguin Random House.