Corona diaries | Nichola Khan
Thoughts on breathing as politics and historical transmission
This corona diary is also an asthma diary, and by extension an anxiety diary impressed with the memory of other earlier epidemics that threatened the ability to breathe. It reflects on my urgent fears that my mother, now elderly and asthmatic, should keep breathing through the crisis of coronavirus, alongside the resurfacing of transmitted intergenerational states of fear, grief and sudden breathlessness surrounding the death of my grandfather in Hong Kong from tuberculosis. The Japanese reign of terror in Hong Kong lasted from 1941-5 for three years and eight months. Hong Kong’s population of 1.6 million population shrank to 600,000 as a result of famine, widespread killings and executions, and endemic disease and tuberculosis. While the viral encroachment of Covid-19 on our collective ability to breathe is presently mooted by politicians as a metaphor for war, as a mnemonic it provokes thoughts about intergenerational infection, contagion and historical trauma circulating in play with the looping effects of real war (and virus-time as wartime), and the historical creep of those effects into the family. Breathing in this scenario signifies a mode for understanding the past, the interplay between body and world, occupation/colonisation and contamination, and the corporeality (perhaps heritability) of national and family politics.
Breath and air are ephemeral, yet fundamental. As political incarnates they hold moral powers, trans-corporeal ethics (Alaimo 2010), and the state’s control of movement, disease and ventilation. Corona governance is an attempt to manage this attack and to direct bodies, lungs, and respiratory pathways to more benign circulations and criss-crossings of space and time that don’t cause us to infect one another but to align more benevolently. Corona excites unimpeded fears around Britain’s colonisation by an alien virus causing breathing problems, asthma, and the erasure of international movement. If it represents the return of an anxiety symptom around desires to enforce borders of belonging that outsiders cannot have, it also represents a resignification of the threat of foreign takeover and the toxicity of nationalist politics for the environment: issues of our post-Brexit era. In this island prison air has become putrid, infectious, an intense indicator of panic and despair, and a paradox of national development and medical progress. Imperial air too was deadly, murderous and linked to crime and moral dissolution, as for prisoners asphyxiated in the Black Hole of Calcutta—likewise, for undocumented migrants who suffocate in trucks en route to Europe. In our new domestic national prison, air, toxicity, and the struggle to control one’s own and others’ breathing interact with imperial, colonial, neoliberal, and all kinds of political rationalities.
On 16/3, day 1 of the PM’s televised daily coronavirus briefings, Johnson urged us to reduce social contact and stay at home, especially older citizens over 70. This escalated to the swift approval of emergency powers to increase national healthcare and death management capacity by requisitioning warehouses and airports for field hospitals and morgues and to allow, a week later, police and immigration officials to arrest those suspected of carrying the virus and enforce lockdown. The following day, 25/3, Johnson tested positive as did the Health Secretary and other global politicians—macho leaders rendered fragile—unlike Chancellor Merkel who is negative, more resilient.
Breathing, and asthmatic breathing, is unique, individual, and asynchronous; asthma is an umbrella term for multiplicities of medical, political, and environmental entanglement that coalesce in disordered breathing (Kenner 2018). The uncommon night-time silence of the lockdown attunes me to a sudden shortening of breath. I labour to control inhalation and exhalation and an emotional atmosphere of panic which is also a fear of dying and a historical fear of repeated incursion into the home. In my fears about being unable to breathe, I worry the thought that this ‘war’ will claim my mother’s breath, as did the death of her father. Will I have the chance to tell my daughter about her history, which is now also a ‘bio-biography’ and a story of becoming breathless? My heart, not reliable, slows worryingly. I time my heartbeat, mobile stopwatch in left hand, two fingertips of my right hand on my left pulse, while I push the stopwatch with my left thumb and measure my arrhythmic heartbeat against the clock’s time – 42, 46, 48 beats per minute, too slow. I do this repeatedly but can’t exceed 48. I get up, inhale Ventolin, no change, puff Beclamethasone, no change, my heartbeat now 45. In the respiratory sensorium uncovered through these new measurements of breath, panic, and temperature I imagine a slow death by suffocation, and in measurements that fail to keep time. These night terrors dissipate in daylight.
If ‘flesh comes to us out of history’, as Angela Carter asserts, the inability to breathe has advanced through my family like smoke, in severe asthma induced by traumatic shock in my mother as the daughter, in her daughter, and in violent memories that intrude and must be brokered and reckoned with: in epidemics reprised for the present.
This summer evening in 1943 my grandfather lies on the bed, his racked body eking out reprieve atop the finely woven matting. He has tuberculosis, even though he is a doctor of tuberculosis. He is smoking opium to relieve the cortortions of his cough, his doctor’s perhaps fatalistic prescription, though once the opiate relief has passed he will cough protractedly and more desperately. My mother, a child, has prepared his pipes. He taught her in play how to heat the pin over the lamp’s flame, roll opium onto the pin, and heat and roll it alternately on the bowl to coax it into readiness for smoking. Now she prepares one in earnest. She approaches her reclining father, his head on the small headrest for smoking, pushes the hot black resin into the pipe’s bowl which he holds now in both hands, his right hand cradling the resting bowl and his left raising the long end of the pipe to his mouth. She watches, and cares, as he inhales the vaporising smoke in short and long bursts, deeply, until every last tendril is pulled into all corners of his lungs and holds onto the precious smoke and his desire for oblivion as long as he can before exhaling. After two or three preparations he is sufficiently far from his fading body which will not survive long, from the pain of knowing he will die young, leave his wife and six children, from his concubine and their child who live upstairs, and from the shock of the bombs and relentless war which the British have done nothing to alleviate. My mother knows that the comfort of smoking is temporary, but makes the pipes so she can be near her father.
This evening all the family are home. My grandmother holds the baby busily at the stove where she cooks, my infant uncle plays on the floor. My grandfather’s second wife is upstairs with her child and her mother, who is also my grandmother’s mother (their intimate history of sisters who shared a husband demarcating the territory of another domestic war). The peaceful anticipation of eating together is interrupted by a fracas on the street. Two Japanese soldiers shout after a young woman. They enter the staircase of the building, turn their way upwards and beat the door, suspending time. My grandmother opens, they burst in. In fright she drops the baby. The woman the men are looking for a prostitute whom they insist is hidden in this building, in this flat. Furious at the homely scene which does not produce her, they turn instead their boots on my grandfather, smash his face and whole body, leaving him unmoving. Afterwards my grandmother will tenderly clean and try to repair him, but he will die days later, 26 August. For my mother, his death, and the death soon after of her mother in the same building which collapsed on her during a bombing, will mark the end of all hope and the beginning of survival.
My mother sought forgetting in a refusal to remember until she became old, now eighty-seven unlike her father who died at thirty-three, leaving me to recreate a factual heritage from her unreliable and fractured memory—although her imparted, inhalatory and affective history is an ancient, familiar one. The connection of breathing and urgent unmet needs is one learnt in infancy; crying and breathing are so interlinked sometimes so entwined an infant cannot stop crying because to stop crying is to stop breathing. I wonder if grieving is as natural as breathing too, and if to stop grieving is to stop being alive.
Now with a swollen and medicated heart, perpetually breathless, God is my mother’s opium (being no Marxist). Having moved from China to England, from Taoism to Christianity, her prayers transcend the nationalist and territorial divisions of war and religion. For her, prayer, like the dream of free breathing, resembles the wind of soul. As regulated rhythm, prayer is a way to align scattered consciousness with the self, to enter the abode of God residing in the body, and to transport consciousness into a more primeval and primal state of time.
Now I am writing about my mother in a new project, one where new thoughts about breathing, suffocation and domestic menace may end by being stitched into the return of family history into a larger history of war and migration across Chinese South East Asia. In the midst of a new epidemic where many other elderly people may be trapped in domestic prisons with their memories of war, we try to pace and attune ourselves and our breathing to a new mutuality and time.
Alaimo, Stacy. 2010. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment and the Material Self. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Carter, Angela. 1979. The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. London: Virago.
Kenner, Alison. 2018. Breathtaking: Asthma Care in the Time of Climate Change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Snow, Philip. 2003. The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China and The Japanese Occupation. New Haven: Yale University Press.