The Next Chapter

Saleema Nawaz's novel Songs for the End of the World searches for hope in the middle of a pandemic

The novelist and short story writer spoke with Shelagh Rogers about the timeliness of writing a book about a global pandemic.
Songs for the End of the World is a novel by Saleema Nawaz. (@pinkmeringue/Twitter.com, McClelland & Stewart)

This interview originally aired on Sept. 12, 2020.

Saleema Nawaz was born in Ottawa and lives in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood, where her debut novel, Bone and Bread, is set. Bone and Bread was a finalist on Canada Reads 2016.

Her latest, Songs for the End of the World, is a novel about a cast of characters — including a first responder named Elliot, a pregnant singer named Emma and a bestselling writer named Owen — living through a global pandemic.

Songs for the End of the World was written before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Nawaz spoke with Shelagh Rogers about the timeliness of the novel.

Population density

"New York is a backdrop for the novel, just for the logistics of a place where a pandemic could get a strong foothold and where there is that kind of population density. I had originally thought of some of those characters that were in New York being in Toronto instead. But I wanted that possibility of fear — a lot of the novel is preoccupied with how fear can motivate our actions.

But I wanted that possibility of fear — a lot of the novel is preoccupied with how fear can motivate our actions.

"It's a place where the society was perhaps more fractured and more divided than Canadian society — where people have access to guns and maybe there's more misinformation — and where things could have that possibility of getting very badly out of control."

Creating a virus

"I used a lot of different things to imagine the virus that is in the book. It was an amalgamation of a lot of research that I did over the years.

I used a lot of different things to imagine the virus that is in the book. It was an amalgamation of a lot of research that I did over the years.

"I looked a lot at SARS. I looked a lot at flu viruses. I spent a long time reading epidemiology papers. I was trying to understand. I was just trying to come up with a virus spread and a curve that would be plausible for the kinds of interventions that they're taking."

Hope amid disaster

"Part of the impetus for the novel was this desire to write a disaster story that was realistic and hopeful. I also wanted to look at that idea of how stories shape our beliefs. 

Part of the impetus for the novel was this desire to write a disaster story that was realistic and hopeful.

"If you see a Hollywood disaster movie and you think that everybody is going to be hoarding, looting or turning on one another — how does that affect your own behaviour?

"I always wanted to have a character who was a writer. In the book, this character has written a pandemic novel and it seems like it's starting to come true. And because of the timing of when this book comes out, people start to see what's happening with the virus in the real world through the lens of his book."

The power of imagination

"The imagination is very resilient. Our imagination is a way to escape, but sometimes it's a way to dream up new futures. 

"Arundhati Roy wrote this article early on about the COVID crisis. It had this phrase in it: 'The pandemic is a portal, because a crisis has a way of exposing all these inequalities and existing problems in a society.'

"Let's take this opportunity, now that society has radically changed. Let's take this opportunity to imagine a new future — and to try to bring that to fruition."

Saleema Nawaz's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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