Sonoma writer releases anthology with women’s essays on pandemic experiences
Therapist and writer Joanell Serra of Sonoma was flying home from New York in early March 2020 when she became part of the first wave of the pandemic. Most people were still in denial, she recalled, and she was the only one wearing a mask.
She had flown east a week earlier to see a short play she wrote that was being performed at a local theater festival in New York City, which would soon become the epicenter of the coronavirus in the U.S. The play was directed by her son, living in East Harlem with his girlfriend.
“My mask was no match for six hours of recycled air with 400 other travelers,“ Serra recalled. “My cough and fever started four days later.”
It was so early in the pandemic that even her doctors didn’t recognize her strange combination of symptoms as related to COVID-19. Protocols to stop the virus from spreading were still a work in progress, and tests were difficult to obtain.
“It was hard to breathe, hard to swallow, hard to sleep because of the cough. It was hard to keep food down, and I had no appetite,” she said. “I told the doctors I can’t taste or smell anything. Could that be related? They said no.”
As an asthma sufferer, she was not surprised when her oxygen levels dipped dangerously low. At Marin General, she waited in the ER for a chest X-ray; her cot was draped with caution tape to keep people away. But she she still could not get tested for the virus.
It was there, alone under those fluorescent lights, that she decided she needed to do something positive in the face of the growing terror over the worldwide health crisis.
“I found that getting care, let alone a COVID-19 test, was exhausting and surreal,” she said. “I was so sick. ... I came through it, and I wanted to do something against this terrible virus.”
During her convalescence, Serra had been devouring an anthology coedited by Amy Roost called “Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era,” published by Regal House Publishing.
So when Serra got an email from Roost asking if she’d like to write a book proposal for an anthology about women’s experiences during COVID-19, the answer was a resounding yes.
The idea gained traction, as Serra and Roost whipped out a book proposal in just a week. After it was accepted, they hit the ground running.
“We had one month to get submissions, and only a few months to edit them,” Serra said. “Out of hundreds of submissions, we selected 51.”
The result of all that fast and furious work is “(Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences during the Coronavirus Pandemic” (Regal House Publishing, 2021), a softcover book released on Thursday.
The anthology features a wide range of women’s voices, from Hawaii to New York City, that give deeply personal perspectives on the pandemic.
The essays are written by nurses and doctors on the front lines, along with mothers caring for young children and adolescents. There are essays by grown children who have returned to their parents’ homes and are adjusting to life in their childhood bedrooms. Lonely seniors write about only seeing their grandchildren’s faces over Zoom. There are women grateful for having time to heal from deaths in their families, and others grateful for having time to bond with their newborns.
“I was determined to get different slices of what was happening,” Serra said. “We had to make charts of everybody — what perspective are they bringing? Someone with cancer, someone who recently immigrated. Writing with humor versus a heavier, darker tone.”
To include women who would normally not submit pieces, Serra held a workshop on Zoom to give potential writers an idea of what the editors were looking for. Then she rolled up her sleeves and got to work helping many of those writers polish their prose.
“Having all these diverse stories brought a new level of work as we tried to incorporate other languages like Spanish and Tagalog,” she said. “It was extremely intense to do it in that amount of time.”
Santa Rosa therapist writes on healing
Another local therapist and writer, Alissa Hirshfeld of Santa Rosa, wrote an essay for the book.
In “Learning to be Alone in Social Isolation,” Hirshfeld wrote that she had to adapt to being single again after 22 years of marriage (her husband has recently left her) while her daughter was about to leave the nest for college.
Her essay begins at the end of January 2020, when she was traveling home from a Doctors Without Borders project in Cambodia. Although she’ll never know, she still worries she may have brought COVID-19 home with her.
“After I came home, my daughter ended up getting sick. ... Part of me wonders if I had a strain that was asymptomatic.”