Bangladesh, 1987. A few months after the Haiti trip. Photo by Hilda Bryant.

Thirty-seven years ago, I said yes to this guy. It was April Fool’s Day, but he wasn’t kidding, and neither was I. We were in Haiti at the time, on assignment for the TV station where we both worked, full of hope for our shared future and for Haiti’s too: Haitians had just held their first free elections in the republic’s history.

Such hope seems quaint in 2024. Haiti is at the mercy of violent gangs; dreams of any future that resembles democracy are currently barely plausible. And democracy is being tested and threatened and tested again here too. Right here in these United States, in ways we could not have imagined.

Just as we could not have imagined, 30-plus years ago, that we would someday be engulfed by a worldwide pandemic. That more than seven million people would die (1.2 million in the U.S.), and countless others be permanently affected by their run-in with the microscopic virus.

Who wants to dwell on any of this? Or read about it? Let alone write about it?

Turns out that guy I said yes to wanted to dwell on it, to observe it, and to write about it. Turns out writing a novel, starring real people not unlike ourselves, made the most sense to him. There would be plenty of scholars and epidemiologists who could weigh in on the pandemic from their positions of expertise. There would be plenty of famous and glamorous writers who would be invited to write their pandemic stories. But who would write about the way we lived and felt and feared from one day to the next, especially throughout that first year? Back when we didn’t even know whether, let alone when, there might be vaccines?

By “we” I don’t mean “all of us,” because that’s impossible. “The secret of universality is provincialism,” Kurt Vonnegut once wrote to an aspiring writer. The way to tell a universal story is to tell one story. Yours. And you can call it a memoir, or you can change up the names and some of the details and call it fiction. My husband, Rustin Thompson, did the latter, and it became Hard Times in Babylon, a novel published four years after our governor’s announcement, in March 2020, that the state of Washington was shutting down, effective immediately, in order to contain an aggressively spreading coronavirus called Covid-19.

I read several earlier drafts, and was amazed every time by the level of detail and the emotional pitch of Hard Times in Babylon. But the experience of reading a work in progress is quite different from sitting down and opening a bound paperback book that contains the polished and streamlined final version which emerged from those many drafts. I was riveted. It was like watching a movie I knew I’d seen before, but had forgotten so many of the details.

What moves me the most about Hard Times is that after all that pruning and honing, it all absolutely rings true: not only because I personally know all the characters in the book, but because it holds together as a story. The way a good novel should. It feels both specific and universal. It’s funny and dark, full of the mundane and the meaningful, the way life is. 

And as we pass the 37th anniversary of the day we got engaged, I hope you too will be moved by Hard Times in Babylon. That it will help you, as it has me, to pause and look back. To say, as Simon and Garfunkel put it: Time it was, and what a time it was.

Seattle-area readers: There are a few spots left in my in-person Memoir Writing Workshop at Seattle Central College. Six Friday mornings, beginning April 19.