Pandemics & Epidemics in Cultural Representation (Edited volume)

deadline for submissions: 
November 15, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
Editors: Sathyaraj Venkatesan, Antara Chatterjee, Brian Callender, A. David Lewis

Concept Note:

‘The interactions that make us sick also constitute us as a community. Disease emergence dramatizes the dilemma that inspires the most basic of human narratives: the necessity and danger of human contact’ (Priscilla Wald, 2008, p. 2).


The current COVID-19 pandemic that the world is living through has had a profound impact on the daily lives of people across the world, and it is also expected to have far-reaching consequences for the future of communities, medicine, public health, and global economies. This catastrophic moment has reoriented and restructured our cultural, social, and economic lives in unprecedented and unimagined ways. There is, at such a time, an urgent need to reflect on past disasters and catastrophes caused by such outbreaks and to delve into history to re-examine how societies and communities have responded in the past to species-threatening epidemics and pandemics. These past devastating outbreaks include, among others, the Black Death (epidemic of bubonic plague) in Europe and Asia in the 14th century, the global influenza (Spanish Flu) pandemic of 1918-1919, and the AIDS epidemic of the late twentieth century.


This project seeks to examine how artists, authors, and cultural practitioners have responded to and represented these episodes which have ushered in paradigmatic shifts in the ways in which we live and interact; in what ways, currently, are we individually and collectively configuring the contours of community, communicability, and contagion? From the classical times to the contemporary moment, cultural texts have engaged, both centrally as well as indirectly, with ideas of contagion and community through representations of historical (and imagined) apocalyptic catastrophes in the form of species-threatening epidemics/pandemics. Examples range from Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, Homer’s Iliad and Boccaccio’s Decameron, to Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), and Mary Shelly’s The Last Man (1826), from Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows (1937) to Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), and Hollywood films in the current millennium like Contagion (Robin Cook, 1995), Outbreak (Wolfgang Petersen, 1995), and Twilight (2008, based on Stephenie Meyer’s 2005 novel of the same name) to television series like Downton Abbey. And then there are comic book series like Y the Last Man, Charles Burns’s Black Hole, and The Walking Dead.


This proposed collection seeks to bring together research that examines cultural configurations and representations of devastating and world-threatening epidemic outbreaks to understand how cultural works have negotiated the fraught territories of human contact and contagion, loaded with both possibility and danger. Essays examining cultural representations of pandemics and epidemics in different contexts, periods, languages, and genres are invited. Through its focus on representations and narratives of life-threatening and, indeed, civilization-threatening illnesses, the collection aims to examine both the potential and the limitations of narrative with reference to bodily illness and suffering as well as large-scale human catastrophe. Proponents of ‘narrative medicine’ like Rita Charon, for instance, have pointed out the fruits of ‘narrative knowledge’ in medicine: ‘Medicine can benefit from learning that which literary scholars and psychologists and anthropologists have known for some time – that is, what narratives are, how they are built, how they convey their knowledge about the world, what happens when stories are told and listened to, how narratives organize life’ (2006, p. 9). At the same time, Priscilla Wald, Elizabeth Outka, for instance, have also commented on how difficult it is to represent such outbreaks, and how part of that difficulty lies in reckoning with ‘non-human actors and non-human violence’ (Outka 2020, p.30). As John Barry has observed, ‘People write about wars […] They write about the horrors that people inflict on people. Apparently they forget the horrors that nature inflicts on people’ (2004, 920). This collection aims to bring together significant research on these complex intersections between pandemics/epidemics, representation, and cultural memory as a means of negotiating and looking forward from the current pandemic-induced global crisis.


Topics may include but are not limited to:


  • The significance of narrative and imagination in understanding and responding to devastating illnesses
  • Cultural texts and their negotiations with community and contagion
  • Isolation, quarantine, the limits and dangers of social interaction  
  • Bodily pain, trauma, vulnerability and the limits of representation
  • The ‘absent presence’ and the ‘spectral’ traces (Outka) of disease outbreaks in cultural history and memory
  • Relationship of pandemics/epidemics and post-humanities
  • Historical and imagined epidemics/pandemics: Historical imagination and dystopian, apocalyptic visions
  • Epidemics and performance (theatre, dance)
  • ‘Othering’ disease: Outbreaks, stigma, ‘foreigness’, borders, and xenophobia
  • ‘Medicalized nativism’ (Alan Kraut) in culture and representation
  • The ‘carrier’ or Patient Zero in cultural representation: Stigma, guilt and danger
  • Pandemics like COVID-19 in social media: Memes, ‘viral’ images, social media literature
  • Disease, inequality and marginalization: Disease revealing ‘socioeconomic and political inequities’ (Wald 264)
  • The semiotics of a pandemic and the visual and/or verbal symbols developed and employed (comics, film, poetry, prose)
  • The narratology of epidemics and the traditional or corrupted expectations of such stories


Original unpublished essays of 7000-8000 words (including notes and references) are invited on the above and related topics. Please send an abstract of 300 words and a bio-note to the editors at by November 15, 2020. To cover the global scope of the topic, we seek contributions from around the world. Feel free to contact us with any queries you might have. The proposed edited volume is to be submitted to Springer.

Publication timeline/schedule:

Last date for the submission of abstract: November 15, 2020
Intimation of acceptance/rejection of abstracts: December 15, 2020
Submission of the full article: May 15, 2021