Writer in Residence

Chicken Little in the Time of Covid-19

By Irfan Ali


It’s probably been a long time since you’ve heard the story of Chicken Little. Let me take a moment to remind you. While out walking one day, a chicken named Chicken Little is hit on the head by an acorn dropped from the beak of a passing bird. Unsure of what fell and hit him, he becomes convinced that the sky itself is collapsing and rushes off to warn the king. Along the way, Little encounters some other fowl—a goose, a hen, and a turkey—who all heed his dire warning and join him on his journey. They then run into a fox, who quickly recognizes and exploits the group’s hysteria and gullibility. One by one, the fox lures the group into his den, claiming that the king is inside visiting. And one by one, each bird is devoured by the fox and his children. Only in a handful of versions does Chicken Little escape that fate.

It’s hard not to feel a bit like Chicken Little in 2020. The sky certainly does feel like it’s falling. From pandemics to political upheavals to possible nuclear disasters, every new week seems like it’s accompanied by a fresh stamp on an apocalyptic bingo card. What will the world look like in five years? Are we facing the imminent collapse of civilization? I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting questions like that have preoccupied most of my waking moments the past few months. 

But just like in the fable, the sky isn’t actually falling. The world isn’t actually coming to an end. It only seems so because the world we’ve grown up in, the one shaped by the pressures of capitalism and globalism, the only one that many of us have ever known, is collapsing. Even if the acorn that’s hit us on our collective head is a large one, it’s still just an acorn.

Uncertainty like this has always been a writer’s milieu. Maybe we’ve lost sight of that as our craft, like so many others, has come under the sway of the profit motive. But, at our cores, our lot as writers has always been to stand apart and inch cautiously ahead into the dark. Our penchant for getting lost within our heads, often considered a liability by our loved ones, is probably now, more than ever, of use to societies attempting to reconfigure themselves to a changed reality. 

As someone so new to this community, I accept many will feel like it’s not my place to make such a claim. Maybe they’re right. But I do think it is, in part at least, our duty as writers to assist with that transformation. I don’t mean to suggest that we should expect ourselves to write the next Communist Manifesto, Ten-Point Program, or Plague. That’s an echelon I assume I'll only aspire to and never reach. For me, it’s enough to use whatever iota of talent I’ve been given to share the nuggets of joy or love or wisdom I’ve scrounged within my yet shallow pool of life experience. Nuggets that feel more valuable than ever in a world that seems poised, at any moment, to come crashing down upon our heads.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Irfan Ali is a poet, essayist, writer, and educator. His short poetry collection, Who I Think About When I Think About You was shortlisted for the 2015 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Accretion is his first full-length work. Irfan was born, raised, and still lives in Toronto.