EXCERPT of Virus City from Big Shoulders Books

by Rebecca Johns

LIKE THE SUBJECTS IN THIS BOOK, I had entirely different plans before the COVID-19 pandemic began. In January 2020, when I first sat down with my colleagues at Big Shoulders Books, it was to discuss an anthology focused on incarcerated people and their families. The idea was to go into prisons during the summer and fall of 2020, run writing seminars with DePaul students and faculty as workshop leaders, and choose from the pieces produced in those courses a selection of essays, poems, and stories to turn into an anthology.  

It was a subject I’d been interested in for a long time but hadn’t yet been able to pursue. With the help of leaders from the DePaul University Inside Out program like Drs. Helen Damon-Moore and Christina Rivers, students in DePaul’s writing and publishing program would create an anthology by and about incarcerated individuals. It was wholly in keeping with the social-justice mission of Big Shoulders Books. We were excited to begin.  

The first meetings to try to make the project a reality would happen in spring. But by March 12, 2020, DePaul—and the prisons we hoped to visit—locked down.  


COVID-19 was not sneaky. The first reports coming from abroad in late 2019 and early 2020 made it clear this virus was something new and potentially dangerous, and that it was being spread by human contact. But plagues were the stuff of the distant past, like the Spanish flu in 1918, or else the distant future. We were used to pandemics appearing in science fiction books and in the movies, but not real life. The idea that it could touch us was still, somehow, unthinkable.  

As time went on, the prisons became a vector for spreading the virus. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism institute dedicated to criminal justice reporting, estimated that by December 2020, one in five US prisoners had contracted COVID-19¹.   

Like many people, I kept hoping that a few weeks or even a couple of months of lockdown would be enough to flatten the curve and that life would return to normal in time to get the incarceration anthology going again. Even as protests broke out in spring 2020 over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I kept in contact with the Inside Out team at DePaul and leadership at Restore Justice Illinois, a nonprofit group dedicated to criminal justice reform that had offered to contribute to the incarceration anthology project.  

Though the situation in Chicago in general—not to mention inside the criminal-justice system—seemed to get more tense as protest after protest sprang up, I kept hoping that if we were able run workshops at Cook County Jail and Stateville Correctional Center and others, we’d probably still have enough time to produce the pieces we needed for the anthology. But as fall grew cold and the second COVID-19 wave began, we started to realize the prisons were not likely to let us inside anytime soon. Like everyone else, we had to pivot.  


It was clear that the COVID-19 pandemic itself would become the topic for this anthology. How was this once-in-a-lifetime event affecting the everyday lives of Chicagoans? How did they cope with the physical, psychological, social, and economic tribulations brought on by COVID-19 in their jobs, in their families?  

Throughout 2021, thirty-three DePaul students (graduate and undergraduate) recorded interviews with ordinary Chicagoans in a multitude of different professions and neighborhoods. Most of these interviews took place via Zoom, which—in addition to being the tool that kept us all attending classes—allowed students to meet their subjects while maintaining a safe social distance.  

The students turned these Zoom recordings into transcripts, then into written narratives, thinking deeply and carefully about the words of each subject and, whenever possible, returning for a second interview. The final versions were edited by twenty-two graduate students in DePaul’s Master’s in Writing and Publishing program during the fall of 2021. We then forwarded the finished narratives to their respective subjects for a final fact check and review.  

Our collective task was to honor the voice and intent of each speaker. On occasion, this includes leaving in profanity or non-standard English usage, a result of our decision not to censor our interviews. In a couple of instances, we did grant the subjects’ requests for a pseudonym or used only a first name to protect their ability to speak honestly about their work without fear of retaliation from an employer or others.  

Our working thesis for this project was that the pandemic was exacerbating the inequalities that already existed in our society, and these narratives show that those inequalities continue to affect the lives of many Chicagoans. The frustration and exhaustion of each speaker comes through in their voices. How much more can they take? When will anything go back to normal?  

In the process of gathering these narratives, however, we also found unexpected joy.  

Healthcare workers, retail workers, business owners, teachers, first responders, and former prison inmates: the people whose stories you will read in this anthology have been giving their all during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are parents to young children and caregivers to elderly parents. They have been treating patients and restocking shelves and warehouses. They have been teaching classes and holding religious services and putting out fires both literal and figurative. They have been feeding and clothing and treating and sheltering Chicago’s residents in some of their most desperate hours.  

It’s a privilege to share their stories here.  


I’d hoped by the time this volume appeared, we would have turned the final corner on COVID-19. The disease has been crossing the world in waves, first in spring 2020, then in autumn. Falling cases in the spring of 2021 and the first mass vaccinations gave us all hope that we were finally going to get back to normal, whatever that was likely to mean.  

Then the Delta variant surged in the summer of 2021, Omicron around Christmas. In early 2022 the Omicron wave started to be ease, with case positivity levels in Illinois beginning to decline.² Mask mandates were lifted in schools across the state.³  

But COVID will likely be with us for a long time to come: on the day I sent Virus City to press—less than two weeks after the end of the Illinois school mask mandate— my own daughter, an eighth grader, tested positive for COVID. No longer the realm of science fiction, the pandemic has made us all exhausted and wary.  

Someday life will go back to normal, though normal may not look like it did before. Perhaps it shouldn’t. The pandemic has exposed the shaky foundations of our social order and maybe given us new insight into a way forward.  

After all, a pivot—once made—takes you forever in a new direction.  

¹ Source: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/12/18/1-in-5-prisoners-in-the-u-s-has-had-covid-19  

² https://chicago.suntimes.com/coronavirus/2022/1/27/22905181/illinois-coronavi – rus-chicago-omicron-surge-cases-deaths-hospital-vaccine-arwady  

³ https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/coronavirus/are-masks-still-required-in-schools-what-to-know-aboutcdc-guidance-illinois-mask-mandate/2769968/ 

Rebecca Johns (Editor) is the author of two novels: Icebergs, a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, and The Countess. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, StoryQuarterly, the Mississippi Review, the Harvard Review, Printer’s Row Journal, the Chicago Tribune, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Ladies’ Home Journal, Self, and Seventeen, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Missouri School of Journalism, she is an Associate Professor at DePaul University and the director of the MFA/MA in Creative Writing and Publishing.

The introduction above is an excerpt from Big Shoulders Books’ Virus City, a collection of interviews that capture the oral history of Chicagoans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click the above cover for more info!

BIG SHOULDERS BOOKS and SLAG GLASS CITY are projects of the DePaul Publishing Institute.

SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 8 • November 2022
Header Image: Cover of Virus City by Big Shoulders Books