By Chelsey Shannon, editor
You’d expect planning an academic conference to take a lot of work. Four years of work, however? Less likely. But that’s what happens when a pandemic intersects with the best laid plans, which was the case with the MELUS (which stands for Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the U.S.) 2022 conference in New Orleans, titled “Awakenings, Reckonings, and Multiethnic Literature—Woke, What Now?”
I vividly remember gathering in the Education Building to meet as a planning committee in early March 2020, all of us speculating as to the then-strange sounding coronavirus’s possible effect on the upcoming event. Would we have to push back a few weeks? A few months? Or maybe it wouldn’t matter at all, and we could proceed as planned? I doubt even the most pessimistic in the room foresaw the widespread disruption—cultural, social, medical, idealogical—of which we naively stood at the cusp.
Under the dogged leadership of Dean Kim Martin-Long, two years later, some aspects of the conference’s manifestation were objectively different than originally planned: our keynote speaker changed; some panelists we’d expected in 2020 could no longer convene in person; one speaker joined by Zoom, that now ubiquitous app that many of us were only beginning to know two Marches ago. And, though the city lifted its mask mandate just days before MELUS, many participants still donned masks while inside Le Méridien hotel—a practice virtually unknown in U.S. society before COVID hit.
Other changes were less visible. For my part, it felt like much longer than two years since I’d sat behind a table, throwing possible customers friendly yet not desperate smiles, answering questions about our books in an enticing manner, and giving that polite nod if people backed off without buying. Newly unfamiliar were the experiences of eating a meal in a banquet hall full of people; seeing others’ in-the-flesh, realtime reactions to John Lowe, the conference’s keynote speaker; and making the type of collegial small talk that is the background noise of these kinds of events—and many other human acts of assembly.
Maybe most silly of all, after months of (the privilege of) virtual work, I failed to account for the physical reality of schlepping books into and out of the Press office, car, and hotel! Vera Warren-Williams, founder and owner of Community Book Center, New Orleans’ oldest Black-owned bookstore, joined us at MELUS as a fellow vendor. “Suitcases,” she told me as she wheeled a luggage cart full of her wares to her table. “It’ll make your life a whole lot easier.”
That’s veteran advice I’m tucking away, because there will be a next time. The pandemic may not be over, but it’s clear that we’re moving into a new phase, one that, with the help of vaccines and other precautions, can reasonably accommodate the inherent sociality of our species. And though my introvert’s psychic battery may be running on “E” after two years of being out of practice, I’m okay—maybe even more than okay—with that.