In Ilze Hugo’s Vision of a Post-Apartheid City, Laughter Kills

(Photo: Stephanie van Gelderen)

Few science fiction writers have their vision of the future tested upon publication. But that’s what happened to Ilze Hugo, whose novel about a mysterious epidemic, The Down Days (Skybound Books, 2020), debuted in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“For it to be published right in the middle of all this is the most surreal experience,” Hugo told me when I spoke with her in June for New Books in Science Fiction.

Read excerpts from this episode and other New Books in Science Fiction episodes on Literary Hub.

Many of the book’s details are spot on: masks, online funerals, elbow bumps in lieu of handshakes. But the South African writer is frustrated that she missed a few nuances like “the way that your glasses fog up when you’re wearing a mask … or the fact that you get acne.”

“Something that you can’t really understand until you’ve experienced it is how at the beginning of [the Covid-19 pandemic], everyone was taking it fairly seriously, and they were quarantining and self-isolating. Now if you go to the shop, you have people acting as if we’re not in a pandemic at all. It’s as if people can only emotionally stress about it or think about it for a certain period of time and then they go back to their lives.”

While contagious, the illness in The Down Days is unusual: people laugh themselves to death. As surreal as this sounds, Hugo was inspired by a real event—the Tanganyika laughter epidemic, which in 1962 reportedly affected nearly 1,000 individuals.

While the real-life laughing epidemic was considered a mass psychogenic illness, the disease in Hugo’s book is real–and deadly.

“It’s a real illness but no one really understands where it came from and what it’s all about…  I did that quite deliberately because while I was writing it, our country was in a kind of unstable place politically We had a president who believed that you could prevent HIV/AIDS just by showering, and I suppose life felt very absurd to me and I felt, to a certain extent, that South Africa hadn’t  healed from the wounds of apartheid and everyone–at least on the more privileged side of the scale–was trying to say, ‘You know, it’s happened it’s over let’s move on.

But it’s very difficult to move on when a lot of a large part of the population are still dealing with the physical implications of apartheid and the psychological implications. So I was reading up about mass hysteria and they were saying that some scientists believe that it’s a physical manifestation of a society under chronic stress.”

Although the story doesn’t explicitly mention the devastating—and ongoing—impact of apartheid, Hugo says it’s woven into the fabric of the story. “I think every single South African novel ever written is about apartheid in some way even though it doesn’t necessarily mention it because it’s such a fresh issue for us that we are all constantly aware of it. Just the way that the characters interact with each other and through small comments, it’s always on the surface.”

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