When I speak to Joe Osmundson over Zoom on June 30, the frustration in his voice is palpable. It is the last day of Pride month, he is in the middle of a self-funded book tour for VIROLOGY, and history is repeating itself — again. “It has been really, really difficult to be on book tour for a book called Virology as yet another, quote unquote, emerging virus [monkeypox] is negatively impacting queer people, including people that I know very well,” Joe says. “It has been incredibly painful to sit in meetings with people from the CDC, and the federal government, and the White House, and once again be pleading for action as people are getting sick.”
Joe and I met a few years ago, before I knew what the words “global pandemic” really meant, at Tin House Writers Workshop. I promptly started following him on Twitter and listening to his podcast, Food 4 Thot, getting to know him as a funny, kind, brilliant, queer creative writer and scientist. When alarm bells started sounding in early 2020 about a novel coronavirus, it was Joe and his tweets that I turned to. His feed held the appropriate level of concern about the harm the new virus may cause and the actions we could all collectively and individually take to mitigate that harm. He and the other scientists in his community seemed more equipped to guide the public through a pandemic than the government or any of the people actually tasked with helping us.
When the pandemic hit in full force and then marched on (and on, and on, and on), Joe became my north star for realistic information. Though we are not close friends, I DMed him all sorts of questions. He always answered. The way he cares for other humans is evident in all of his work. His studies of both viruses and queer history positions him perfectly to speak factually and candidly about bodies, viruses, and the ways the two interact; to borrow from his book title, he is literally an expert on “the living, the dead, and the small things in between.”
It came as no surprise to me that Joseph Osmundson wrote the perfect book for the COVID pandemic. It is incredibly depressing that upon publication, the book is more relevant than ever. “I’m a bucket of rage,” Joe says, the day we speak, just one month ago. “We’re all grateful to be in a place where we can advocate for our community… where we can push on the levers of power to work faster, even as people are actively getting sick. But it’s been really painful to have to see the levels of inaction.”
He could have been talking about February 2020. But he wasn’t. He was talking about June 2022. He was talking about right now.
Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things In Between is an ambitious book that succeeds in its efforts to shed light on viruses with science writing, yes, but also to shed light on the messy realities of life with queer theory, journey entries, archival data, personal essays, and above all else, naked honesty.
“It’s only looking back that I can see the four pillars of the book,” Joe says, “which are science writing, literary analysis, queer theory, and memoir. And only looking back can I see what I was trying to say — that viruses, especially in this viral moment, are biological but biology is insufficient to really understand them… all of those things together, actually may allow us to wrap our mind around these sub microscopic particles that are the most abundant things on planet Earth. That can also kill us sometimes.”
The book is made up of eleven essays, each one weaving a different story relevant to virology: “On Risk,” “On Replication,” and “On Going Viral” may seem like obvious titles in a book about viruses, but “On Private Writing,” “On Mentors,” and “On Whiteness” find their places comfortably in the book, too. The hybrid nature of the text makes its messages vast and expansive; Joe’s ability to collaborate and to parse through dense theory and make it relatable give the book texture and layers that may surprise the casual reader or someone who picks up the book expecting a scientific textbook. In my opinion, it’s a welcome surprise.
“I’m a writer who, you know, if I weren’t making a certain type of reader feel uncomfortable, the book would not be a success,” Joe says. “I want to write science work from the point of view of a scientist that says, hey, scientists do have sex. We are people with emotions, doing science is emotional, we live in a biological world, but also a world that is more than just biological. And all of that needs to be contained within the pages of science texts, if we’re going to be honest about who we are and what we do.”
When I ask Joe how this book came to be, he says very simply: “The book discovered itself every day through the writing and editing process.” He explains that he’s been writing about viruses — mostly HIV — for a decade, but when “the writing was on the wall” in February 2020 with regards to COVID, he couldn’t write.
“I was just doing activism,” he explains, “because I felt like the thing that I could do was use my molecular biology virology expertise. We were in these rooms with city, state, and federal health officials. This was the Trump administration. It was a very difficult political atmosphere… I loved being a resource for people, it made me feel good to be able to help people understand what was going on. And my friend Alex Chee said, well, writing is an extension of that. You know, you don’t have to just help your friends, you can write, and help people understand this moment, who aren’t your friends. And so then I started writing, in addition to activism.”
Mo Crist, the editor of Virology, reached out and asked if Joe had a book. Joe said, yes, a book about viruses, about COVID. No, Mo countered — not about COVID. About viruses. To be honest, perhaps that is why this book feels (at times, unfortunately) truly timeless.
“And then we conceptualized the book together with my agent at the time, and with Mo and with me, doing the collective work of thinking,” Joe says. “It was a community project… it’s my political belief that no book is written by one person. It has one name on the cover, but I really wanted to queer and disrupt that sort of sole ownership.” He is quick to point out his collaborators in this book: He co-wrote the chapter “On War” with Patrick Nathan, he includes the interior worlds and thoughts of his quaranpod mates in the snippets of his COVID journal featured in “On Private Writing,” and one of my absolute favorite chapters, “On Activism and the Archives,” is made up of a lot of archival material including multiple conversations with Steven D. Booth, professional archivist and one of Joe’s dear friends.
And then there is Joe’s community of writers. “Lacy Johnson suggested the order in which the essays find themselves,” he says. “She specifically suggested that the first essay of the book as it is now needed to be the first essay of the book. And so many readers have said that essay introduces the book in the perfect way, and that’s Lacy — that’s not me, nor even my editor — who was so thoughtful about every single word. So it’s really important for me to allow that community of thinkers and makers to be visible so that other people who are writing or younger folks who are writing have that notion that this is how books are made. No capitalist notion of one person crying in their room. I know some people make books that way, but I don’t, and a lot of us don’t.”
While Joe has seen their book in the science section of a bookstore, they say it’s also important to them that the book is situated in its proper queer lineage, too. “I love queering science,” they say. “But I also want to make sure that the book exists in the legacy of queer theory that it was built out of — in the legacy of contemporary queer essayists like Alexander Chee and Hilton Als, the legacy of the poetics of the 80s and 90s that the book is built out of, poetics of folks who were living with or living around or very near to HIV and AIDS, the legacy of queer essayists like Audre Lorde and Susan Sontag, who wrote about bodies and illness from a very explicitly lesbian point of view. The book sits in a literary lineage that does not actually include much science writing. So not not only should the book sit in the science section of the bookstore, but it should carry the science section of the bookstore into the legacy that gave me the tools as a writer to be able to do the work that I tried to do in the book.”
If there is one beating pulse thrumming behind every page, every sentence, every word in this book, it is the value of community care.
When Joe and I talk about life in general, about the ways in which his book can help us all make sense of this moment (just like Alexander Chee suggested to him a couple of years ago), we land on how we’re both coping with the current realities of being alive right now. We compare our masking strategies, we talk about exposures we’ve experienced, we express frustration that the government has told everyone to stop wearing a mask on an airplane. And then we talk about how challenging it can be to spend years avoiding a virus, to really not wish to become infected with the virus, and then to accept the reality if you do become sick, and to find ways to care for yourself and for others around you while not catastrophizing when that is the case.
“That is the mental gymnastics of being alive on a viral planet,” Joe says. “We are being asked to live in an impossible world. Being alive in late capitalism, being alive as so many of the structures that we thought protected us are either being dismantled or shown to never have existed in the first place… it is tension. Living well on a viral warming planet is too much to ask of any person. And yet it is what our circumstances are asking of us. So what do we do but rise to those circumstances? We have paths that we can use those circumstances to make life significantly different. In our wake, significantly better.”
I’m publishing this piece almost one month after my initial Zoom conversation with Joe; the monkeypox outbreak and the government response has not gotten better. It has gotten worse. On Sunday, July 24, Joe tweets: “The queer community’s overall response to monkeypox should be viewed as an example for all. We’ve led by demanding tests, vaccines, and treatments. Since May. When the government failed us, we devised strategies to care for one another even as we continue advocating. We were trained by HIV and COVID work. And were working SO HARD to help people who are sick and to prevent more suffering. We’re tired. But we show up.”
I think about HIV, about COVID, about monkeypox. I think about what viral outbreaks might happen next. I think about what it looks like to care for each other in difficult circumstances. I think about the living, and the dead, and the small things in between. I pick up Virology and I start reading Joe’s essays again. I want to learn how to live in an impossible world while building a better one with the people around me. I know the lessons I need — the lessons we all need — exist in this book.