Science, Viruses, and Stories: A Conversation with Joseph Osmundson
By Joshua RoebkeJuly 14, 2022
Thankfully, I had already been listening to Osmundson for years. Joe the Science Ho, as he also calls himself, is the co-host of Food 4 Thot, which is, probably, the funniest podcast there is about books, culture, identity, and sex. He often plays *ahem* the straight man to his three fellow queer writers — Tommy Pico, Fran Tirado, and Denne Michele Norris — dishing wisdom alongside so many dollops of wit. Impressively, and improbably, his voice on the air — clear, affable, intelligent, uninhibited — matches his voice on the page.
Osmundson crafts precise, vivid stories that braid memoir and criticism, and often incorporate diverse fields of scholarship, from molecular biology to pop art to queer theory. He shows that we need not atomize either our knowledge or ourselves to understand the world.
I met Osmundson this past spring, when I invited him to Austin to speak as part of an author’s series on science and equity, which I had founded at the University of Texas. He marveled and moved us with a reading from his forthcoming book, Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between.
Osmundson taught us that viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 and HIV are not alive but need us, the living, to replicate. He commanded us to live, benevolently, among the living and non-living alike. “Viruses do not want,” he writes. “They are not evil, they don’t invade. They just are. They are a sack of membrane, they are the spike proteins, they are the RNA. They’re an accident. They’re the most abundant things on Earth. No one said life made sense. It makes even less sense the closer you look.”
Osmundson and I sat down for a closer look after his talk. As one does in Austin, we met at a Filipino/Vietnamese food truck where we shared a bottle of pét-nat wine. We talked late into the night, until the owner asked us to leave, about viruses, activism, memory, and our shared love for science, narrative, and truth in all its guises.
JOSHUA ROEBKE: Virology is such a wise, analytical book, and seemingly an artifact of the COVID pandemic. But it is also about how to live with viruses and understand them more generally. When did you begin writing it?
JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: Some of the essays were written as stand-alone pieces early during the COVID crisis. As someone who had expertise in molecular microbiology and was thinking about the pandemic differently from how other people were — through the lenses of queer theory, HIV/AIDS harm reduction, and not stigmatizing our interaction with viruses — I was writing pieces to try to help people. It was the writer Alexander Chee who told me to put words to page when I had not yet given myself permission to. I was doing activist work, and I thought that was enough. Alex convinced me it wasn’t.
Tell us about the activism you were engaged in. You describe some of this work in Virology.
I only really tell two activist stories in the book, although there were many, many other stories I could have included. I worked largely with the COVID-19 Working Group in New York City, an ad hoc group of HIV activists and community health organizations, along with some academics like myself. I’m not able to talk publicly about some of the work I did. But here’s what I can say: every time we got inside information about what was happening with the federal, city, or state response to COVID, it was worse than anyone expected. There was so little action and accountability, exactly as had been the case with HIV. We’re just a bunch of queer activists, and yet we felt like we were holding the federal scientific COVID response together with strings.
One thing that’s not in the book is that David Barr, my colleague in the Working Group, was the first to set up weekly phone calls between Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and a member of the Coronavirus Task Force, and local health departments in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle. There was no communication between local health officials and the federal government before that. None.
Thanks to syndromic surveillance, public health officials in New York City knew that they were seeing COVID in early March 2020. The de Blasio administration didn’t want to take action, however. And there was no pathway to communicate the information to Fauci. So David and others in the Working Group set up a weekly call between the departments of health that had public tracking data and the feds who needed to know that information. Without David Barr, that would not have happened, or at least not as quickly.
I am both shocked and not at all shocked.
Yeah. We were, too. We were shocked it wasn’t happening and grateful to be able to do something about it. But we should not have been the people required to make it happen. If it wasn’t for Fauci’s relationship with David and Peter Staley and others from the ’80s, when they worked together on AIDS, those vital communications would not have existed.
Did your colleagues have a sense, because of their prior experiences during the AIDS epidemic, that the federal response to COVID would be what it was: that many more people than necessary would die because the federal response would be too little, too late?
They weren’t the only ones I imagine.
I make it clear in the book that organizations like Black Health and Latino Commission on AIDS, who are often marginalized in the story and aren’t in the book as much as they should be, also knew the federal response would be inadequate. That the virus would be minoritized, that it would be called the China virus just as AIDS was originally called the Gay-Related Immune Deficiency virus, so that the federal government could justify its inaction and pass the blame.
Those community organizations were founding members of the COVID-19 Working Group NY. And they immediately came to us, the science and epidemiology nerds, to take action: “We need epidemiological expertise on X and Y. We need scientific expertise on X and Y. I need to ask you a question about testing.” They’re the ones connected to their communities. Those aren’t lived stories that I’m able to tell because they aren’t mine. And yet they’re probably the most important stories.
What was your own experience of the pandemic, day-to-day?
It was an absolute restructuring of my social life in ways that remain hard and difficult and painful. But it was also deeply gratifying and even healing to create a pod and help others. A couple of my friends and I all moved to the same neighborhood, and we all adopted dogs. My entire social life revolved around this very small number of people, which became very familial, though we were definitely not a nuclear family. There weren’t kids, but we had our dogs.
I moved in with my partner during the pandemic, and the other two folks in our pod were living on their own. We had different spaces, different homes. And at least once a week, we cooked meals together. We had low-pressure quality time. We could be in one another’s presence and be as active or passive as we wanted. One of the great difficulties of my adult life has been the feeling that the only way to get such relationships is through romantic partnership. The pandemic gave us permission to build those types of familial relationships outside partnerships and the nuclear family.
How did you and your pod manage the risks to yourselves, physically and emotionally, during the worst days?
Obviously, there’s conflict when you’re dealing with long, close relationships. There were endless fights about: Are we on the same page with risk? Are we meeting each other’s emotional needs? Are we being overwhelmed by work and not able to meet each other’s emotional needs? But it felt like a great gift to have chosen to do this together.
We’re all still dealing with the collective grief, the trauma, of watching political choices made by people who did not care for us and one another. I think that people have forgotten that the trauma of COVID and the trauma of Donald Trump’s fascist government are inextricable. That first year of COVID was a gaslit quest for immediate normalcy, and it was overtly racist, against Black and Brown and Indigenous folks in America, and against all sorts of foreign folks, especially from East Asia. I think what happened in this regard has already disappeared from our pandemic memory. It seems we’ve forgotten how the Trump trauma and the pandemic trauma intersected.
You talk a lot about the importance of remembering in the book. A few of the essays are even journal entries or transcripts of conversations you had with friends and colleagues during the pandemic. Did you think of yourself as an archivist when writing?
I was very afraid people would forget. And I wasn’t wrong to be afraid because that’s what we’re seeing now. It’s not just that people want to pretend that COVID is over. I see them not wanting to face the horror of the years we just lived through.
What I know, from being a queer person in the ’80s, and from the folks who were adults in the ’80s, is this: if one forgets the trauma of an epidemic then there is a direct cost to one’s own mental or physical health. Erasure is not an option. Forgetting is not an option. It became very important to me to write in the moment, and then to include raw journal entries in the book.
I wanted to remember. I wanted to ask other people to remember, not in a way that’s self-flagellating, but to suggest that if we don’t do this work, as Alex Chee would say, if we don’t look at the pain, we’re doomed to a much worse fate in the end. There will be an eternal return of unnecessary death and disease. So, in that way, the book was attempting to be an archive. An archive of pain, yes. But also an archive of our love and care for one another in the face of that horror, so an archive of the small moments of pure connection and ecstatic joy we felt, against all odds.
You are a scientist, and so much of your activism was related to the science of the virus, how to research SARS-CoV-2 and test for it. You describe basic microbiology so well in the book, calling DNA a text and teaching us how to read it. “I’m here to read a virus as a text,” you write. I want to talk about science and narrative, but first I have a deceptively simple question, one whose answer, I think, helps us understand something of our predicament: what is science?
It’s an epistemology. It’s a way of knowing. It is not a series of facts but a way of asking questions.
Then, isn’t it also just another story humans tell?
Science doesn’t always conform to narrative devices. I think when we write papers or give a talk, as scientists, we do ask ourselves, “What’s the story?” We are narrativizing the experiments we’ve done in order to communicate a clear message. But everyone who’s ever worked in a lab knows that the vast majority of our experiments fit outside the narratives we craft.
Narrative is neither the sum of the experiments we’ve done nor the sum of our thinking about the questions we’ve asked. There are many questions that are unanswered, and there are many data points unexplained.
Narrative is a way of organizing and communicating scientific thought. But it is not the science itself. It has nothing to do with the epistemology of science. Narrative is not synonymous with making hypotheses and testing them.
Yet a narrative can also be an epistemology, a way of asking or eliciting questions about ourselves. What I like about your writing is that you recognize science as a way of understanding the world, but then you fuck with this idea. You talk to science, you talk of objects scientifically, and you use science as a device for understanding our humanity beyond our cells, to understand our intangibles. You have seemingly turned science into a narrative device, as when you describe the stages of virus replication in your essay and then book Capsid (first published in LARB) and find resonances with your own experience with HIV.
Well, one argument in my new book, Virology, is that a scientific understanding of a virus is necessary, but insufficient. You cannot understand a virus without our best scientific knowledge. But to understand a virus and how we interact with it requires more than scientific knowledge. It requires narrative, it requires history, it requires oral history, it requires queer theory to understand how to live with no future, or a compromised one. It requires our own storytelling. Science itself does not tell a full enough story.
Science is a very powerful epistemology. It saves lives. HIV drugs saved lives, COVID vaccines saved lives, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way of understanding the world and saving lives. And even with the best science, we still have social inequities: lives we don’t deem worthy of saving or mourning once they’re gone, as Judith Butler would put it.
I have this argument with people constantly, that science is not the only way to understand the world. And I similarly argue with them that nonfiction is not the only way to write truth. We need fiction to write our truths, too.
One of my favorite essays, and I will die on the hill of this being an essay, is An Essay on Threat by Anne Carson. It’s never been published in its entirety, although Tin House published the first part of it. She’s done several readings of it, now available on YouTube. When I first saw her read it live at the 92nd Street Y, I was so moved that I wanted to find it, but I couldn’t for nearly 10 years.
In the second part of that long, unpublished essay, a talking crow helps Carson’s narrator solve mysteries and threaten gangsters:
I was eating toast. He seemed to know about toast. I opened the screen door and laid toast on the railing. He moved his eye onto it. We paused.
“That's for you,” I said.
“That's for me,” he said right back.
It should not have surprised me that he could talk. He has four pairs of labia embedded in the muscles of his throat and an auditory midbrain nucleus proportional in size to my own, but the grammar was surprising. How did he learn pronoun function? His voice had cracks in it. Suddenly he hurtled from the tree and toast was gone.
See what I mean? Obviously a talking crow is nonsensical, but she uses actual neuroscience and physiology to explain it. It’s disorienting in the best way. In the talkback on YouTube, she’s asked why she eschewed realism, and she responded, surprised, with the question, “Huh … you don’t think I’m a realist?” The interviewer says, “Excuse me?” and Carson repeats herself three times.
Her essay is the best piece of nonfiction I have ever read precisely because it embraces the use of seemingly absurd, fictional devices to do what I think an essay is meant to do, which is to think very deeply through the world’s imprecision.
In the subgenres of nonfiction, I think of memoir as being largely about storytelling, reportage or profile as being about place or person, lyric as being about the close attention to sentence and line, and the classic essay as being about making an argument. The more modern definition of an essay that I prefer is a thinking through. And, sometimes, you need absurdity to think something through, as Carson did with talking crows.
I’m working on an essay about what it’s like to own a pet, knowing that the pet will die. In that essay are Barbra Streisand’s two female cone dogs, and they have a lesbian affair, with BoJack Horseman–style sex scenes. I needed that seemingly fictional device to think through the impossible thing that I’ve been feeling since I bought a dog. But is it fictional? We don’t know the insides of a dog’s mind. We don’t know that Streisand’s twin cloned dogs don’t hump one another in the soft light of the morning at her Malibu beach house, the Pacific Ocean still as a glass table.
I’m thinking through the grief of owning a pet, and loving that pet so much, and feeling its warm little belly, and knowing that someday I will go to the vet and put that pet down. Fundamentally, it’s an essay to reach a greater truth, one that resists all logic because who would love something so much knowing it will someday be gone?
People often have a narrow view of the sciences, much as they have a narrow view of literature. That’s why the discourse around the nature of truth in nonfiction has always struck me as similar to the discourse around the nature of truth in science. So I’m wondering, what is your personal relationship to truth, either in your science or in your nonfiction?
I think both nonfiction and science are a search for truth, but at their best, they are an understanding that truth is elusive, if it even exists. In both science and literature, one step toward clarity only serves to elicit 10 more questions. So, you make a step, you get some understanding, but then you prepare for the next 10 questions. Really, it’s not about the understanding so much as the questions. To me, writing and science are both epistemologies about process, and about asking questions, not about neat sentences and answers.
So nonfiction need not be true per se so long as it elicits truthful introspection and thoughtful interrogations?
In my book/essay, Capsid: A Love Story, the two endings are mutually incompatible. They cannot both be true, and yet they are. I will die on the grave of those two endings being both true. I needed to write them, because I needed to understand that the value of myself as an HIV-negative and an HIV-positive person is exactly the same. That many of the circumstances of people when they seroconverted were exactly the same as my circumstances, that those people were no different, neither better nor worse, than I was. I needed to be able to be public about the fact that it didn’t matter. So by writing the two, mutually incompatible “truths,” one that was “true” and one that was “not true,” I was able to access something that was true within either one of them, and allowed me to have a deeper understanding of myself in the world, allowed me to then go on and ask other questions about uncertainty and viruses and the living and unliving, which became this book. And maybe that is what we all need to do, especially at this stage of these two pandemics. Inhabit both endings, as it were. Learn how to live in the subjunctive.
That essay, Capsid, feels like the precursor to this one, although it is about HIV rather than COVID.
Well, Capsid was supposed to be in Virology, but we had to remove it for length.
I started writing Capsid on the plane home from The Lambda Literary Writer’s Retreat, where I studied with Randall Kenan, who passed away recently, entirely too young. Randall wrote two books of fiction in the ’90s that are among the best American works of fiction. Not enough people read them.
Randall spent so much of his career elevating the work of others. Along with the other people in the workshop I was in, he gave me permission to start writing Capsid and interrogate what truth is. Randall is also the reason why this book, Virology, literally, exists. It was his editor at Norton, Alane Mason, and her assistant Mo Crist, who acquired the book. It is just devastating that Randall will never have a copy in his hands.
In nonfiction and fiction, we worry so much about who can write what. You and I are both trained scientists who write pieces that include science but also history, art, theory, politics, memoir. In a way, we are trespassing in these fields where we have no formal training. How do you think about expertise when you approach nonfiction?
It’s lovely to write from a point of not knowing. And you quickly learn how much research is required to not know. It’s much simpler to be sure, unequivocal. Knowing! How simple!
The essay can hold a lot. It can hold both facts and uncertainty about those very facts. It can show how they were made and can be unmade. It can describe how we might coexist with our viruses. An essay is a universal form that questions universality.
I don’t think one has to have formal training in any field to gain expertise. ACT UP activists became HIV experts going toe to toe with medical doctors. Because it was their lives on the line.
But I do think deep curiosity and real engagement with the literature are necessary. Reading Judith Butler’s or Michel Foucault’s academic work takes time and patience, but it pays off in new ways of thinking. I’m grateful I gave myself the time and patience. Even if my imposter syndrome makes me question my expertise even in science.
Write what you’re obsessed with, learn enough to do it well, and try not to worry about not knowing everything. Who could? Who would want to? A life with nothing new to learn? I’d want to die on the spot.
What do you think we will remember from the pandemic? What will be the greatest cultural artifact or image for you?
Collectively, at least for the people I know and love, the primary artifact is a very odd one: the Netflix show Cheer, which came out right at the beginning of the pandemic. I think the transition from season one to two of Cheer is going to be a cultural marker for how horrible that moment was, but also how incredible. Season two is literally about the costs of that show and the fame it brought for the people involved, the mental unwellness of both Jerry and La’Darius, the consequences of visibility, and in the case of Jerry, the consequences for the young people he harmed. It has nothing directly to do with the pandemic, but for me it is so emblematic of the life we lived before and during. Not everything that shines is gold.
As for me personally? What image? Well, I drove my partner to Long Island in a Zipcar to watch his grandmother die. This was January 2021. No vaccines yet. It snowed that morning, and the roads were horrible. We dropped off the Zipcar when we got home, and I was wearing my snow boots, but I bit it on the sidewalk, really badly, and ripped a hole in the front of my jeans. My partner laughs at me to this day. But we made it. My partner saw his grandmother alive. She passed minutes after he left, and he was the last family member to see her. She might have passed at the exact moment I fell, cutting my wrist, ripping my pants.
It had snowed so much and we were expecting to drive through the gray sky and the snow, but that winter the sky above New York was blue. I will always remember how blue the sky was. That hole in my pants and that blue sky will always remind me of that day and the pandemic, and of all the love and the death we experienced. And how we tried to care for one another as best we could, driving together to Long Island on a workday to say goodbye.
Joshua Roebke is a writer and historian of science. His first book, a social and cultural history of particle physics, is forthcoming.
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