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La Jolla Historical Society and local writers help give San Diego its version of ‘Decameron’ pandemic stories

Actors will read the stories judged the top 10 in the San Diego Decameron Project in a virtual ceremony Friday, Feb. 26.
(San Diego Decameron Project)

Winning entries in a writing contest will be preserved as a record of the COVID-19 experience here.

Around 1350, with Europe in the throes of the bubonic plague, a book of stories called “The Decameron” captured something of what it was like in Florence, Italy — the devastation, the fear, the resolve, the hope.

In 2021, with the world struggling through another pandemic, a new collection of stories aims to chronicle what it has felt like in San Diego.

The San Diego Decameron Project includes a hundred stories written by county residents as part of a contest organized by the La Jolla Historical Society, San Diego Public Library, Write Out Loud and San Diego Writers, Ink. The collection went online Feb. 16 with different groups of stories on the organizers’ websites and will be published in book form later this year. They also will be added to the library’s digital archive.

Some of the tales are by published authors, others by scientists, educators, lawyers and business executives. Some are fiction, some not. Some are sad, some funny, some a little of both.

All speak to this upending moment in time, almost 12 months long and counting.

“Future researchers will have a field day,” said Marc Chery, supervisor in the humanities section of the Central Library and one of the project directors. “They’ll be able to read what San Diegans thought and did during the pandemic — the weird things, the good things, how we nurtured each other. And they’ll find some really good writing.”

The stories were limited to 1,000 words. Genre, tone and content were left up to each author, although poetry (considered too far afield from the “Decameron” inspiration) was banned. The only other requirement was that the piece “be based loosely around the theme of the current pandemic.”

From isolation, stories

“The original ‘Decameron’ captures the moment of the plague as it sweeps through Europe, and it has been influential in literature ever since,” said Heath Fox, executive director of the La Jolla Historical Society. “It’s perhaps the most famous collection of short stories in history.”

In his 14th-century book, author Giovanni Boccaccio gathers 10 young people in a villa outside Florence. They have gone into quarantine, fleeing what later became known as the Black Death, a plague that by some modern estimates wiped out 60 percent of Europe’s population.

Those in isolation in the villa pass the time by telling stories, one per person per day, for a total of 100 tales.

They address the plague obliquely, escaping the horrors with bawdy humor in the early going. They sing and eat. They muse about how to get rid of a corpse.

But as they talk about other things — love, fortune, willpower — the tone gradually shifts. They share stories of people who overcame tragedy to find happiness. Stories of people who faced cruelty and injustice with courage and dignity.

By the time they leave the villa, something like hope is in the air. And a will to live.

Fox got the idea for a local Decameron project after seeing one published by the New York Times in July. It featured stories by 29 prominent authors, including Margaret Atwood, Edwidge Danticat, David Mitchell, Esi Edugyan, Charles Yu, Laila Lalami and Tommy Orange, and was later turned into a book.

Fox asked Veronica Murphy, artistic director of Write Out Loud, if she was interested, and they brought the library and Writers, Ink on board. The organizers began soliciting stories in the fall.

“The thing that is so astonishing to me is that the stories we got are so very different,” Murphy said. “We talk about how we are all in this together, and that’s certainly important, but the truth is, while we are in it together, our experiences are very different.”

One of the stories selected for the collection came from J.A. Jensen, whose COVID-19 experience has included riding a bus regularly from the University Town Center area to La Jolla, where he works in a bookstore.

“I think the bus is the perfect microcosm of the wider community and what it’s going through,” Jensen said. “You see all kinds of people on the bus, all kinds of situations.”

J.A. Jensen wrote "The Bus Ride" for the San Diego Decameron Project.
( San Diego Decameron Project)

In “The Bus Ride,” readers meet a dozen characters. The driver who is separated from the passengers by plexiglass. Two homeless vets who climb aboard outside the VA hospital and try to decide whether to party with a friend burning through his stimulus check. Three college students headed to the beach instead of campus because classes are canceled. Two house maids lamenting that the virus has kept their employers at home and in their way.

“They’re all based on actual people I’ve seen on the bus,” Jensen said.

One of them is a young man with developmental disabilities who rides to work every day. He’s kept an upbeat attitude throughout the pandemic, Jensen said, still saying hello, still smiling.

Still trying.

Anna Glynne, author of "The Sea is a Deceitful Thing."
Anna Glynne, author of “The Sea is a Deceitful Thing.”
(San Diego Decameron Project)

Also among the stories is “The Sea is a Deceitful Thing” by Anna Glynne of La Jolla, who writes how she reluctantly agreed to her husband’s proposal that they devote their stay-at-home time to becoming better people. The effort proves somewhat harrowing for her.

Allen Tu is the author of "Tis the Season."
Allen Tu is the author of “Tis the Season.”
(San Diego Decameron Project)

In “Tis the Season,” Allen Tu, a 12th-grader at La Jolla Country Day School, writes that the season of cherries, his favorite fruit, was “the only part of the summer that stayed the same while the world swirled around me.”

Picking winners

About 170 people submitted stories. The organizers gathered the stories, redacted the authors’ names and then sent them to 25 judges, all of them writers.

Each story was read by multiple judges, who gave it a score based on a variety of factors: character, setting, plot development. The 100 stories with the top scores made it into the final collection. (Two stories ended up with the same score, so there are actually 101.)

The organizers then took the 20 highest-scoring stories and had them judged again, resulting in a top 10 that will be revealed in a virtual ceremony at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26. Actors from Write Out Loud will read the stories.

The event is free, but registration is required through the organizers’ websites.

“The Decameron Project is an important archive to capture our city’s stories during the pandemic,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said in a statement when the stories were posted online. “As a history major myself, I deeply appreciate that these pieces feature events both big and small as a permanent record of San Diegans’ tragic and uplifting moments during this unprecedented time.”

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.