The Relativity of Living Well


Ashna Ali’s poetic memoir The Relativity of Living Well documents the experience of surviving infection with COVID-19 the period of quarantine between March and July 2020 as a queer immigrant of color public school teacher in New York City. These poems bear witness, holler rallying cries, and interrogate the roles, capacities, and needs of the individual within larger social fabrics afflicted by both pandemic and by imperialist capitalist logics of exploitation. These are poems of critique, of grief, and of the darkly absurd quotidian we have normalized in the face of structural failure.


Ashna Ali

Raised in Italy and based in Brooklyn, Ashna Ali is a queer agender Bangladeshi poet, writer, researcher, and educator. They are invested in community co-creation, advocacy, and cultural activism around social justice issues through art and education. Their poetry and research explore issues of postcolonial migration and diaspora, gender and queer justice, critical race theory, disability and chronic illness, prison abolition, and narrative documentary practices in poetry and visual art. They serve as Assistant Professor of Literature at Bard High School Early College Manhattan and live with their sphynx familiar, Kubo. Twitter: @doctordushtu Instagram: @doctordushtu

“This is not about me,” writes Ashna Ali, and “Here. Taste this.” I see the poems in The Relativity of Living Well as compassionate and fervent calls to arms in a time where so much seems ungrounded and uncertain. Ali reminds us to consider the borders where the individual meets the collective, and where the collective meets the larger global world. It is in those spaces, they suggest, that the radical work of living must occur: through the everyday act of not just breaking bread, but also making it. Reader, I trust you to relish and cherish these tender and precise ruminations as I do.

Tarfia Faizullah, author of Seam and Registers of Illuminated Villages

Ashna Ali is Distinguished Professor of Grief in The Relativity of Living Well, a short collection that traces the first months of the pandemic in New York City. These poems instructively plunge deep into the consequences and costs of the US-American obsession with productivity. What’s more, Ali teaches the reader to analyze the gestures of our fellow grieving citizenry. “What if not a single medical worker hears the 7pm clamor?” If skeptical, their read is honest to the core. “I have to call things by their names before they ooze back together.” They expose the despair inherent in working through a serious illness in a city hard-struck by not just the virus, but bureaucratic jockeying and governmental gaslighting that prizes optics over human life. It’s an important work of documentation, particularly in 2021’s rush to get back to normal in the wake of catastrophe--after which, for so many, normal is forever lost.

Krystal Languell

“The Relativity of Living Well” cascades of heart sunken and spirit trying! Ashna Ali conjures a spectrum of emotions which poignantly survive the empire. Brimming in reportage, memoir, and exploration, these stanzas harness daily sinew of a landscape in crisis. Ali delivers humor, reflection, pain, and peril with staggering texture. They ask us in the swell of racial injustice, “Have you learned yet? The difference between fireworks and gunshots?” How deliberate, vulnerable, gut wrenching! As a Queer, Muslim, and Bangladeshi educator, Ali has gifted us a nuanced poetry debut —incredible and dismantling.

Kay Ulanday Barrett, 2021 Barbara Gittings Stonewall Honor Book & 2021 Lambda Literary Finalist Award-winning author of More Than Organs

What forms—of work, of love, of living, of language—can and will sustain us? Ashna Ali’s diaristic poems, written through the spring and into the summer of 2020, trace both the systemic failures of government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and the acts of community support and survival that flourished in the face of these failures. These poems find tenderness in “new ways of saying we like each other / alive”: a student wiping a teacher’s desk with bleach, a lover brewing tea, a Zoom seminar, a demonstration in defense of Black Trans Lives. These survival strategies, Ali reminds us, are beautiful, but are not a distraction from the witnessing and rage this moment calls for. “This is America,” they write: “There’s no room for grief we can’t sell.”

MC Hyland


Ashna Ali’s The Relativity of Living Well is presented as part of our evolving Autonomous Document Initiative and was produced collaboratively using the OS Open Access Design Protocol — Learn more / find these tools and so many others at our Open Resource Hub / Library! 

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