The Portal

2 friends, 100 letters, and 3 years that changed everything

by Chi Rainer Bornfree and Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

Will we return to the broken world? Or make a new one?

Represented by Kanishka Gupta

Foreword by Kiese Laymon

I’m trying to remember the time of day I started reading The Portal. I know I was in Houston. I know it was last semester. I know there was no sun in the sky. I remember my feet being cold. Most of all, it was the last time I asked the question, “What are we doing with this pandemic, other than trying, by all means necessary, to forget it?” I’ve been reading and rereading and feeling and fighting The Portal ever since that time of day I somehow cannot remember.The Portal is necessary and devastating, at once singularly and utterly communal, and not just because we all experienced Covid in some way, but more because many of us have experienced attempting to hold on to someone while the world loses its breath. This book is a friend work. Love work. Heart work. A dynamic multivalent ceremony that never stops and refuses spectacle.But I’d like to posit something else. I have a hard time remembering when I start the handful of novels that live in my body. Song of Solomon, for example, I have no clue the time of day I started that book. Sing Unburied Sing, same. I have no clue the time of day I started this triumph. Those two books, and now The Portal, seemed to be reading me long before I decided to read them. I am not suggesting that we read The Portal as a novel. I am saying that it will read you, patiently, gently, forcibly, mysteriously, and playfully, as only novels can.There is no higher praise for this book. It is real. It is true. It is fiction. And it is absolutely as honest a book as I’ve ever read. Friendship, a site that has been brutalized by bad art, brutal policy and corporate architects, is revisited and really unleashed here in a way that saved the book I’m writing and actually saved the body writing the book.Ragini and Chi have made the novel I’ve been waiting a lifetime for, and I don’t think they’d even call it a novel. I like that. I cannot wait to see what you allow the book to call you.May we all remember.Kiese Laymon
October 19th, 2023


About this book

The Portal is the true, real-time, story-in-letters of how C and R transformed their lives but stayed friends through the Covid 19 pandemic.When we started writing, we were both parents, professors, and friends. But over three years of correspondence, we ended up fighting for different worlds. From the beginning, C took a hardline “Covid Zero” approach to the virus, while R, careful but pragmatic, slowly returned to the world. In New York, C quit academia, adopted non-binary pronouns, distanced from family, and built a Covid-safer community. Meanwhile, from Arizona R whipped herself into a better job in another state and resumed an international lifestyle, continuing to mask wherever she went.These letters are our honest attempt to reckon with our choices and our historical moment, with our love and our differences. Through our ordinary lives, we recorded what the first years of the Covid pandemic were, what they meant -- and why the political elite want us to forget what we learned from living through it.

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-- Ragini and Chi

About the Authors

Chi Rainer Bornfree and Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan met as students at U.C. Berkeley, where they both earned PhDs in Rhetoric.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is an assistant professor of English and Transnational Asian Studies at Rice University, where she is finishing Overdetermined, a book on the pedagogy of Indian English literature, and a book of essays, What is ‘We’? She is a co-editor of Thinking with an Accent: Toward a New Object, Method, and Practice (University of California Press, 2023), and an award-winning journalist and former magazine editor with bylines in over four dozen scholarly and public venues, including online at the New Yorker, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Public Books.

Chi Rainer Bornfree is a writer, philosopher, and activist. They have taught at Bard, Princeton, and NY State Correctional Facilities, co-founded the Activist Graduate School, and lived around the world. They have published a number of essays in The Philosopher (UK), and currently organize a branch of the Covid Underground in the Hudson Valley. They are working on a sci-fi novel (Not Normal), a philosophical chapbook (How to Change the World), and a short story collection (The Self and Other Fables).

African American woman wearing red face mask to protect herself and others

Advance Praise for The Portal

“I really feel like I got sucked into the portal with C and R. Such a story that unfolded. So much to it. So many layers. So much drama. Quite amazing. Made me feel rather parochial, and let's face it, staggeringly ill-informed and complacent about the pandemic.”—Anthony Morgan, editor, The Philosopher

“What C and R have written will never not be relevant. Mournfully.”—Brandon Shimoda, author of The Grave on the Wall, The Desert, Hydra Medusa

“A record of friendship, a novel in letters, a penetrating investigation of identity and risk, a manifesto for a more just and caring world. Bornfree and Srinivasan’s uniquely intimate and beautifully written co-authored memoir is all of this and more. With The Portal the authors register the shock of the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 – then both enact and reflect upon the resulting cultural schisms and emotional waves that followed. Rather than transporting us to an imaginary elsewhere, this portal takes us on a deep dive through the many layers of our contemporary moment, ultimately allowing us not only to recognize the stoppages but also to reinvent the possibilities that are (always, even if unseen) open to us within it.”—Johanna Skibsrud, author of The Sentimentalist, The Nothing that Is, Island, Fool