Walls and Fences: A Reading List

In a 2012 piece, Paul Theroux recounts a visit to Nogales, Arizona, which borders the city of Nogales in Sonora, Mexico. He is fixated on the fence that divides the two and asks: “Do you go through, or stay home?”

We build fences and erect walls to keep things in, or to keep people out. But walls and fences can represent much more: political uncertainty, writer’s block, or a childhood lived in a city cut in half, like Berlin. These reads explore walls and fences as physical borders, but also things we’ve built in our minds.

1. “Fences: A Brexit Diary.” (Zadie Smith, The New York Review of Books, August 2016)

“When everyone’s building a fence, isn’t it a true fool who lives out in the open?” Zadie Smith reflects on the state of Britain after the Brexit vote.

2. “Homesick for Sadness.” (Jenny Erpenbeck, The Paris Review, November 2014)

“This was where the world came to an end. For a child, what could be better than growing up at the end of the world?” Having spent her childhood in East Berlin, Erpenbeck reflects on the Wall’s mundane presence for people of her generation, born into a world where it had always existed.

Read more on the walls of Berlin.

3. The Country Just Over the Fence. (Paul Theroux, The New York Times, February 2012)

“The fence, which I discovered is less than three miles long, had hidden all of this—the downtown, the factories, the restaurants, the residential subdivisions, the mall, the migrants, sad stories, happy stories.” Theroux crosses the fence that divides Nogales, Arizona, from Nogales, Mexico.

4. “The Walls We Build Around Us.” (Nick Rowlands, Medium, July 2013)

After a short absence, a former tour leader and travel writer returns to Cairo in the aftermath of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011. But as he wanders the streets downtown, amid the chaos and confusion, he discovers he has forgotten how to write.

5. At the Border, You Either Want ‘The Wall’ or Know Why It’ll Never Happen. (John H. Richardson, Esquire, May 2016)

Richardson travels the length of the border between the U.S. and Mexico in search of Donald Trump’s America—and learns to stop worrying and love the wall.