When I look at this month’s Books Newsletter, all I can think about are borders, crossings, the terrible distances between people who have been separated….
Of course, that’s almost certainly because those things are already on my mind. To read the news now is to be made aware of the perils and punishments reserved for people who have their heart set on something remote, who have faith in the faraway.
Qiu Miaojin, the first openly gay woman in Chinese literature, migrated halfway around the world, from Taiwan to Paris. In her second novel she writes of a character who has done the same, in a bid for self-actualization which ultimately fails. The character invents a non-binary imaginary friend to live out an idealized version of her life after she ceases to exist. As our reviewer Ankita Chakraborty says of this narrator, “She is willing to cross boundaries that define reality from imagination, woman from man, landscape from landscape, and life from death.” A profound sense of alienation, brought on by stigmatization, lies as the heart of Qiu’s queer classics — a breach that opens up between the self and others. The narrator crosses borders in order to become her true self, but ends up feeling like nothing more than a foreigner in a foreign land.
Of course, there’s feeling like a foreigner in a foreign land, and then there’s feeling like one in your homeland. Our reviewer Brittany Allen writes about two new short story collections that explore the inner lives of black Americans. The characters in these stories, “who tremble on the faultlines, and struggle to inhabit comfortably their impossible bodies,” suffer from the lived experience of “Otherhood,” which compels them to wage endless war inside their own heads, with their own selves.
In his interview with Hope Reese, Michael Pollan advocates for ditching the self altogether. He describes the healthy and grounding experience of seeing his own self “spread over the landscape like a coat of paint.” In his experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, he discovered that:
I wasn’t necessarily identical to my ego, which I had always assumed was the case. And that, you know, your ego is this interesting character. I mean, it really is a character. It’s a projection of someone who sort of stands for you and looks out for you and patrols the borders between you and others, and the border between you and your subconscious.
In his interview with Tobias Carroll, Sergio De La Pava expresses the opposite sentiment, a niggling fear that he might ever be mistaken for someone else, even the person most nearly identical to him who could possibly exist — a “Sergio De La Pava” in another dimension:
If there’s something in another universe that looks like me, has my name, that other people call Sergio De La Pava and is doing something, that’s great, but whatever that thing is, it’s not me… Whatever you want to say my physical body or whatever you want to call it — a mind, you want to call it, a soul, whatever you want to call it — it feels indivisible.
I suppose I’ve drifted from the subject of borders and crossings to the subject of selves and others. Maybe that’s because when I think about borders, I don’t think about the gaps between places, I think about the spaces between people. Nowadays, a border isn’t a division between two pieces of land, it’s a border between two people, repeated and repeated until every small trauma of division becomes a national one. It’s a way of dictating who gets to visit whom, who gets to live with their family and who gets their family taken away. It’s a global parole system, the prisonification of the planet….. The border is everywhere. The border is between you and the pizza delivery guy, you and your high school classmate, you and your child….
Like any border — the ones between nations, the ones between ourselves and others, ourselves and the landscape — even the boundary between our bodies is not a natural phenomenon, but an imagined one. Our bodies are porous. In novelist Christie Watson’s memoir of her nearly 20 years as a nurse, she remembers her awe at the special privilege of surgeons, who can reach a hand into another person’s body and touch that person’s heart. When caring for a boy who has received a heart transplant, whose beating heart she watched be removed and replaced with another child’s, the boy tells her that now he loves a new flavor of ice cream, strawberry, because he believes the previous owner of his heart had loved it. It seems to me like he was welcoming the stranger inside of him, by trying to love with the stranger’s heart — something we all fail to do at our own peril. In the next life, we may find ourselves wanderers on the wrong side of another type of border. As Watson goes on to say:
Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart symbolized truth; after death, they would weigh the heart against a feather of truth, to be eaten by a demon if the scales did not balance, leaving the person’s soul restless for eternity. In this post-truth world, I wonder what will happen to our souls. We have nothing to weigh our hearts against.