The Assay Interview Project: Robin Hemley
October 24, 2021
Robin Hemley has published fifteen books of fiction and nonfiction. His most recent books are the autofiction, Oblivion, An After-Autobiography (Gold Wake, 2022), The Art and Craft of Asian Stories: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, co-authored with Xu Xi (Bloomsbury, 2021) and Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of Nationhood (Nebraska, 2020, Penguin SE Asia, 2021). He has previously published four collections of short stories, and his stories have been widely anthologized. His widely used writing text, Turning Life into Fiction, has sold over a hundred thousand copies and has been in print for 25 years. His work has been published and translated widely and he has received such awards as a Guggenheim Fellowship, a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, three Pushcart Prizes in both nonfiction and fiction, The Nelson Algren Award for Fiction, The Independent Press Book Award for Memoir, among others. His short stories have been featured several times on NPR’s “Selected Shorts” and his essays and short stories have appeared in such journals as Creative Nonfiction, Conjunctions, Guernica, The Iowa Review, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and many others. He is the Founder of the international nonfiction conference, NonfictioNOW and was the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa for nine years, inaugural director of The Writers’ Centre at Yale-NUS, Singapore, and is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Currently, he is Inaugural Director of the Polk School of Communications at Long Island University-Brooklyn, Co-Director of the MFA in Creative Writing, Parsons Family Chair in Creative Writing, and University Professor. He has had artist residencies at The Bellagio Center at Lake Como, The Bogliasco Foundation, The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, and others.
In Borderline Citizen, Robin Hemley tells vivid, thought-provoking, deeply personal, and sometimes humorous stories of people and places on the margins. He takes us to a “British pub to outdo all British pubs” in the Falkland Islands, a cemetery in a small town in Northern Italy for WWI soldiers whose deaths were “strikingly meaningless,” to a European outpost of Russia in the former German city of Königsberg for Russian Federation Day, and to Omaha, Nebraska to visit one of the world’s largest indoor rainforests. He introduces us to a young Afghan refugee barely hanging on in Australia, an outspoken black nationalist living in exile in Cuba with 32 FBI warrants against her, and a Chinese billionaire whose ornate mansion in his impoverished ancestral village boasts among many classical Chinese statues a “statue of an American soldier, machine gun in hand,” just to cover all the bases. We meet many whose sense of patriotism or nationalism has been strengthened or cut adrift by circumstance and history and who help him make a case for his own multiple sense of belonging.
Julija Šukys and Robin Hemley conducted this interview at a leisurely pace, over the summer months of 2021.
Julija Šukys: Robin, congratulations on this book! Borderline Citizen is a book about enclaves and exclaves, that is territories that are separated from their ‘motherlands’ by another country’s land and borders. You visited Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg), the Baarles, Point Roberts, the Falkland Islands and other similar places. The book examines the push and pull that such territories create in their residents, who appear to have a simultaneous sense of belonging and alienation. Your book also depicts not only the rise of a kind hypernationalism (we see this in the Falklands, in particular) but also notions of hybrid identity. Can you talk a bit about what led you to write such a book? Why enclaves and exclaves in particular?
Robin Hemley: I think my fascination with exclaves in particular began in the 1990s when I lived in Bellingham, Washington and I first heard about Point Roberts, this tiny town of 1500 residents or so, dangling below the 49th parallel off of a Canadian Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest. I was just curious about the place, so I drove there one day with my family. First, we drove twenty miles or so the so-called Peace Arch border in Blaine, Washington and then we had to travel another 45 minutes North to Vancouver and loop back down south until we hit another hard international border between the town of Tsawwassen and Point Roberts. The town seemed almost deserted. That’s because, as I later learned, that about 75% of the homes at least, are owned by Canadians who can only visit Point Roberts six months in a year and who see the town as a vacation spot. It’s much easier for Canadians around Vancouver to visit Point Roberts than it is for US citizens, though Point Roberts is part of Washington State. It’s also a gorgeous spot with great views of water and mountains and so much wildlife, and it’s all because there’s a border there that it’s been preserved. Otherwise, it would just be part of Tsawwassen, which is just one big strip of commerce.
That’s perhaps a long-winded answer, but that’s where my interest in exclaves began, experiencing the little town that exists in a special way because of this seemingly arbitrary border. I was curious how the 4th of July was celebrated there. Much later, I did experience the 4th of July as well as Canada Day three days earlier in Point Roberts and Tsawwassen.
I should add that I’ve always been interested in ideas of patriotism and nationalism, ever since 10th grade when my social studies teacher, Mrs. Spaccarelli, spent a whole semester discussing it and brought us to a mock UN. Even though I’m Jewish, I represented Saudi Arabia. As luck would have it, that week, King Faisel of Saudi Arabia was assassinated by his nephew, and so I was receiving all of these messages of condolence at the Mock UN. I sent a little note to Israel saying “hey, guys, aren’t you going to reach out to us?” and they sent back a really rude note. I mean, I’m Jewish, but I was a little affronted. This was essentially a game of dress up, and I was trying to go against type, to actually learn something about the Saudis. But the other kids were like the adults, unwilling to look beyond their narrow sense of identity. Why even attend a Mock UN. in that case? That’s to say that my interest in exclaves and my interest in nationalism fit hand in glove.
I remember taking a ferry from Tsawsassen to the Gulf Islands and passing through American waters very briefly because of the jog in the border around Vancouver Island. Until recently, Canadians of my generation and earlier ones always had such a porous sense of the border. Most of us lived within a day’s drive of the border, so we used to cross into the US for cheap gas on road trips or to go shopping back in the 1990s, back when the only ID you needed was a driver’s license and lines were short. That’s all changed since 9/11, and now, since the pandemic hit, even more so. I’ve read that Point Roberts has been completely cut off since the Covid-related border closure in the spring of 2020.
Part of the story of Borderline Citizens is about how open or closed certain enclaves truly are. I really enjoyed your chapter on Kaliningrad, for example. My family (on my father’s side) comes from the far Western border region of Lithuania that bumps up against the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad (what used to be East Prussia). A few years ago, I was visiting Lithuania and went for a walk along the river that marks the border between Lithuania and Russia/Kaliningrad. No trace of the magnificent cathedral that used to stand just across the water remains. The war and Soviet occupation devastated that territory completely, and the once-German region consequently changed character, language and population almost overnight. From my point of view, from over the river in Lithuania, I got the impression of Kaliningrad as somehow hermetically sealed. There I was, standing at its edge, looking in, but without any sense of what lay beyond the handful of meters I could see. I know from my family and from historical photographs and oral histories that this particular border too was once porous. Back in the 20s and 30s, people used to walk across into East Prussia to sell and buy wares, but no more. Not without passports, visas, and the watchful eyes of the Russian military.
What are your thoughts on open vs. closed exclaves and enclaves? Which ones have you experienced as porous or the opposite? Is there such a thing as an open enclave?
Yes, Kaliningrad is a rather stark example of the downside of exclaves. But it some ways that goes to my point – I’m something of a realist when it comes to land. Whatever Kaliningrad once was, it’s no more, and that’s always been the way of things. The destruction of historic buildings, ethnic cleansing, and so on is of course horrible. No number of weeping German tourists (they’re almost all gone now) who remember East Prussia, will bring it back, except in its kitschiest form as a kind of sanitized tourist zone with reproductions of historic buildings. I didn’t find Kaliningrad ugly or sad, but fascinating in its complete transformation from a Prussian enclave to a Russian one. One reason it’s so closed off is because of its strategic importance as a military zone for the Russians. They’ve got all kinds of nuclear weapons there as well as the Baltic fleet. When the place was part of the Soviet Union, there was no going there at all for most outsiders.
Baarle Hertog and Baarle Nassau are the best examples I know of open enclave/exclaves. This is a patchwork of international territory of Belgium and the Netherlands within two towns that are in essence one town. Take a stroll through downtown and you’ll cross international borders several times. The border cuts through the city hall and even through one front door. Every time you cross a border, it’s marked in the sidewalk or in some other fashion. Of course, it’s a curiosity, a tourist attraction in an otherwise average town of the region. These little enclaves were created as the result of some pretty technical feudal agreements having to do with Dukes and Lords and taxable land versus non-taxable land. The border was porous for most of its history, except during World War I, when the neutral enclaves of the Netherlands drove the German military crazy and was responsible for countless civilian deaths because of electric fences. In World War II, the enclave distinctions didn’t concern the Germans as they had conquered both Belgium and the Netherlands. The advent of the European Union made the borders moot as well, but in a more positive way. No one is going to ask for your passport when you go for a stroll.
There were some other enclaves I visited that didn’t quite make it into the book, but are fascinating to me nonetheless. One is the Exclave of Oman called Madha in the United Arab Emirates. I drove there with a friend through the Western Desert and as soon as we reached Madha, the architecture changed to traditional Omani. There were no border checks. A few miles further into the mountains and we came to a counter exclave of the UAE within Madha. Here, there was a police station and a convenience store and not much else. I purchased a UAE flag in the convenience store as a remembrance.
I also visited the Spanish exclave of Ceuta in North Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar. Ceuta and its sister city Melilla, have been part of Spain since the days of the battles between the Spanish and the Moors. Morocco claims these two cities just as Spain claims Gibraltar. Gibraltar, Ceuta and Melilla are not places you can just stroll into. The border of Ceuta with Morocco was a bit of a mess from my perspective, with lines of people from Northern Africa and elsewhere waiting in long lines.
One thing about exclaves is that they all have eccentricities that are pretty fascinating. In Ceuta, women and only women from North Africa visit Ceuta in the morning and leave in the evening carrying enormous loads of goods under their garments, to be sold in Morocco. They’re allowed to bring with them as much as they can carry in their clothes.
I went to Ceuta on a day trip with my mother when I was 14! I’ve been digging through my family archives – literally thousands of photographs – and I just came across those images the other day. I had no idea that there was a gendered entry to the place. How fascinating.
Two chapters in the book struck me in the ways that they take a step away from the central theme of enclaves and exclaves and consider notions belonging, home, and identity from a different perspective. One is “Close Calls with a Potentially Violent Felon in Cuba,” which is pretty much as it sounds, that is, your meeting in Cuba with an American fugitive or exile. The second is “Mr. Chen’s Mountain” – a kind of portrait of a fabulously wealthy Chinese businessman who could live anywhere in the world but who chooses to return to his home city and build his mansion there. His is a story of rootedness in some sense. Talk a little about these two chapters and their place in the book.
Ah, so you’ve been to Ceuta. I think I had never heard of it fifteen or so years ago, but now it’s constantly in the news, as are a number of the exclaves and enclaves I write about in my book. This is in part a result of Covid (Point Roberts was cut off completely, I believe, and might still be even more isolated because of the cessation of border crossings between the US and Canada) and Ceuta has been in the news a lot because of the constant and burgeoning migrant and refugee crises playing out worldwide, but writ small in Ceuta.
As for those other two chapters, it became clear to me as I was writing the book that it wasn’t only going to be about exclaves and enclaves, though they play a major role. It’s as much about the notion of belonging as anything else. For that reason, I write about a refugee from Afghanistan, a fugitive in exile in Cuba, and a super Chinese patriot. I have been interested in how we all become exclaves of our countries, in a sense, when we leave them. While Nehanda Abiodun (the American revolutionary who was wanted by the FBI on numerous counts) had left the States decades before, there was still a connection that was undeniable. I saw this in the many American medical students studying in Cuba whom she “adopted” during their stay. Or the Hazara refugee I met in Sydney who still felt connected to Afghanistan through his family and community, though he hated Afghanistan. Or Mr. Chen who had left his impoverished home village only to return to bring the wealth of the world back home. To me, he was a kind of exclave nonetheless. His mansion was so out of place and so apart from his neighbors that it was almost another country that they rarely, if ever, visited. So, in short, I was trying to extend the notion of exclave and enclave in a metaphorical sense.
The pandemic keeps coming up in our conversation, which is natural, I suppose. For people who love to travel and whose lives have until now crossed borders regularly and radically, these past 18 months have been disorienting. You write in the book about your somewhat unorthodox familial arrangement: when you moved to Singapore, for example, your wife stayed behind in the United States. Have these last 18 months shifted your thinking on border crossings, travel, and loving people across vast distances? How does this book look to you now that we’ve been (as my grandmother used to say) nailed to the ground for so long? Are you itching to travel again or have you made a sort of peace with stillness and staying-in-place?
I’m not sure if “made my peace” with staying still is the right characterization, though I didn’t resist the lack of travel during the pandemic at all, and for the most part I didn’t miss it all that much. Like so many writers with books out at the time, I had to cancel a bunch of overseas trips. I was supposed to address a conference on nationalism in Edinburgh and that was cancelled. Out of all my trips, that was the one that saddened me the most because I have never been to Edinburgh and I’ve always heard so much about it.
In some ways, I stopped border crossings during the pandemic and in other ways, I crossed new borders. It was a lucky thing that I was on leave from my job in Singapore right before the pandemic hit, or I would likely be stranded in Singapore with no access to my family (they had moved back to the States before me) during this entire time. I have one former colleague in Singapore who is still trying to get back to Singapore, but he’s not a citizen so he can’t return yet.
I was fortunate in that I landed a new job in New York City, the place of my birth. It was a crazy time to move and find a new job, but I managed. While I was still separated from my family, it was not a big distance at all comparatively, and I spent much of my time back in Iowa with my family, teaching remotely. Now that things are opening up, I’ve been exploring the city I left when I was five and crossing borders into my personal past. I recently discovered some letters from my grandmother to my grandfather (who died as a young man, forty years before my birth). He was a podiatrist and the stationery he used had his office address on it. The office turned out to be an eight-minute walk from my apartment in Brooklyn. So, I went to say a metaphorical hello to my grandfather and found the address. It’s a two-story building – on the bottom floor is a Shake Shack and, on the top, remarkably, is a medical clinic, and one of its specialties is podiatry. So, moving back to NYC has brought me back to some borders I thought I had left behind many years earlier.
Much of the pandemic, I spent walking in the woods with my wife, hunting mushrooms, cooking and baking for my family, and enjoying domestic pleasures. Living in two places suits my personality (I’m a Gemini!), and my family love to visit in New York as I love to return to Iowa City. This summer, we’re taking our first trip since the pandemic as a family—flying to Paris and then spending a week in Normandy. I personally would be happy to just stay put right now, but my daughter just graduated high school and the airfare was my present to her. Somehow, this graduation gift turned into a family vacation – and frankly, I’m not entirely sure how that happened. But everyone in my family, not just me, has the travel bug.
In addition to Borderline Citizen, what are three books of travel writing or work that thinks about place, borders, and belonging that you would recommend?
I have long loved Jan Morris’ beautiful book, Trieste, about the Italian port city that was once a major port of the Austro-Hungarian empire but is now a bit of an Italian backwater. She very subtly tells a fascinating history of the city and her own frequent travels there. In telling of her love for this city with a fluid identity, she creates a kind of metaphor for her own gender transition.
I also very much admire the work of Stephanie Elizondo Griest, whose most recent book, All the Agents and Saints, looks at border issues along the northern and southern borders of the US. Griest grew up on the southern border and also taught near the northern border with Canada. She writes of migrants on the southern border as well as the Wall and she also writes about the Iroquois Nation’s struggles up north. Like me, she’s exploring the artificiality of borders and the tragedies created by them.
I also deeply admire Katherine Boo’s stunning book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, in which she embedded herself for several years in a Mumbai squatters' slum and brought to life the people and the horrible circumstances in which they live. It’s a true achievement.
Robin, thank you for this wonderful exchange and for writing a book that allowed me to travel in my imagination. It came at exactly the right moment for me. Here’s to crossing borders in reality soon, I hope! And in the meantime, in the imagination.
Thank you, Julija!. I loved pondering your thoughtful questions, and I appreciate your interest in the book.
Senior Editor Julija Šukys is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where she teaches the writing of creative nonfiction. She is the author of three books, including Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning and Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaite. Epistolophilia won the 2013 Canadian Jewish Book Award for Holocaust Literature. She also directs the Missouri Audio Project.
For Further Reading