This review of Borderline Citizen was prepared alongside a podcast conversation about the book with Robin Hemley. Review by Jeremy Bassetti.
In his latest collection of travel essays, Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of Nationhood (University of Nebraska Press 2020), Robin Hemley explores questions of national identity, patriotism, and cosmopolitanism. Borderline Citizen is a collection of bite-sized essays, many of which were first published in other outlets before being collected and edited for this new volume.
The chapters in Hemley’s book take us to Hong Kong amid the 2019 protests to Australia where he recounts the story of an Afghan refugee. We get a glimpse into the politics of resettlement camps near the India-Bangladesh border and into the exclaves/enclaves near the border between Belgium and the Netherlands where “a simple walk through town has one crossing the international border multiple times.” He celebrates (kind of) Guy Fawkes Day in the Falkland Islands and visits with a fugitive on the FBI’s most-wanted list in Cuba.
As such, it is a book that raises more questions than gives answers. What is a patriot? And what does it mean to be one? What, by the way, is a nation? And what does it mean to be a citizen of one? Are our interests really supported and defended by the state we pledge allegiance to?
These are important questions to think about, especially now that the specter of nationalism has not just opened the closet door, but has been creeping around the room and rearranging our things. But also in a time when public discourse has centered upon questions of equitable belonging and inclusion and remembering/forgetting the past, Hemley’s book may help us understand why these conversations are sometimes so difficult.
And now that the world is all but closed to mass tourism, perhaps now is as good a time as any to think more about the reasons why we travel and how we should write about it. Hemley writes, “The traveler in the twenty-first century might do well to recognize his subjectivity, to question his own biases and prejudices, whether conscious or not, might do well to seek to demystify rather than eroticize, and accept that sight is always out of focus, but clearer at least than eyes closed tightly shut.” After all, one part exploration of the new and one part interrogation of the familiar is the nourishing, fulfilling recipe of travel (and travel writing for that matter).