We Are All Enclaves Now: An Interview with Robin Hemley

Anna Weir is a publicist at UNP at home.

Photo courtesy of author

Robin Hemley is the author of numerous books, including Invented EdenReply All: StoriesA Field Guide for Immersion WritingNolaTurning Life into Fiction; and Do-Over! He has won many awards for his writing, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and three Pushcart Prizes, as well as residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, the Bogliasco Foundation, the Fine Arts Work in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, and others.  

Hemley’s latest book is Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of Nationhood (March 2020), which is a travelogue, memoir, and reportage all in one, probing the arbitrariness of borders and nationhood. I asked him a few questions regarding travel and borders as they become anything but arbitrary in the wake of COVID-19.

AW: As travel restrictions continue in the wake of the novel coronavirus—both globally and within our own communities—what is something you as a travel writer hope to share with readers?   

RH: I don’t want to be glib but a book of travel stories might be a good antidote to cabin fever.  One of my chapters is about the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which is separated from Russia by Lithuania and Poland. Before the end of WWII, when Russia captured it, Kaliningrad was Konigsberg, a city in East Prussia and birthplace to philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was famously a homebody. He hardly ventured out of Konigsberg his entire life, but he loved travel books and even devised a treatise on “universal hospitality,” which imagined a world in which all travelers were welcome as long as they behaved themselves.   

Beyond this, I hope to show readers how nations are relatively new constructs and how borders are imaginary and artificial, and sometimes absurd in their placement. I hope that the essays in my book will introduce readers to some of the odder examples of bordered territories, such as Baarle Nassau and Baarle Hertog, twin towns on the Belgian/Netherlands border, a patchwork of territory that sees the international border running through someone’s front door and through the city hall and in other crazy places. These stories, I hope, will not only amuse readers (there’s humor as well as tragedy around borders), but will also create an opportunity for reflection on the ways borders affect them.  Certainly, in extraordinary situations like the one we find ourselves in now, we are all in some ways enclaved in our own families, unable to cross into the familiar territory of our ordinary lives.   

AW: The spread of COVID-19 has been classified as a pandemic, ignoring borders and nationalities. As the problem extends beyond borders, how should we consider solutions across borders? 

RH: I think we can see this as a cautionary tale for future generations—the only solutions to global crises are global responses, and of course it’s the scientists who are driving cooperation between nations. Nationalism is a barrier to any solutions, as is casting blame against any country. Before the pandemic sidelined travelers such as me, I was slated to go to Cambodia and Vietnam to report on international cooperation efforts to stamp out Japanese encephalitis in Asia, or “Brain Fever” as it’s sometimes called, a disease that affects up to 70,000 people a year, kills up to 30% of those it affects, and causes severe and irreversible neurological effects in half the survivors, including paralysis, the inability to speak, and seizures. A vaccine for JE has existed for some time, and I remember getting it in 1999 when I first traveled to the Philippines for a story I was reporting on.  The problem with the vaccine was that it cost hundreds of dollars and needed three doses. An organization known as PATH found a one-dose vaccine that was much more affordable being produced in China. Teaming up with the Gates Foundation and countries across the region, PATH has helped vaccinate 300 million children in the region (JE is found in an area of 3 billion people) and saved countless lives as a result. They could not have done any of this without the cooperation of the manufacturer, China, or the other countries in the region. This, to me, is a model example of how a health crisis should be handled, though ironically, I’m sidelined and unable to report fully on it until we get through this pandemic, an example of a way that a health crisis shouldn’t be handled.  Finger-pointing and racist blame games only ratchet up fear and misinformation.   

AW: In your introduction to Borderline Citizen, you discuss the love of individuals over the love of collectives or nations. How can we care for one another both individually and corporately during this time? 

RH: I don’t have the kind of bullhorn that others do in this situation, and I don’t believe I’m qualified to dispense advice for everyone. But I know how I’ve responded so far to this—I’m viewing this moment as a kind of time out. A terrifying time out. In effect, the world, fate, what-have-you, has put us all in our respective corners and asked us to reflect on our behavior and who we are. I’m taking this time to reflect and to reset what I think is important. Imagine what this was like back in 1918, the amount of isolation and uncertainty people faced then as the world was blowing up—both in terms of a World War and a pandemic flu. My grandmother took my very young mother and uncle to a lake in upstate New York, where they waited out the flu, and wrote letters to my grandfather, some of which I still have.

We might be physically isolated but we’re in a pretty good spot technologically to stay connected with others. After my first book signing at the beginning of March, all of my other appearances were cancelled, so I teamed up with two other Nebraska authors, Patrick Madden and Sue William Silverman, both with books just out, and decided to have a virtual reading and real book signing (we will mail signed copies to people who buy our books) on April 2 at 8:00 p.m. EST. This wouldn’t have been possible in my grandmother’s day.  But now we can still stay connected. My twelve-year old daughter has been FaceTiming up a storm with her friends, including a good friend of hers, Ji Woo, who lives in Singapore. We lived in Singapore for several years and both my daughters made friends from our apartment complex and their international school with kids from around the world. If we’re going to go through something like this for who knows how long, we at least have the technology to stay connected. I’m going to have a drink with my friend Russell tonight—he’s in Bloomington, Indiana and I’m in Iowa City. It will be like old times when we lived in the same city but in some ways better because we don’t have to worry about getting home safely.  

On a more serious note, I’m deeply concerned for my elderly friends (none of whom I see as elderly despite their age) and I’ve contacted several of them here and have offered to run errands for them. I’m concerned for those who cannot maintain connections through the Internet and those who are truly isolated. I’m also worried for my friends who will be struggling financially and I support whatever the government can do to get them through this time safely. As I say in my book, “Governments solve some problems and create new ones.” Usually, it’s a bit of both, but the decriers of big government will hopefully be silent for a while and allow government to do what it needs to do to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of its citizens. And, of course, I’m worried about my wife, who is a nurse and who will be on the front lines of this, most likely. We have to get through this collectively as well as within our smaller communities of family and friends.  To me, human connection is as important as life itself—it is life itself and that’s something I will continue to prioritize as long as we’re in this difficult spot, isolated and together.   

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