Crossing Borders: a panel of writers

On May 2, the PEN World Voices Festival presented a panel called “Crossing Borders,” with novelist Ana Castillo of Chicago and New Mexico, who read from The Guardians; Daniel Kehlmann of Germany, author of the novel Measuring the World; and journalist and travel writer Lieve Joris (The Rebels’ Hour) of Belgium. The moderator was Lila Azam Zanganeh of Le Monde.

It was a fun, stimulating discussion about crossing borders physically and mentally. Daniel Kehlmann’s novel is about two 19th-century Germans: mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. (As an audience member pointed out, the story crosses the border between humanities and science.) Kehlmann says it’s a novel about freedom and the modes of freedom—for instance, to think and to move. Gauss, who doesn’t travel anywhere, is in fact the freer of the two; in his work, he is fearless in venturing beyond accepted truths. Humboldt, who travels the world, never lets go of the preconceptions of his culture.

Kehlmann said that American reviews always seemed to mention the length of his novel: “They seem surprised that a novel could be so short.” (It’s 272 pp.) But Ana Castillo said her novels were short, and she didn’t get that reaction. Could it be that reviewers expect different things from Germans than from Mexican Americans?

Castillo, whose most recent novel concerns travels across the U.S.-Mexico border and the lives of illegal immigrants, focused on the marginalization of people and cultures by the dominant culture; the history of colonization, she said, consists of “always being moved to the border.” She said that everyone has an idea of what the United States is, but reiterated that diversity is here already; as an American of Mexican heritage, she feels she needs to constantly remind people “we are here”—and have been here for some time.

When you think about it, colonialism is a different form of immigration, immigration turned inside out. It’s a big issue for Lieve Joris. Her grandfather had been a missionary in the Belgian Congo (at least, I think I have that correct), and she has spent years there, traveling into her personal history. Her quest, she said, was to “sit beside the Congolese and look at the landscape together,” without politics dictating different ways of seeing. But no matter how much time she spends there, she said, “When they look at me they know I have a return ticket,” and that is the great difference between them.

An audience member asked how borders could be “healed.” Castillo said she could only try to do it one book at a time, but that it sometimes felt like preaching to the choir. She cited an reader review that said, “I read Ana Castillo’s book to see if it would change my mind, and it didn’t.”

[An aside: this made me think again about the movie The Visitor. Is it just another feel-good-liberal choir-preaching? To me, it feels honest. It’s not that immigrants come to save the benighted white man; he saves himself by opening up to them, to other people. That’s why I think it works more as a metaphor for U.S. immigration policy than as a case study.]

Despite the new concrete walls going up these days, it’s easier than ever to cross borders physically. What’s thrilling about literature is its ability to help us cross them mentally. You could spend your whole life in Chicago, and after reading a novel by Ana Castillo, find yourself in a different city without leaving your home. The world just keeps on expanding within you.

At the same time, you can see why natives may fear those they see as invaders. When people cross borders, whether to exploit minerals or pick fruit, they bring their world with them. As Lieve Joris said, “Belgium is 80 times bigger to me now that I’ve been to Congo.”

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