Abstracting Yourself: A Conversation with Robin Hemley

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I first met Robin Hemley at the Portland airport baggage claim before AWP 2019. He spoke enthusiastically about both the upcoming conference and the Authors at Large writing program, and I felt bedraggled by comparison.

I learned later that Hemley is somewhat of an airport expert. His new essay collection, Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of a Nationhood, is an exploration of belonging within the arbitrary nature of borders and boundaries. In it, we travel alongside the narrator to Kaliningrad, so many rainforests, the Falkland Islands, and Hong Kong, among other destinations.

Hemley has written many other books of fiction and nonfiction, including Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness, and is one of the founders of Nonfiction Now. We spoke recently over email about Borderline Citizen and his writing process, including shaping oneself into a character and organizing an essay collection.

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The Rumpus: Can you talk about how long it took you to write Borderline Citizen? That is, both in terms of the actual travel (how far apart are the trips) and in terms of the writing (did you write any of these essays while traveling or were they composed after the fact)?

Robin Hemley: All of the essays were composed after the fact, though I took copious notes while traveling as I knew I’d forget details otherwise. Some of the essays were written a year or even two years after the visit. In the case of my essay about Point Roberts, I visited twice, a year apart and wrote the essay over the following year. Of course, I was working on other things as well, but I find that it takes a while after visiting someplace for my thoughts to gel. Also, there’s a lot of research involved. The Falkland Islands essay took mountains of research, some of it compiled on my trip, but much of it done afterwards. With my India/Bangladesh story, the fact-checking alone took almost a year. For the story on Kaliningrad, I read a dense biography of Kant, and that took a while to get through—Kaliningrad was his birthplace but it would be unrecognizable to him now.

It’s difficult to add all of these together and arrive at an estimation of how long the book took to write, but I probably had the seed of the idea back in 2008 or 2009. I didn’t really pursue it in earnest until 2013 when I moved from the US to Singapore. My first exclave trip was to Kaliningrad, and I researched and wrote the book over the next five years. A couple of the essays in the book predate this, but they very much fit into the ethos of the book. There are still few exclaves I’d like to write about, so in a sense I’m still not finished with my fascination with these liminal spaces of nationhood even though I’m finished with the book.

Rumpus: I love how you differentiate between the “seeds of the book” and “earnest pursuit.” It’s true that it can take years for a subject to fully cohere from seemingly nebulous interests. I know that for me part of the writing process, perhaps because of the time it takes, is about discovery. You mentioned the research you conducted for the book, but what was something you “discovered” about your own beliefs or identities in the process of putting this collection together?

Hemley: This question is one that is difficult to answer but I’ve given it a lot of thought since finishing the book. For me, it comes down to the difference between the terms “global citizen” and “transnational.” I don’t want to get hung up on terminology because terms are always imperfect and subject to change (and they are sometimes weaponized or used to virtue signal), but I’ve come to distance myself from the term “global citizen.” The fact remains, no matter how much I’d love to be a citizen of more than one country, I’m not. There’s something about the term that feels self-congratulatory and privileged. Definitely, I’m quite privileged, but the term “global citizen” has increasingly struck me as a little precious and naive. Most of us are citizens of one country, like it or not, though I do value the global aspect of the would-be global citizen’s attempt to see their responsibility to the world and not simply to their nation.

While I certainly don’t think we invented the term, my good friend Xu Xi and I discussed “transnational” a number of years ago while riding in a taxi in Hong Kong. She started adopting it immediately as she had a good claim to it. She was born in Hong Kong, became a naturalized US citizen in her twenties, and she’s lived all over the world. Her heritage is part Indonesian, part Chinese. In my case, I kind of grew into the term, and really started thinking of myself as transnational as I started writing the chapters of this book and while I was living overseas. I also don’t love the term “expat,” though I was undeniably one while I lived in Singapore—the expat, to me, connotes a closed society of privileged foreigners who live in an enclave (in Singapore, the National University of Singapore clustered us into a little corporate community named Kent Vale) and/or who hang out with other privileged foreigners.

Of course, the migrant workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and elsewhere, at least the ones who build the buildings the expats live in, are not considered expats, but “migrants.” Their work permits are different and they have much more limited rights than the wealthy expats. Refugees aren’t expats either, and they’re definitely not global citizens, though they are decidedly transnational. The term “transnational,” while perhaps more aspirational than actual in my case, suggests, like “global citizen,” a national identity in flux, for better or worse. That feels to me an honest way of expressing my understanding of the world at large.

Rumpus: Language is so important. Borderline Citizen actually introduced me to the word “transnational.” (I think I may adopt it into my lexicon.) It’s true that terms like “expat” are so troubling in the ways that they are deployed, particularly when it comes to questions of race and socioeconomic status. One of the things I so admired about your book is the way it doesn’t shy away from discussions of wealth—I’m thinking in particular of the essay “Mr. Chen’s Mountain.” I particularly appreciated how it examines extreme wealth while also implicating the narrator both in terms of his being hosted at “the mountain” and his initial overly harsh judgments. Can you speak a bit to your process of crafting yourself as a character?

Hemley: I often say that in order to write about yourself, you have to be able to abstract yourself. This means different things in different circumstances. Sometimes you need to exaggerate some aspect of your personality. At other times, you might need to see yourself as others might see you. Or examine some aspect of yourself you might not relish exploring. I started out as a fiction writer and so I am used to creating semi-autobiographical versions of myself, and I don’t worry too much about exposing my flaws. I also tell students that it’s never a good idea to try to be the hero of your own story. That usually leads to something inauthentic—not that we can ever get to a truly authentic version of ourselves on the page, but I think if we approach the process in a self-interrogating manner, trying to be mindful of our own dodges and self-deceptions, we have a chance of approaching something authentic, for lack of a better word. Adam Kelly, in writing about David Foster Wallace, terms this the “New Sincerity.” As I understand it, it’s a kind of fumbling self-awareness and self-interrogation, that goes for more than irony and tries to connect with the reader in a way that approaches sincerity and that isn’t only after creating a sincere persona meant to make the reader feel a connection that might or might not be sincere.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to know when a writer is being sincere because the writer might not know if they’re being sincere or not, or if they’re simply going after some sincerity effect. You don’t really need to worry about this in fiction, but in nonfiction, it can be a little tricky, both for the writer and the reader. The problem with sincerity is that as soon as you name it as such, it ceases to be sincere. Lionel Trilling, in his book Sincerity and Authenticity, had a great thumbnail example of the problem: Signing a letter, “Yours,” seems so much more sincere than, “Yours sincerely.” Of course, you can tie yourself up in knots if you try to write with all this in mind. But that’s what it’s like when you’re representing yourself on the page—constantly tying and untying yourself in knots.

Rumpus: I read that piece on New Sincerity in grad school! My friends and I used the term as a joking shorthand to refer to people’s inability to be vulnerable. I know that in my own writing I still question how much to narrate or tip my hand to the audience (meta within meta within meta, ad infinitum). The essay I’m thinking of in Borderline Citizen that has a fair amount of mind-on-the-page is “Field Notes for the Graveyard Enthusiast.” How did that piece come together? Geographically, it’s quite spread out.

Hemley: Yes, “Field Notes for the Graveyard Enthusiast” is geographically all over the map. I’ve always loved graveyards, and I’ve been thinking about memorials and monuments for a while now and how they try to fight a rearguard action against erasure. But what makes them relevant to the book is that line, “We’re all citizens of the world in the boneyard.” I was struck a number of years ago by the ossuary of Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic, with its piles of skulls and bones of people who died in one of Europe’s plagues. In particular, a sculpture featured a rather gruesome depiction of a crow pecking out the eyes of a Turk, the crest of the family that owned the chapel and its bone sculptures. This was all done in bones, the crow, the Turk. I thought, This poor person gets to play the enemy of the people from this region at the time, the Turks, for as much of eternity as the ossuary survives, and he or she never even had a say in it. The sculptures themselves were made many years after the bones were collected, I believe. Of course, it doesn’t matter to the skull, but it made me think about the ways in which the living nationalize even death. The same was true of the Italian cemetery of World World I in which the soldiers buried there were still representing in death a place that no longer existed, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A weepy statue of Christ holding falling soldiers was dedicated to those who had died for the nation, which just made it all the sadder, as there no longer was such a nation. That’s why the essay needed to range so freely across the globe, for Kutna Hora to the Philippines, Poland, and elsewhere, to further showcase some of the conundrums of national origin and national endings.

Rumpus: To talk about the structure of the collection, this essay is immediately followed by “Survivor Stories.” These two, and “No One Will See Me Again Forever,” struck me as the heaviest pieces in the collection. What was your process for ordering the book?

Hemley: For me, the ordering is what makes or breaks such a book. I believe that essays have to be in conversation with one another, either building upon the previous essay or or even arguing with the essay before. The essays needed to engage with notions of identity, nationality, and otherwise, in ways that challenged standard notions of belonging. I wanted to confront readers with some difficult questions that I haven’t necessarily come to terms with early on. That’s why I started with the Ukrainian man asking me on the plane from Moscow if I was a patriot and then moved into an essay about the fraught idea of citizenship and nationhood as Hong Kong citizens have experienced it since the handover, and then on to the rather harrowing story of an Afghan refugee in Sydney, Australia who was the same age as my daughter.

Originally, I had a couple of essays in the book that my editor felt made the book lag and so I removed them but later replaced one and reordered it. As you mentioned, three of the essays are a bit heavy—Afghan refugees, graveyards, and survivors of WWII mayhem—not exactly summer beach reading. But these essays are offset, I think, by my generally odd sense of humor and irony. Some people have told me that I have an almost Anthony Bourdain approach to the places I write about. To me, that’s an enormous compliment as I love Bourdain and his open-hearted but wry approach to people and places. I even invoke him in one of the essays, about my week as the guest of a billionaire in Guangdong province, China. In any case, I also made sure that the essays about exclaves and enclaves wove throughout the book and that I ended on a positive note, in the hybridized exclave of Point Roberts, which is part of the US but dangles off a peninsula of Canada. It was important for me to end hopefully, though not with false reassurance. I wanted to show two cross-border communities in British Columbia and Washington State that didn’t let an international border impede their sense of shared community.

Rumpus: “Open-hearted and wry” is an excellent way to describe Bourdain, and I absolutely get this sense of your writing as well. What’s next for you, both in terms of travel and in terms of writing?

Hemley: I’ll be doing some traveling for the book—in April, I’m presenting it at the 30th International Conference on Ethnicity and Nationalism at The University of Edinburgh, and I’m also going to be presenting at NYU Abu Dhabi that same month. In October, I’ll be at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia. The book is being published by Penguin Southeast Asia as well as in the US, so I’ll be doing some traveling for the book in the region, including an “Authors At Large” retreat in Luang Prabang, Laos, in June. I keep a pretty updated schedule on my website.

As far as my writing goes, I’m going to rewrite a novel—mostly some tweaking—that I’m excited about. As I write both fiction and nonfiction, I love to toggle between the two. It keeps me challenged and fairly excited and joyful about the process.

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Photograph of Robin Hemley appears by permission of the author.


Alysia Sawchyn is a features editor for The Rumpus and currently lives in Northern Virginia. Her essay collection, A Fish Growing Lungs, will be published by Burrow Press in June 2020. Her writing has also appeared in Fourth Genre, Brevity, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @happiestwerther. More from this author →