Yanara Friedland’s long-form essay, Groundswell, is a remarkable collection of border narratives in which she tunes her multilingual ear to the swelling topographies along Germany’s former East-West division and the southwest borderlands of the US and Mexico. Here we encounter the living archive of walls, ruins, bodies, histories, and the earth itself. It is a brilliant study in attention and the ways attention might conjunct with the invisible so that new paradigms emerge to, helpfully, disorient the map. The disoriented map invites us to uncover new ways to track and move through the landscapes of our personal and collective histories.
Born in Berlin, Yanara Friedland is a writer and translator. Her first book, Uncountry: A Mythology, was the winner of the 2015 Noemi Press Fiction award and is published in German translation (Maria Meinel) with Matthes & Seitz (2021). Her long-form essay, Groundswell, (Essay Press) has been supported by grants from the DAAD and Arizona Commission on the Arts. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she teaches at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies and is writing a book on sleeplessness.
It was a joy to be in conversation with Yanara recently about her new book, borders, oracles, swamps, and more.
The Rumpus: Your long-form essay, Groundswell, has been described as a multivocal collection of transnational and transhistorical border narratives, rituals, memories, acute and unfixed observations, testimonies, and dreams. From a craft perspective, I feel awe: these modes of writing register as a vast expanse of multiple distances, and yet they also gather and collaborate. They radically conjunct inside another story: the story of a woman returning home after a long absence. Furthermore, she is attending a linguistics seminar, and so here is a story of arriving, again, inside another set of displacements.
How did this book come to be? Can you speak to how its formal structure emerged?
Yanara Friedland: Thank you for identifying the book as one essay. It only occurred to me recently that rather than a collection, it is indeed one long essay, broken up by voices, distances, and, of course, the many borders that run through the text.
The book began when I received an invitation to spend three months at the Viadrina University located in the border town of Frankfurt Oder on the German side, and Słubice across the river on the Polish side. The project had a bit of a double nature and, as you mention, saw me attending a linguistics seminar as a way to spend an extended amount of time in Germany. You could say the book began with a deceit. By daylight, I attended the linguistics seminar in Frankfurt Oder, and by night, I attended to my own writing and the desire to be in my birth city, Berlin (about an hour west from Frankfurt Oder).
In another way, the book began several years before when I decided to walk along former border regions in Europe and spent a summer crossing the Pyrenees, walking along Lands’ End in Spain, the Mediterranean, and Berlin’s former East-West division.
At that point, I had been away from Europe for about four years and found myself needing to reconnect with questions close to my upbringing and Europe’s intense history of border enforcement and migrant deterrence. On a personal and somewhat visceral level, I felt that there were certain keys in the place of one’s birth, that the ground itself could open and reveal something inaccessible elsewhere. I do not mean to make a case for homeland or national registers of belonging. It feels less cultural and more connected to the landscape, the spirit of a place. There is a certain feeling I notice when I return to Germany, one I really cannot summon anywhere else. It was this feeling I wanted to be close to, and in an extended sense it related to border landscapes and the walls, historical and present, I found myself living with.
I think now that all of the writing, these visits and physical immersions, were preparatory. I didn’t start consciously writing the book until I returned from the German-Polish border and was back in the US, in the desert of southern Arizona, where I lived at the time. This is when I began to experience a merging between the so-called historical borders I had visited and the present borders of our time. It was the fall of 2016, the election looming. I was sleepless and totally disoriented.
The formal structure of the book emerged incrementally. For my stay in Germany, I had formulated the following research inquiry: what narratives do borders produce, and how do these narratives potentially re-negotiate the border from a space of boundary and separation towards a space of interaction and resilience?
I was initially interested in rupturing terminology in border studies. Terms, like “umbilical objects,” “antecedence,” “borderscapes” that often feel cold, disconnected, and, frankly, abstract. Instead I wanted to fill these terms with experiences and meaning from people who had actually been affected by them, who lived in the aftermath of a border closure, for example, or who had experienced forced removal. While the terms were an interesting constraint, I wanted to push up against the two-dimensional quality of a glossary or a map. Svetlana Alexievich‘s books were influential. She works with oral histories almost exclusively. In her Nobel Prize speech she said, “I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains.” Her writing gave me permission to move inside of a multivocal, simultaneous, and entangled structure. A cacophony of voices. I also took heed from my own instruction to “smash things together into a cool space,” a line that appeared in the manuscript at one point, and which affirmed a swelling and swarming logic, rather than a chronological, linear and singular perspective.
Rumpus: Groundswell melds Germany’s former East-West division, the borderlands of the US and Mexico, as well as the space between the visible and invisible, the gaps between life and death, and the haunted houses lodged in the matrix-space between worlds. Can you say more about how you understand the space referred to as “the border”?
Friedland: The geographies Groundswell takes up are in the broadest sense “borders,” the geopolitical line as much as the many social interactions that demarcate spaces and identities. It also investigates the maintenance of temporal borders, at what point we come to think of an event as past, for example. Throughout, it confronts the borders between the so-called self and other, the “I” that moves across landscapes, time, and the many existing storylines it absorbs, re-contextualizes and disappears against. However at its heart, the book attempts to gesture towards the intertextual quality of a border and its archive: the preserved record, the oral record, the record of a moving body, the record of wounded land, and the ephemeral archives that exist between listener and teller, site and onlooker, the dead and the living. My understanding of “the border” has been directly affected by these encounters and also my own biographical context of having grown up in a walled, divided city.
One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is watching the Berlin Wall turn into a ruin, sitting on the shoulders of my father. I was struck not so much by the event itself (as I didn’t understand its dimensions then), but by the fact that it was the first time I saw my father cry. I wrote about this memory in the book, and it occurs to me now, as I contemplate your question, that I myself have wept a lot at borders; this cut into the landscape, or “the wound” as it was called by a student of mine from the Tohono O’odham Nation whose family was separated by the US-Mexico border.
I experience borders as a violent, brutalizing presence. They also produce, unwillingly, linkages. In Groundswell, I write, “every separation is a link.” I can say that watching my father cry while bodies swarmed the wall became a kind of Ur-image for me from which all else follows. There lies, in the tension of the insurmountable, the walled city and my father’s breakdown, a possibility of all the walls of the world being eventually abolished. The image is too complex to fully go into here, but I want to name that it may be the origin to my own obsession with borders in literature, writing, and life.
Rumpus: A line from Chris Kraus shimmers at various junctures in Groundswell: why is telling a story considered an act of love? How do you respond to this question?
Friedland: I spent extensive time in an archive on the German-Polish border as part of my stay during the summer of 2016. It is this remarkable otherworldly place, where over a thousand people who lived on the German-Polish border recorded their own stories spanning the last century. Historical events from allied invasions, forced removal, closure of the German border, and Solidarność are embedded in these very personal life stories. I read these biographies at the same time as the 2016 election raged in the US. I found solace, perspective, and instruction in these lives. I can say with certainty that reading saves me all the time. I don’t care if it sounds dramatic or pathetic or both, but it’s a very real companionship, one that helps me orient in the world and returns me to a heightened sense of existence.
I always thought you had to be a good storyteller for the story to matter, but I think that there are so many ways to tell stories, so many forms through which experience can move. I am interested in stories that truly attend to failure. Not as a stylized gimmicky thing, but that which comes close to what it feels like in a body, in real life, to not be whole.
I am often at a loss for words, especially these days, not sure how to hold the emotions, the hopelessness. I am trying to write into this nocturnal monstrous space. It turns out that the stories become shorter, that the page is full of grammatical errors, contradictions, and a total lack of plot.
However, I think Kraus’s emphasis on telling is interesting. I am not sure that telling a story is necessarily motivated by love, even though it can be a generous act. Instead I would say more often stories are told in an attempt to discharge. What, I think, fulfills Kraus’s promise or at least approaches its potential, is the radical act of both telling and listening to a story with attention to its complexity, that is, its ambivalence and contradiction, the raw jewel it hides from plain sight and that it must carry in its wings. It is quite clear that any event, when you look deeply at it, spend time in its abyss, listen to the sounds and echoes and silences of this abyss, requires enormous stamina and care to be met.
Frankly, I find the haste with which opinion, and thus stories, are created to be disrespectful to the difficulty that any life, with its particular traumas and complexities, holds. To tell a story as an act of love, to me, means it must be wrought from deep listening, durational attention, discomfort and a failure to hold its weight in balance.
Rumpus: In the margins of my copy of Groundswell I scribbled:
Wall, threshold, border, wound.
Swole, swollen, swarm, swamp.
These are repeating paradigms in the essay, but for me they are also a visceral frequency moving through the underworld networks of the text. Part of what makes the ground swell are the bodies, the remains, bodies sink-holing into other bodies, overlapping absences or an excess of signatures. Bodies everywhere, the air as catacombs.
At one point you quote the mayor of Lampedusa, who, while delivering a press statement regarding the deaths of over three hundred people who drowned while seeking asylum, cries out, “All these bodies are speaking.” This devastating moment touches another from your past in which an asylum seeker asked you, “Do you know the actual meaning of abraq ad habra?… It means, I will create as I speak.”
I want to ask you about how writing is a way to listen to the dead and I also wonder if you can speak about what it means to have a body amidst so much absence. Perhaps these are two very different inquiries, but I would love to hear anything you have to say in response to these themes.
Friedland: I have been writing about swamps for my current book, which deals with sleeplessness. I just read this fascinating article about the role of bogs and swamps in pre-Christian Ireland. Revered objects were submerged and people could contact ancestors there. They were portals between worlds. Interestingly, Berlin is built on a swamp, and I have been inspired by Joanna Rajkowska‘s unrealized public project, Sumpfstadt. She writes:
The vision of a swamp was followed by the fantasy of a spontaneous mass exodus of the population of Berlin in the late 1940s. Just as it is necessary to desert a place contaminated by nuclear explosion, so one should leave behind a place stained with guilt, collaboration and indifference… Instead of building Trümmerberge and fastidiously restoring their houses and palaces, they had decided to leave their city to the forces of nature, the waters of the Spree and its tributaries, canals and underground channels. The waters slowly rose and flooded sewers, filled basements, burst through manholes and ran down streets. Berlin was once again what it had been before it became a city—a swamp, a marshland, a birl.
To me, this is a powerful image, and though I did not work with it explicitly in Groundswell, it echoes and resonates with the work. When the book came out, I felt compelled to submerge it in water, the sea, where I currently live.
And, yes, the dead are everywhere. Berlin is a place layered with dead bodies. You can’t help but feel this when you walk through the city. When I returned, I felt immense sorrow, the kind of sorrow that also activates you in a certain way. I became sleepless. I started two manuscripts. I think Rajkowska’s vision feels appropriate, like it is not about restoration or recovery, but letting the immense horrors that places like Berlin have produced and housed, swell. Let the dead burst through the pipes. What kind of language is necessary to hold this? I am not sure.
Rumpus: Straight away in Groundswell you invoke the oracular: “I want the inner cartography and the legend to expose a weave, a map both coming from far way and from deep within. Asking: what if the border itself began to talk, to oracle, to direct?” Throughout the book, we drive up and down Oracle Road, a road well-known in Arizona for its prisons and detention centers. Reflecting on the presence of the oracular in Groundswell, it seems the oracle refuses a fixed position and instead vibrates between possibilities or potential locations.
I want to talk about the role of the oracular in discourses concerning borders and about the role of the oracular as it relates to narrative. Why does the oracle or the oracular have a seat at this particular table concerned with narrative and its processes, and with presence and absence?
Friedland: What a lovely and deep reading. I don’t have a straightforward response, as I perceive the oracular itself as evasive, even shy and slippery. Any attempt at defining it or filling it with language often feels inadequate, but at the same time there exists an undeniable, potent relationship between the oracular and language. And I often find myself deciphering my writing after the fact, letting the spill occur with its meaning reverberating far beyond this present moment and myself. I do experience borders as thresholds, a liminal space. When I did the border walks, I performed rituals. I don’t talk about this much, because it was actually a very private act and one that happened spontaneously. It was my way of asking to have a seat and open a conversation. It was a way to initiate the encounter between myself and the more invisible layers of the landscape, the sediments of memory and trauma that swirl and linger at these sites.
There is a strong link between narratives and borders. Narratives define and change borders, but borders in and of themselves also produce narratives. Every crossing urges a telling. As a contested site it attracts multivalent perspectives.
For me, the oracular also means looking at synchronicities that begin to gather around a project. Sometimes it is the simple act of approaching with questions and a refusal to provide solutions or conclusions to these questions. I am less and less comfortable with definitive statements, definitive ideas about a situation or a person. That does not mean I don’t make them, but I am eager to establish a counterpoint that destabilizes or inserts doubt.
It seems to me that an oracular quality never emerges from my own attempt at interpretation or the delivery of a message, but rather in the documentation and attention to what, at any given moment, conspires between myself and apparently random objects and encounters. I think that is probably what Groundswell taught me. The stories that existed there affected my own telling. Everything speaks. It’s not that once someone documents a place, it stops speaking. I think of the oracular as a current, timeless. You can tune your ear towards its gargle, but this is not necessarily truth.
I think of dream logic and how it holds a prophetic quality among a lot of other stuff. Occasionally the right moment emerges, when everything conspires together and the prophetic can land. The constellations inside of a narrative equally can conspire towards an oracular moment. Unmediated and often belatedly, it slips through the cracks.
Photograph of Yanara Friedland by Yanara Friedland.