How to Watch While Being Watched: Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s Borealis

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During the height of the pandemic, I found myself daydreaming about night skies. I zeroed in on a spot in northern Pennsylvania officially designated as an “International Dark Sky Park” with its promise of a canvas of stars, its dazzle undimmed by electrical interference. While searching on Airbnb for nearby lodging, I came across a review by a woman who warned of seeing a number of Confederate flags and swastika signs in the area. It turns out the county where the park sits is a known bedrock of white supremacists.

I thought of this idyll and of how quickly I flipped the kill switch on my plans while reading Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s Borealis, a grounded yet allusive account of a trip she took to the seaside town of Homer, Alaska (population: 6,000). Sloan, a mixed-race writer visiting a very white place, aka the Great Outdoors, expertly captures the sensation of racial hostility as an ambient possibility that is always not not there. It is just one of many states she inhabits over the course of her travels and this book-length essay, which explores her estrangement from the task of “nature writing” itself while finding her way to a mercurial experience of the sublime.

Sloan has arrived in this corner of Alaska as “a loose body with no clear purpose,” unclaimed, she notes wryly, by anyone except her Airbnb host. But as the narrative progresses and Sloan makes occasional reference to correspondences with an unnamed editor, it’s revealed that she does have a purpose in Homer: She’s here, at least in part, to fulfill a commission, the first title in Spatial Species, a new literary series from Coffee House Press dedicated to exploring the “ways we activate space through language.”

But why Homer? We learn Sloan has a history with the place: beginning in her twenties, she has lived there on two separate occasions with two different (now) exes. She once worked in a local bookstore, lived in a cabin with no running water, and learned to drive stick in a local high school parking lot. She drank out of growlers, joined a community of lesbians, and saw, for the first time, how queerness had “a kind of architecture, a tallness.”

Now, years later, that community is gone, the town defamiliarized. This time, Sloan’s observations are attenuated by her status as a solo traveler. She makes note of every bald eagle she sees. She eavesdrops on conversations. She muses on Matthew Henson, the Black arctic explorer and first man to reach the North Pole. She listens to Björk and Paul Simon. At the beach, she tries not to read the bumper stickers in the parking lot. She finds herself avoiding narrower nature trails, anxious not to run into moose or men while hiking alone. She reflexively registers the race of everyone she observes and encounters, taking keen notice of the rare Black person she spots (an activity that will feel familiar to BIPOC travelers). She is perfecting how to “watch while being watched.”

The series’ editors cite George Perec’s definition of the “infra-ordinaire”—the excavation for meaning gleaned from close observation of the quotidian, the overlooked, the underneath—as a foundational concept for the series. Sloan takes up the prompt of reenacting Perec’s “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” in Alaska with dogged playfulness, not the least when she’s grappling with a seldom-discussed feature of travel, boredom, which, she realizes while in Homer, is starting to “feel like an aesthetic challenge.”

This challenge is met in part through Sloan’s coruscating meditations on life and art, provoked by the landscapes that surround her—the majestic, moody paintings of glaciers by Lorna Simpson; the poetry of Robin Coste Lewis; the films of Claire Denis and Bong Joon-ho; her light-filled correspondences with a nephew doing time in prison.

Midway through the book, Sloan unveils another of her goals for this trip: “To figure out why Jean Toomer marked each section of his 1923 novel Cane with an incomplete circle.” Toomer, himself a biracial writer, sets off each part of his stylistically experimental, hybrid book with a page, blank except for an elliptical drawing of a half circle. Sloan starts to make note of echoes and derivations of this symbol, from the strange alien script a linguist is enlisted to decipher in the sci-fi film Arrival to the crescent moons carved in the doors of all the outhouses in Alaska.

Do these clues add up to a satisfying conclusion? Does it matter? As with Toomer’s unclassifiable novel, the answer lies in the open borders and recursive nature of Borealis itself. Sloan’s roving consciousness are the rails on which we ride back and forth through time, through art and space. Here’s a typical quicksilver reflection on ICE 6, one of Simpson’s glacier paintings:

What is it about the intractability of the past? Why does the mere fact of having been younger once feel so excruciating? I can’t get back inside it. The rock face looks slick, like you’d slip, like it’s a screen. Like buildings. A city of glaciers. Is that like the future? … The feeling of falling is a thing I keep refusing as I look. There is a way that time and emergency take on a similar texture. The front end of emotion, before you know what it’s for.

Not that all the tendrils Sloan sends forth take flight. Her descriptions of the art collages she’s making to “signal to myself what I want this book to be” can be hermetic (“a rock like a meteorite, suspended over the curve of a pink jellyfish”) and probably more generative to the artist than illuminating for the reader. Yet the book as a whole teems with satisfying complexity. Sloan, the author of multiple essay collections and a searching, elegiac column for the Paris Review that traces her family history through iconic landmarks in Detroit, was an inspired choice to inaugurate a series on place and space. There’s a looseness to its narrative rhythm that gives it a freewheeling and unpredictable charge, a willingness to embrace different registers. Sloan has that rare ability to convey the astonishment of an insight at the instant of its arrival. At one point, she remembers an exchange with a student that takes an intense and vulnerable turn: “Now I think crying is like touching time. A half-hearted attempt to crash into now.”

She can also be disarmingly funny, sending up the death drive approach to tourism by researching bear tours and glacier hiking tours and abandoning the pretense in favor of taking a shower. Alone at the seashore, she notes:

The log I’m on is spongy. That’s, uh, white moss. Is that a thing? There are dandelions. I don’t mean to be an ass, but I feel again like I’m the most interesting thing on the beach. I mean: a lone Black woman walks out during low tide, begins to film a bald eagle, then runs away screaming.

Not much happens on this trip. And yet everything happens. The body travels while the mind wanders and the sensation is that of roaming freely—the valorization of landscape as an interior experience. Like a certain kind of traveler, the ideal reader for this book is copacetic with an element of drift, which accounts for both the appeal and risk of Sloan’s heavily associative mode, sometimes explosive, sometimes elusive. The experience, rather than linear, is borealian.

Lisa Hsiao Chen is the author of the forthcoming novel Activities of Daily Living (W.W. Norton, 2022). She received a Writers’ Award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and lives in New York City. More from this author →