Robin Hemley, author of fourteen books of fiction and nonfiction, is the Founder of NonfictioNOW, the world’s leading international conference in nonfiction. He has received numerous honors, including fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, three Pushcart Prizes in both fiction and nonfiction, and artist residencies around the world. He has directed the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa, where he is now Professor Emeritus. He is starting a new position at Long Island University as Director of the Polk School of Communications, Director of the MFA in Writing, Parsons Family Chair in Creative Writing and University Professor.
In his latest book of essays, Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of Nationhood, Robin Hemley discusses travel and nationhood from the places in between. “For me,” he writes, “the complexity of the relationship of the citizen to his or her own nation is the big question of the 21st century.” From enclaves to exclaves, nationalists to refugees, Hemley’s writing invites readers to experience global spaces with the hope that belonging to one place doesn’t have to come at the expense of belonging to another.
Robin and I first met in Singapore a few years ago, though by the time we conducted this interview over email, he was living in Iowa and I was in southern California. Given how much we both move around, I feel extra lucky that our paths could cross.
Inez Tan: For you, what is the most exciting part of writing about so many different places that you’ve visited? What is the most difficult part?
Robin Hemley: The most exciting thing for me is to write about a place where I’ve been a guest and to have someone from that place, after reading my work, feel that I’ve been accurate and fair. That’s also the most difficult part—of course, readers are not monolithic in their opinions, and obviously there will always be someone who thinks you got it wrong, but I try to research as thoroughly as possible each place I’m writing about, and read what’s been written by insiders as much as outsiders. It’s important when writing place-based essays to acknowledge that you will always have your blind spots and biases, and so you need to counter that with research and a read-through or two from someone who is more familiar than you are with the subject at hand.
IT: You’ve lived in many different places, from Singapore to Iowa City to New York. How has living in each of those places influenced your perspective when you travel?
RH: And Japan and the Philippines and the American South and Northwest and Southwest! For me, living in all of these places has made me more tolerant of difference and less tolerant of people who would stereotype or dismiss others.
I’ve long been curious about the wider world, probably ever since I was sixteen and at a small boarding school where my roommate was Japanese. The year after we were roommates, I traveled to Japan as an exchange student to his school and he was my host brother. That cracked open the world for me, and I have been insatiably curious about it ever since. Getting the chance to experience cultures and people who have grown up differently from me has greatly influenced my perception of others. And this is as true of my perceptions of the American South and Utah (where I taught at the University of Utah for several years) as it is of locales outside of my birth country. So, living in Sewanee, Tennessee, where my boarding school, St. Andrews-Sewanee is located, was as eye-opening as living in Osaka, Japan, the next year. Here I was, a sixteen-year-old Jewish kid from New York, going to an Episcopal school with mandatory chapel, where I learned to eat grits (which I’m still fond of) and say “y’all.” That experience made me question people from other parts of the U.S. who put on a fake Southern accent when they want to portray someone who’s stupid or who speak of the South as though it’s one place. But there are many Souths and Tennessee is different from North Carolina, where I also lived. The same is true of Utah. I loved Salt Lake City and the state as a whole, and it angers me when people from other places make fun of Mormons or thinks of them as strange. The same is true of Singapore—it’s kind of annoying when you say you’ve lived in Singapore and the only association a lot of Americans have with the place is that you can’t buy chewing gum or the case of the American teen who was caned in the early 1990s because he had vandalized a number of cars.
All of these places are so complex and beautiful, worthy in their own ways of wonder and awe. Every place I travel I approach like that exchange student I once was: show me your differences. Educate me.
IT: In “To the Rainforest Room,” you wrestle with the notion of authenticity in travel writing, suggesting that our individual ideas about what’s authentic may have little to do with reality. After all, as you point out, authenticity is a man-made concept. I loved the wryness with which you wrote, “The idea of an authentic place implied an unchanging one, which also makes it an impossibility. I’m hyperaware of the aura of desperation and melancholy surrounding our common need for the Authentic, especially in regard to Place and People. Call it a sixth sense.” How did you end up connecting the subject of authenticity to the three rainforests you visited in that essay?
RH: This essay took me quite a while to write and wasn’t focused on rainforests in the beginning, though it always had to do with authenticity. I was working with a great editor, Jennifer Sahn, who was then at Orion Magazine, and she gave me a lot of leeway to develop the story over a couple of years. At one point, I was going to write about a seed vault called Seed Savers, in Dekorah, Iowa, but after I visited the place, it didn’t quite seem right. I had recently been to a rainforest in Ecuador and had heard about the indoor rainforest in Omaha at the Henry Doorly Zoo, and slowly, it started to make sense for me to use rainforests as the primary motif for my discussion of authenticity. There’s actually a pretty fascinating (to me, at least) examination of the collaboration between Jennifer and myself on this very essay in a book about the collaboration process between editor and writer titled The Craft of Editing. The chapter on my essay details the entire process from my first email exchange with Jennifer to the essay’s publication and winning a Pushcart Prize.
So, in answer to your question, it was a slow discovery process and had a lot to do with serendipity and the weird way my mind operates.
IT: Following up on authenticity—reading that essay made me think of how sometimes, when people ask for “authentic characters” in literature, they’re really just asking for cultural depictions to match their own sense of what seems authentic. I know I’ve fallen into that trap myself, but I didn’t have a concise way of articulating that until I read your anecdote about Easy Cheese. Would you briefly tell us the story of what Easy Cheese taught you about authenticity? And does the way you approach “authenticity” differ in your nonfiction and fiction writing?
RH: Well, I basically think “authenticity” is a sham concept. But it’s a sham concept that I very much buy into, despite knowing better. Of course, I’m going to feel extra special if I get to experience a slice of cheddar cheese in Cheddar, England. Easy Cheese on the other hand, is anything but authentic, but sometimes maybe you want the Easy Cheese instead of the cheddar. So much of our notions of authenticity have to do with notions of purity and personal preening over our credentials as authentic experts in whatever it is we want to show expertise in, whether it’s authentic Kansas City barbecue or an authentic tea ceremony in Japan. Yes, there’s value in these experiences and in tradition, but sometimes we fetishize authenticity too much. Sometimes, we conflate notions of authenticity with purity and with the idea that things shouldn’t change. We sometimes use notions of authenticity to pass judgments on others to make ourselves feel superior. I say this because I’m as susceptible as anyone. I might catch myself rolling my eyes if my twelve-year-old daughter prefers a floret of Easy Cheese on a Triscuit rather than an authentic slice of cheddar cheese where cheddar was invented. But really, how ridiculous.
In terms of writing fiction and nonfiction, yes, you’re exactly right that notions of authenticity are going to match our own preconceived notions of authenticity. But I think of writing more in terms of accuracy that authenticity. When it comes to writing, I tend not to adhere much to essentialism that, say, only a Jewish writer should have Jewish characters. My Jewish characters might be completely inauthentic to someone else—they might even buy into stereotypes. It’s quite possible for say, a Singaporean writer to rely on Singaporean stereotypes and be praised for their authenticity, no? It’s tricky territory, of course, and it’s been quite divisive in the literary community, but I don’t equate essentialism and authenticity, and I think we lose something if we’re told to simply stay in our lanes, especially as fiction writers. In nonfiction, I think it’s different. I’m not going to write nonfiction and lie and say that I’m writing from the point of view of a Singaporean, because I’m not. But even inauthentic works can be fascinating and worthy of reading. I’ve studied fake memoirs extensively, for instance, and one fake memoir I love is the fake Holocaust memoir, Fragments, by Benjamin Wilkomrski. Wilkomirski spent his childhood during World War II in Switzerland, but he wrote a book claiming to have survived the Holocaust. The book won all kinds of awards, including from Jewish organizations, praising it to the skies for its authenticity, when in fact, it was anything but authentic. But it’s still an amazing cultural artifact and is worth reading and studying. I’m Jewish and I had a relative who survived the Holocaust, but even if I hated Fragments (and its apparently delusional but honest author), who’s made me the arbiter of Jewish authenticity?
IT: A number of your essays in this book recount horrifying atrocities—the sufferings of an Afghan asylum seeker, refugee camps, mass graves, the massacres of thousands of Filipinos by Japanese soldiers during World War II. I found myself thinking of a line by the poet Mark Doty: “How do we say what we have seen of the suffering of others responsibly? Not to respond at all is a failure, to respond too easily a lie.” How are some ways you navigate the morality of bearing witness to the suffering of others, as a traveler and a writer?
RH: I love Mark Doty and his work. Once we were at the same bed and breakfast in Denver for a literary conference, and the owner made us go around the first day and introduce ourselves in a fake cheerful manner. When she got to Mark, he said, “Breakfast conversation hurts my soul.” That made me so happy.
As for the quote, yes, I agree. “Witness” is another one of those loaded words, like “authenticity.” To me, it connotes a sense of moral rectitude and perhaps self-importance and so yes, I can see why the notion can make some people gag. Not once in my essays did I ever consider myself a “witness.” Historian, yes. Journalist, yes. When I wrote about the atrocities of the Japanese at the end of World War II in Manila, for instance, it was as a kind of historian. It’s not an episode that is as well-known as it should be, and the event that brought me to write about this was remarkable, I thought. But I was also essaying, trying to discover something about notions of survival and bigotry as filtered through my own experience. I wasn’t just writing about the atrocities of Manila, because shortly after my time there, I was in Berlin at a retrospective of propaganda. Much like the different rainforests, I was doing a kind of compare/contrast to arrive at some intriguing questions, if not answers.
With the story of the Afghan refugee, he wanted to broadcast his story near and far so that people would understand better through one person’s story what was happening to countless thousands. It was very difficult listening to him, but what made it more than an exercise in witnessing to me was the presence of my daughter at our dinner together and learning that this young man and my daughter were born eleven days apart. The essay wasn’t then just about me listening to him but about him witnessing us and him telling her, when I excused myself for the washroom, that she was lucky to have a father (his own father, and brother, and uncle, and cousin, had been murdered by the Taliban).
Ultimately, I have to confess I’m not thinking in stark moral terms when I write an essay. I think in terms of the world of the essay I’m trying to convey to the reader in the strongest (and yes, most artful) way possible. I don’t think of myself as the Witness with a capital “W,” but I do try to be as accurate and as responsible and respectful as possible. And all of that combined is not easy.
IT: Many of these essays end on a striking image that feels conclusive, yet open to wonder at the same time. In particular, there’s that beautifully ambivalent scene of looking up and seeing just stars, “more or less indistinguishable from one another,” as you meditate on the contested nationality of the Falkland Islands and the dignity with which you imagined Kant’s ghost lingering in Konigsberg to watch the celebrations end on Russian Federation Day. How do you know when you have the ending to an essay? Did you discover these endings during your travels, or as you were writing about them afterwards?
RH: Thank you! Endings come slowly to me and they change. I do love ending on an image when possible, and I’ve thought before that it was interesting how I ended both the Falklands essay and the Russian one with looking up at the sky—actually, now that I think about it, the last image of the book has a certain similarity, as well. I guess I must be thinking subconsciously of that great quote by Horace, “They change their sky, not their soul, those who rush across the sea.”
Like everything else, my endings come with trial and error. I sometimes have an image in mind, but those images change as the essay changes. I try to land on something that will hopefully linger with the reader and consider the questions I’ve raised after the experience of reading the essay is complete.
IT: These essays have such an inventive variety of shapes: that aforementioned juxtaposition of visits to three different rainforests by way of exploring the idea of Authenticity, a field guide to categorizing graveyards, a comparison of the national celebrations across a section of the U.S.-Canadian border, where many residents on both sides feel, as you put it, “not divided loyalties, but multiple loyalties.” How do you arrive at the form you feel each essay should take?
RH: For me, the essay is a wonderfully protean form. You can do almost anything in it. Every essay has its form and I try to discover what’s best for the subject. I’m also fairly whimsical as a writer, and I approach form the way Flannery O’Connor said she approached the form of the short story. She likened it to the way Samuel Johnson’s blind housekeeper tested the temperature of his tea before she served him: “She put her finger in the cup.” That’s all to say that we sometimes don’t know exactly why or how we choose a form. We just do. When I wrote the piece about the Afghan refugee (and yes, he has a name, but I had to keep him anonymous. In the essay, I call him “H”), I went from third person to second person, and when I was asked why at a talk, I answered honestly, “I don’t know.” With the Russian piece, as it took place in Immanuel Kant’s hometown and he was fond of maxims, I structured the piece by heading each section with a maxim. You can do so much with form in the essay and have a lot of fun with it.
IT: If I may ask a nerdy craft question, I absolutely loved the titles of these essays. I’d encounter one and be intrigued—“No One Will See Me Again Forever,” “Don’t Be Too Difficult”—and each time, there would always be a moment in the essay when the context for the title would click satisfyingly into place. Could you describe your process for arriving at your titles for individual essays, as well as the book they came to be in?
RH: I love titles and I spend a lot of time thinking of them. A title can absolutely make or break a piece of writing. I learned this early on. I used to be very bad with titles and would try too hard, when I was starting out, to be literary. That rarely worked. Sometimes a title hits me during the writing and will come easy, but more often than not, I’m constantly changing my titles. The title for the book took years. At one point, I polled my friends and asked them to weigh in on what I should call it. I had some pretty mediocre choices, but as I was writing them down, this title just struck me: Borderline Citizen. It just seemed to encapsulate the book perfectly. Both “No One Will See Me Again Forever” and “Don’t Be Too Difficult” came easily and are direct quotes, which is one strategy I sometimes use for my titles, finding them within what I’ve already written.
IT: Behind-the-scenes time: Can you tell us a story behind one of the stories in the book?
RH: In my essays, I usually include all the behind-the-scenes stuff, so I can’t think of anything in particular. Still, I can say that there were some exclaves and enclaves that I thought I would include that I didn’t. I wish I could have written about several intriguing spots that didn’t make it into the book, mostly because I tend to take a long time thinking about an essay before I write it, and none of these gelled in time for the book. I visited and would have liked to write about Gibraltar, adjacent to Spain, as well as the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, surrounded by Morocco, and the exclaves of Madha and Nahwa. I went to these last two with my friend Diana Chester who was teaching at the time at NYU Abu Dhabi. Diana and I drove from Abu Dhabi across the desert to an exclave of Oman known as Madha. Inside Madha is what’s known as a counter-exclave: the tiny village of Nahwa, which belongs to the Emirate of Sharjah, and is not much more than a police station and a convenience store and some houses in the mountains. When we reached Nahwa, we wondered whether we should make our presence known to the police, thought Nah! and then went to the convenience store, where I bought a UAE flag for my youngest daughter. Afterwards, we stopped briefly at a lovely oasis back in Madha and were approached by a resident of the exclave, a candy maker, who invited us back to his family house. We spent the afternoon as recipients of his hospitality and he told us how his wife and children were Emirati citizens while he was Omani, which meant that if he wanted to receive medical attention, he would have to drive hours to Oman proper. This is one of the logistical difficulties of living in an enclave, something that I encountered in other enclaves the world over. I thought I would write about him, but I never felt the urgency I had with some of the other essays in the book. Happily, Diana is writing about him and our encounter in a book she’s writing.
IT: You begin your book with an epigraph by Pico Iyer: “Travel in order to listen to the world rather than lecture to it.” What are some ways that a responsible traveler today can listen to the world?
RH: Pico Iyer is an amazing person—I’ve had the privilege of hearing him speak and spending a little time with him several times, and everyone I know who has met him is struck by the generosity of spirit and the wise intelligence he displays. Perhaps I idealize him too much, but I can’t imagine him gossiping about someone or saying anything mean-spirited. That spirit is evident in much of his writing, too, a kind of humility with which he approaches the world and experience. To me, that is essential for the traveler (not the tourist). If you venture out into the world and hope to write anything meaningful about it, you have to do so with humility and intellectual curiosity. Of course, you will make judgments and be annoyed by things that are different from the way you find things at home, but think of these as tests. Eventually, you’ll see that your way is not the right way, it’s just one way—and that pertains to just about everything, including politics, food, and everyday interactions with others. No one likes to be lectured to, and the worst kind of lecture is that of the smug inhabitant of one country visiting another and saying, “Why don’t you do it the way we do it?” For instance, I’ve spent a lot of time in the Philippines, and I love the country. When someone from Manila asks you what you think of the traffic or corruption, do not take the bait! If you complain about the traffic, if you tell them what they should do about corruption, they will think if not say, “If you don’t like it here, then maybe you should go back to your own country.” And they’re right.
IT: What advice would you give to young writers who are looking to write about their own travels and experiences?
RH: Do it.
Sorry, I don’t mean to be glib, but don’t wait for Travel and Leisure to come knocking. They won’t. Everyone, or at least a lot of people, wants to be a travel writer, but it’s not really a career path. What you need to do is first figure out ways to travel, then write about your experiences and find outlets, which likely won’t pay, to publish your work. When I was much younger, and I was living in North Carolina, I wanted to go to Frankfurt, Germany, to write a story about the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest book fair in the world. I wrote quite often for a free weekly, Creative Loafing, in Charlotte, and I asked the editor, John Grooms, if I could write a story for him. He said, “Sure, but we can’t afford to send you there. Why don’t you call up Lufthansa [which had just opened a direct flight between Charlotte and Frankfurt] and see if they’ll give you a free ticket.” I called their headquarters in the U.S. in Atlanta and asked, and to my amazement, they gave me a free business class ticket from Charlotte to Frankfurt. I didn’t sell my soul for the ticket—I just mentioned the Lufthansa gateway in the essay I wrote when I returned. Like everything else in life, but perhaps more so, travel writing depends on the writer’s resourcefulness.
IT: In closing—when I taught a course on the rhetoric of travel writing, something my students and I discovered that one way to talk about the purpose of a piece of travel writing was to ask, “How does this essay want the reader to respond?” What hopes do you have for a reader of your book, in terms of what they might do, believe, or feel?
RH: Above all, I want readers to think about their loyalties to nations, as opposed to humankind as a whole, and to question these loyalties which are based on invented borders that should not ultimately keep us apart.