When my mother’s family first immigrated to the USA from the Grand Duchy of Finland, they were legally classified as Russian nationals. For half a millennium prior to Russia’s century-long reign, they would have been Swedish citizens, used as a territorial buffer by Sweden against the Russian Empire. With skirmishes, the border was always shifting, until the Russian Revolution, when Finland saw its chance finally to declare autonomy over its borders. Two decades after Finnish independence, the Soviets invaded, hoping to leverage Finland as a territorial buffer in World War II and sparking the Winter War, in which ordinary Finns equipped with rifles, reindeer, skies and Molotov cocktails inflicted unprecedented damage on an invading army ten times its size.
Whatever we may think of Finland’s new anti-immigrant government (spoiler alert: I despise it), readers will immediately note parallels between the mythologized Finnish resistance and the current Ukrainian resistance referenced in ‘World on Fire,’ a mixed-media graphic memoir by “Russian-born, world-raised traveller,” filmmaker, radio host and student Arina Kole. Spurred by her country’s invasion of Ukraine a year and a half ago to create her first-ever comic (for my class at California College of the Arts), Kole notes, ‘it was one of those pieces that stumbles out of you under pressure or as the means to process the circumstances wildly out of your control.’ As Panorama director Matthew Webb notes, Kole’s clever visual story is ‘not only an act of resistance against current attempts to colonise the border but in a space that doesn’t often register.’
In the 1960s, my late father was involved in one of the first acts of post-colonial resistance to the arbitrary borders imposed upon Africa. During the Berlin Conference (1884-85), Europe and the USA carved the continent into nation-states, disregarding tribal homelands and ethnic, linguistic, and religious groupings, claiming lands and people for themselves. Not long after the independence of the British invention known as Nigeria, his/our homeland seceded, calling itself the Republic of Biafra. When the Nigerian Federal government (and Britain) rejected the new border, the infamous bloody civil war broke out, and my father returned to his village, where he was tasked with caring for repatriated Biafran refugees.
For years I too did refugee and immigrant resettlement work — in the USA, the so-called Land of Immigrants — every week witnessing the human costs of political borders. This topic is back in the news (did it ever leave?), with nationalism on the rise around the globe and boatloads of those born in lands with borders determined by settler-colonialism perishing at sea in their attempts to seek work and shelter in the lands of their former colonisers. In ’Cruise Line Chronicles,’ first-time author Tamarzee Love-Shooter wittily maps the lines between nationalities onboard, a hierarchy that starts with below-deck workers and stretches up to guests boarding in Haifa. Hired as a cruise ship contract worker, Love-Shooter finds herself implicated in protecting the ‘shifting inventions’ of borders and is haunted by a mixed couple with different passports and therefore different mobilities.
Watery borders are also the concern of DJ Nono Gigsta, whose ‘Flight Free Fès’ is a music playlist inspired by her recent ‘slow journey’ from Germany to France to Spain to Morocco by land and sea. Part of a movement of musical artists who refuse to fly for environmental reasons, Gigsta is painfully aware of the irony of how easily she crosses the series of borders in five days, while the exact reverse journey attempted by climate migrants leaving Africa and MENA is long, mostly illegal, and fraught with peril. The gorgeous musical collaborations she highlights demonstrate what can happen when people reach across borders to connect creatively.
Borders, travel, and decolonisation go hand in hand. In their classic article (not included here), ‘Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,’ academics Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang critique the current practice (of which I am guilty) of using decolonisation as a catch-all signifier, ‘a generic term for struggle against oppressive conditions and outcomes.’ Actual decolonisation, they stress, is ‘the repatriation of Indigenous land and life.’ But as humans have been migrating since the dawn of time, borders and homelands are always in flux, and their contestation doesn’t necessarily end when invaders go home, a lesson my family learned first-hand from the Biafran War.
Perhaps we can prepare mindfully by considering Hawai’ian activist Pōkā Laenui’s five stages of decolonisation: 1) Rediscovery and Recovery, 2) Mourning, 3) Dreaming, 4) Commitment, and 5) Action. After the colonised recover traditional knowledges and heal through mourning what was lost, Laenui explains, they/we begin to dream of possibility and strategies. Allies, that is, travellers and travel writers, can also do the work in their/our own communities. In ‘Per Castra Ad Astra,’ pausing his peripatetic lifestyle to enrol at the Institute of American Indian Arts, author David John Baer McNicholas wrestles with white male identity and the end of empire, acknowledging ‘needing to enter this conversation without knowing where to start.’
In ‘Night Farmers,’ journalist, author and ecological thought-leader Leslie Carol Roberts describes a recent trip as inspiring yet ‘redolent in the stink of French, American, and Chinese appropriation of the land called Laos.’ Roberts, a US American who spent years reporting from Thailand, deftly interweaves personal observation with the history of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), which has survived years of war, colonisation, unprecedented bombing and closed borders and is now at a turning point: ‘I am entering the last true Communist state in Southeast Asia but before we do, we need to get some photos for the various Facebook pages of Lao PDR border workers. Yes, Facebook.’
Roberts and I met years ago in grad school, bonding over having both lived in Thailand, the single nation in Southeast Asia that had managed to avoid colonisation (but then rolled over for a tourist economy, sigh). My time in northern Thailand was some of my lightest. As a multiracial, multi-ethnic, multinational body, I have always inhabited the border, skirting the edges, each foot in different territory — Black or white, Igbo or Nordic, Nigerian or American, corporeal or spirit. My friend Minal Hajratwala, also the child of diaspora, embodies it in their sweeping family memoir, Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Westland Tranquebar, India): ‘Geographic shifts were mirrored and amplified into emotional, mental and even sexual ones. Each time I cross a border, I feel the push and pull in my body, a cacophony of competing desires.’
In Thailand I was not asked to choose between Western binaries with their firm, sharp lines that cut. I could exist as Black and white, sacred and profane, intersectional, treading the Middle Path. This border imaginary also presents itself in “Breaching the Invisible Border,” the first literary publication by professional writer and editor Cecile Baltasar. In her lush, sensory account of struggling with mental health, which pushes the boundaries of travel writing, borders are psychic and self-imposed — between the young author and her classmates, between the extended Filipino family in Manila and the self, between the real world and the dreamworld.
I am reminded that Laenui says dreaming is the most important stage of the decolonisation process. Without it, we cannot commit, we cannot act. The dream-writings resulting from our dream-travels are acts of faith, inhabiting the border between imagination and reality. As Kole says of the act of cartooning from exile in the USA, ‘I feel both hopeful and delusional.’ I invite you to settle in, click on our border-free music playlist, and join us on the hopeful, future-making/future-building/reconciling journey.