I have a particular intimacy with borders. An intimacy that I inherited, but did not seek. My family history is a history of belonging and unbelonging across borders. In August 1947, my grandparents, generationally rooted to the Deraghazikhan region of Pakistan, suddenly found that their country was no longer theirs. I want to imagine what that might have felt like. You wake up one morning and find that your country is free of almost 200 years of British rule, but this freedom is accompanied by the political splicing of the country into two nation-states—secular India and the Islamic state of Pakistan. This is the geopolitical event that came to be known as the batwara (in Hindustani) and Partition (in English). My Hindu grandparents found themselves on the wrong side of the divide. For many months, my grandfather resisted crossing that border into India. He waited in the hope that the communal riots that accompanied Partition would subside. He waited for life to return to normal in Quetta—the city where my family lived, the city where my father and his two siblings were born, the city that was home. But the split was final, and in September 1947, my grandfather boarded a train and crossed the border into India, becoming at once—migrant, immigrant, refugee—in his own country.
My sibling, cousins, and I are the first generation of the family to be born on the Indian side of the border. I don't remember not knowing that we were from Pakistan. I knew we were from Quetta even before I could talk (or so my mother tells me). I knew that this border was a source of great pain for my grandmother (Biji), who never fully recovered from the trauma of leaving. The old world was preserved in memories, and on occasion we crossed that border in the stories Biji told us. For her, there, across the border, was home, and here, this new country, was just survival. For us, the Partition was a fictionalized space; we felt a sense of excitement in listening to the stories of how members of the immediate and extended Chawla family escaped, survived, and lived in refugee settlements in Delhi. We also learned that it was only after building homes on Indian land that my grandmother's generation felt some sense of belonging, of rootedness to India. I often wonder if the walls rooted to the new land in the new country stood for limbs that had finally found a foothold in the new country. My grandparents could now claim a literal space in the new India. Even so, the border was not forgotten. The border had created the marginal “refugee identity” my grandparents would wear until their last days. Even now, when asked, we never say we are from Delhi. I still say that my family is from Pakistan.
I like to think that my voluntary border-crossing to the United States in 1997 for an education was my own attempt to reclaim, recolonize, or one might say reterritorialize the border that was forced upon my grandparents. After all, I chose this border, it did not choose me. In a naive way, I felt my voluntary border-crossing might democratize what is necessarily a hierarchical space. Of course, having lived in the United States for over 22 years, having become a permanent resident, and then a naturalized citizen, I've come to understand that borders are neither benign nor surmountable. They resist erasure. They are pernicious. They can be fecund spaces of creativity. They can also be violent. But one feature about borders remains constant: Crossing borders or being on either side of borders creates marginal spaces.
My border-crossing did many things—it changed my life and my livelihood. At the same time, the crossing pushed me into an Other space in America where, even in 2019, people of color such as myself are forced to explain their roots and prove their loyalty to this new country. Wherever I am, the border is never far. It arranges itself every time, during my daily routines, when someone asks, “Where are you from?” Border people anticipate this question. We are prepared for it, we tell the story of our “legitimate and legal” crossing; and if we are undocumented, we likely have a “believable” story in place. This question assumes unrootedness and carries with it the presumption of unbelonging. The questions really says, “You are not from here.” This question marks the border. And the border, I like to say, is my family heirloom. An unmoored space from which all my thinking and writing—this writing—emerges.
As I write this essay on a cold morning in January, my memories of borders, and my own border-crossings, hover, palpably. The US government has been shut down for a month, leaving 800,000 federal workers without their first paychecks for the year. A shutdown motivated by the American president's campaign promise to his conservative base to build a border wall with our southern neighbor, Mexico. I am also writing these words during a week in January when the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.—a man who stood for breaking down hierarchical social distinctions—is celebrated across the United States. The irony is palpable, and painfully so.
The president's argument for the wall is premised on the “perceived” danger that “illegal” immigration from the south represents to US citizens. He would like us to believe that without this wall we will be under assault. The reality and facts, however, present an entirely different picture. “Illegal” immigration from the southern border is at its lowest point since 1970.1 Additionally, several studies have found no direct link between immigration and crime. In fact, they point to lower crime rates among undocumented immigrants. And yet, the current administration continues its quest for funding a wall to save Americans from a “border crisis.” It needs to be noted that the desire for such a wall is an explicit call for division. The wall is a literal, metaphorical, and performative symbol of white US exceptionalism. For persons such as myself, the wall is a physical manifestation of all the borders along which people of color in the United States already reside, albeit some more comfortably than others.
When I first contemplated the themes for my first two issues of Departures in Critical Qualitative Research (DCQR), it was clear to me that migration would be center stage. From the ongoing refugee crises in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, to the assault on documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States, to the Muslim ban, to the recent ruling to ban transgender persons from the military, to England's push to remove itself from the European Union (EU), it seems to me that there is no more pressing issue at this time in world history. In the first issue, I invited scholars to focus on migration in larger terms, to think about what migration means to them in their intellectual, personal, and political lives. Ten scholars wrote poignantly about migration in their different contexts ranging from indigenous cultures in Alaska to the migrant caravan from South America to hospice and end of life as spaces of migration.
This second issue is an extension and elaboration on the theme of migration. My specific prompt to the ten contributors from fields such as English, communication studies, cultural studies, anthropology, and women's studies was to focus their ideas on migration's attendant features—borders and boundaries. There can be no serious engagement with migration without a trenchant discussion of borders. All migrations entail borders. And, to understand and address borders, it is crucial to pay attention to questions of power and privilege. Borders are imbricated, in fact arise from, issues of hierarchy. We cannot think about borders without interrogating who gets to establish borders and thus control migrations of Others. Also, who gets to police the borders? With what legitimate means? Consequently, once borders are created, emplaced, and established, other questions come to the fore. What borders can we cross? What borders are off limits? What role(s) do our identities play in this access?
Borders, therefore, necessarily contain forces that impede and mediate migrations. Borders have properties. They can be political, geographic, intellectual, disciplinary, sexual, racial, gendered, economic, and so on. Borders create boundaries that define inclusion and exclusion. Borders operate as devices to limit migration by determining and defining who is an insider and who is an outsider. In other words, borders are never equal. They lead to the creation of margins, which in turn leads to marginalization, the creation of the minoritized. To bring this full circle, marginalization is tied to migration. Once again, we are forced to grapple with the question, Who is in and who is out? And why? These and many more questions are implicitly and explicitly engaged by the contributors to this issue of DCQR.
In the first two essays, we encounter how a state and a person are relegated to and represent a margin. They show us how margins are kept intact and how they must exist so that one type of identity can be maintained and cemented. In “A Confluence of Margins,” Matthew deTar explores how different senses of “margin” overlap in Europe's complex relationship with Turkey during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. Focusing specifically on Brexit and a 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey regarding Syrian refugees, his essay maps the fluid construction of Turkey as a variety of margins. Through an analysis of the discourse surrounding Brexit, deTar shows how Turkey must remain a margin, in the margin, and as a margin for Europe to define itself as Europe. From considering the state itself as a margin to centering the figure of the Arab in mainstream America, Carol W.N. Fadda's “Living in a Country That Does Not Know Us” is a personal reflection on the challenges of living in the United States as an Arab (Lebanese American), particularly in light of the lack of complex knowledges about Arabs in this country and the assumptions and stereotypes that accompany that lack. This “lack” is an uncrossable border that takes on different affective formations across conversations and contexts.
What borders can we cross? And what are the means by which we cross them? How do we define the borders we encounter? The subsequent two pieces in this issue address these questions distinctly, but in interpersonally intimate ways. In “The Shape of a Life,” an experimental essay rooted in a politics of memory, Azza Basarudin explores the messiness of human emotions and the complex ways the self is configured and reconfigured between and within border spaces. Through journeys in Penang, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem, the author turns inward to unpack the multilayered intersections of gender, race, class, nationality, and religion that color her movement, and so her life. Courtney E. Cole's “Mothering, Migration, and Im/mobility in the Age of the Muslim Ban” is a contemplation on doing qualitative research on the aftermath of mass violence alongside the development of her identity as a mother and contemporary geopolitics, all of which implicate questions about migration and mobility.
Sometimes conduits present themselves to us as lifelines to cross into and across emotional and metaphorical borders. Sometimes these conduits are objects and verse. In “Reading with My Mother,” Caryn E. Medved shows how her act of reading her mother's books, her memories of learning to read well with her mother, and her adult reading life are a conduit to accessing her deceased mother. In positioning the book as “an object blurring the borders between happiness and suffering, presence and absence,” Medved contemplates how “the physical object of a book and embedded traces of another's reading evoke emotions, memories, and selves.” In a linked, yet disparate, essay, Claire Eder presents us with found poems in “Language Forums.” Browsing language forums during a project that involved translating French poetry into English, Eder notes that she “became fascinated by the ways in which thread titles hinted at larger narratives,” which pushed her to “to investigate what these user queries might reveal about the sorts of language that people need, sometimes desperately.” The found poems are preceded by a personal essay investigating the difficulties of maintaining authority and confidence as a non-native speaker and translator. A translator is a conduit between two linguistic spheres or two cultural worlds, and Eder finds herself questioning the process:
when I translate, my subject position is always tenuous. Who am I to carry these words over? This is a constant anxiety. When I manage to harness this anxiety, I tell myself: you are a person, interpreting another person. No matter what, you'll never get it quite right. That's poetry. That's life.
And in those simple words, we learn once again that all border-crossings—literal, literary, or metaphorical—are uneasy, unequal, and uneven.
Those who reside on the margins might become wardens, and even creators, of new borders. This process is well illustrated in Santhosh Chandrashekar's “The ‘One Percent,’” which begins with a commentary on Indian tech workers in the United States and their support for the president's border wall. Chandrashekar focuses his analysis on the film For Here or To Go? to argue “that the rhetoric of ‘unfairness’ articulated by Indian tech workers not only elides privileges, but also increasingly relies on the figure of the illegal immigrant to perform injury and to shore up claims of desirability and inclusion.” By exploring how economically privileged immigrants (re)produce the dehumanization of less privileged groups, Chandrashekar hopes to demystify the unequal positions of groups within contemporary discussions of migration.
Exclusion causes harm. Borders have the potential to cause existential injury to group and individual identity. Taking up this subject in “Paradox and Paraliminality of (Im)Migration,” Sarah Amira de la Garza argues that counterstories are essential to repair the injury and stifled agency caused by mainstream and master narratives of Mexican migration into the United States. Abandoning the idea that evocative laments and critiques are enough for empowerment, de la Garza calls for the embrace of difficult and contradictory narratives, told simply, as the foundation for strengthening identities and providing dynamic stability.
For some, a constant crossing of borders is where and how the self thrives and achieves a semblance of selfhood. The self itself as a border. In “Migration as ‘Home,’” Rona Tamiko Halualani speaks and writes as a member of the diasporic Hawaiian generation (mainland Hawaiian generation) and the daughter of a Native Hawaiian father who migrated for work. The essay illustrates Halualani's ongoing quest for an identity, which ultimately leads her to understand “migration” itself as a type of “home” after years of frenetic searching, nostalgic longing, and a quest to find her cultural “center” or “whole” as a Native Hawaiian born and raised off island.
I have chosen to conclude the issue with a context-specific essay on the Saami, the indigenous nomadic group that resides across four nation-states—Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia. Starting with the Saami adage “To move on is better than to stay put,” Myrdene Anderson's “From Homeland to Homelands and Back Again” takes us on a panoramic journey that connects all persons of the Fourth World via a history of human migration. Anderson reminds us that sometimes “life itself is matter in motion. … Sometimes humans in motion are also matter out of place.” She implores us to remember that “like lichens we are composed of wholly different kingdoms” and that “kingdom” might even include the category of “animal.” Anderson echoes, indeed exhorts, what so many of the scholars in these two issues have said about our contemporary condition: “Migration is us.”
When I conceived of these first two issues sometime in the middle of spring 2018, I had a vision, but I did not anticipate the energy, enthusiasm, and creativity that the 20 contributors would bring to my proposed themes. These issues have borne relief because of their thoughtful ideas and beautiful writing. It is with this innovative drive and creative thrust that I hope we will journey together—across many borders and margins—in the coming years of my editorship.