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Narrating North American Borderlands

Thomas King, Howard F. Mosher and Jim Lynch


Evelyn P. Mayer

The study centers on the presentation of the North American borderlands in the works of Canadian Native writer Thomas King’s Truth & Bright Water (1999), American writer Howard Frank Mosher’s On Kingdom Mountain (2007), and American writer Jim Lynch’s Border Songs (2009). The three authors describe the peoples and places in the northeastern, middle and northwestern border regions of the USA and Canada. The novels address important border-oriented aspects such as indigeneity, the borderlands as historic territory and as utopian space, border crossing and transcendence, post-9/11 security issues, social interaction along the border, and gender specifics. The interpretation also examines the meaning of border imaginaries, border conceptualizations, and the theme of resistance and subversion.
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6 Conclusion

6   Conclusion

The theoretical frame at the confluence of literatures, cultures, and borders is widened and deepened by a spatial and border-related reading of contemporary North American fiction. This has been precisely this study’s approach and procedure. New insights have been gained for both American studies and border studies. Border readings inform the understanding of borders, borderlands, and bordering practices and processes. Here, border fiction has been analyzed in context, focusing on the notion of the “beyond”. While binaries are often created by bordering processes and the prevalence of geopolitical boundaries in a globalized, though also reterritorializing world, these binaries are transcended through various literary methods in fiction. The diverse, but complementary settings include King’s border river in the Prairies and Plains, Mosher’s utopian “third space” of Kingdom Mountain situated on the Vermont-Quebec boundary, and Lynch’s Washington and British Columbia cross-border community. This study’s underlying premise and theorem is one of transcendence as encapsulated in the bird trope. Birds fly across boundaries and symbolize the idealized projection of societal and geopolitical concepts beyond border binaries. In Border Songs, birding as well as being bird-like is contrasted to bordering and exaggerated border policing. “Big Bird” and border guard Brandon embodies this stance.

By discussing three border texts selected from the narrative work of King, Mosher, and Lynch, I have illustrated the concept of the beyond by analyzing the writers’ narrative strategies and their conscious choice of settings, tropes, characters, and plot. The authors “write back” creatively, employing humor and irony. They foreground a border spectrum that oscillates between the “unnational monument” (Stafford) and the “mend[ed] wall” (Frost). The level of border permeability varies according to boundary-crosser as well as time and place depicted in the novels. Bird-like, Lynch’s protagonist Brandon Vanderkool transcends boundaries in his capacity as a birding border guard. However, other characters are portrayed as illegal immigrants and are captured at their attempted crossing. The novels of King and Mosher feature in-between spaces and the boundary is inscribed with meaning as in King’s river Shield and Mosher’s Kingdom Mountain. Not only a variety of borders is portrayed and shown as socially ← 197 | 198 → constructed, but also alternative conceptualizations and projections of border spaces are proposed and promoted.

An activist approach to the arbitrariness of boundaries and bordering becomes apparent in all three works. In King’s novel, colonial borders are undone by Monroe Swimmer’s practice of painting back in a postcolonial fashion. The Natives in the landscape paintings reappear, the Western church is made to blend in with the surrounding landscape, and the buffaloes are resurrected through sculptures. Societal borders are subverted in Mosher’s novel through the very presence of Kingdom Mountain as a utopian, or even “ecotopian” (Callenbach), and color-blind edenic space and Jane’s practice of bending the norms of society. Moreover, as mixed-heritage characters, Jane and Henry defy so-called propriety and inhabit a “third space” at the edge of the village. Lynch’s Border Songs portrays the geopolitical boundary explicitly as arbitrary and security as overblown. The main character, Brandon, transcends many borders, whether geographical, societal, or mental and physical such as the borders between apparent health and illness as a person with dyslexia who may be on the autism spectrum. The authors subvert preconceived notions not only in and through their novels, but also in terms of lived experience. This holds particularly true for Thomas King who crosses borders as an American and Canadian, a Native and a non-Native person.

The exclusive treatment of contemporary North American novels in a border context serves as a barometer to the issues of significance for residents in the regions along the Canada-U.S. border. Novels as a medium of publication are one of the most popular in the realm of fiction. Therefore, novels set on the Canada-U.S. border reach a wide readership and offer reflections on contemporary societal issues, for example addressing issues of security and border management. Though the selected novels vary in subject matter, set of characters, and area, they are nonetheless united by the importance of the Canada-U.S. border setting and the prevalence of bordering practices on the plot level. Although the three authors appear to be a homogenous group, since all three of them are male, predominantly white with the exception of mixed-heritage Native writer Thomas King, and U.S. American, diversity is a defining characteristic in their lives and works. The authors collectively address currently debated and important border-related issues such as colonialism and contemporary indigeneity (King), historical multi-ethnicity and borderlands as a utopian space (Mosher), and post-9/11 security and bordering practices (Lynch).

Two intertwined themes emerge in the three selected novels, one is the theme of resistance and subversion and the other theme pertains to border imaginaries ← 198 | 199 → and conceptualizations. The need to resist and subvert a given border and ensuing order is closely linked to people’s border concepts. The local residents compare and cannot reconcile their everyday experience of the Canada-U.S. border with the imaginaries of the friendly and neighborly international line between the two countries. Therefore resistance directed at the type of border management resembling a police state emerges as portrayed in a fictionalized manner in Lynch’s novel. In the end, paranoia and distrust reign supreme in the once viable cross-border community of Blaine, WA and Lynden, WA and their Canadian counterpart White Rock, BC. Action leads to reaction and the Canada-U.S. boundary is resisted in the form of subversion. At other times, the same boundary is also used to economic advantage, although illicitly. Depending on the border imaginaries of certain groups of people these illegal activities do not appear against the law to them, because the imposition of the legally binding border is not recognized in the first place as is the case for some indigenous tribes, whose homelands are bisected by the international boundary. Border imaginaries inspire and justify acts of resistance and subversion of the Canada-U.S. border. In fictional representations of the border these imaginaries surface and can then be analyzed in connection with means of resistance in the same realm and even beyond the literary scene both including and influencing lived experience at the international boundary.

The three novels resist the imaginary of the Canada-U.S. border as an absolute or naturally given construct and instead stress in-between spaces. These interstitial spaces include a Stygian-like border river in King’s novel, Kingdom Mountain in the fictional work of Mosher and the borderlands of Cascadia in Lynch’s text. Fictional representations of borders, boundaries, and borderlands, together with borderscapes and bordering, create new possibilities of conceptualizing the ontology and epistemology of borders. Maps as palimpsests underline the procedural nature of borders that are always in flux. Additionally, the three authors use strategies of remapping and rewriting and subverting superimposed boundaries, as well as preconceived and dominant notions. Closely related to the practice of palimpsests are the arts as illustrated in the three novels. Particularly, King’s character Monroe Swimmer is linked to acts of subversion by painting back the Native presence in landscape paintings. The dog-cart man in Mosher’s On Kingdom Mountain uses outdoor structures as canvas transcending the dominant conception of what constitutes art and proper paintings. Yet another approach to expression and subversion through art is achieved by Lynch’s protagonist Brandon, who exhibits characteristics of the land art movement and also engages in painting illegal border crossers in an abstract manner. Though ← 199 | 200 → not fully being a palimpsest, the different interpretive layers of meaning are of paramount importance and are reminiscent of palimpsests.

Another visual metaphor is the one of parallax. By shifting positions, new perspectives can be gained and horizons broadened. Through parallax certain paradoxes inherent in symbolic borders and geographical boundaries become more tangible and conceptually describable, opening up intellectual spaces of discovery and discussion. Borders resemble Janus-faces, beginning and end, division and unity. Residents of borderlands rally around the international boundary rather than their respective nation-state flags, because they share similar concerns as the neighbors on the other side of the geopolitical divide. This becomes obvious in all three novels, since residents of both sides visit and know the other from the land beyond the line. They share life in the borderlands, whether in the Prairies and Plains, at the border between Vermont and Quebec, or in the Pacific Northwest.

The imaginative freedom to conceptualize and fictionally represent borders, borderlands, and bordering processes is the cultural capital of novels and other creative writing. Particularly fiction gives authors the freedom to formulate their viewpoints on current situations in poetic forms. These imagination-based approaches to lingering geopolitical issues and social challenges are frequently more prone to yielding stances of parallax and ensuing innovative problem-solving and conceptualizations than the empirical approaches of social and political sciences. Border prisms in the humanities and poetic prisms in the socio-political sciences need to converge through parallax and sometimes paradox to open new ways and reading the nature of borders. Fresh thinking can point to alternative and innovative concepts of borders and bordering. To thrive the human condition longs for belonging, a sense of purpose, and a basic order. Literature offers a variety of representations of the current state of political affairs and social relations and contextualizes these often border-related imaginative representations in lived experience. The insights of the present study contribute to improve the conceptualization of borders as well as the reasons for representing these borders and bordering practices in fiction. Representations and constructions of borders are co-constitutive and only by taking both into account can there be a deepened understanding of the nature of borders, borderlands, and bordering practices. This in turn is needed to find alternatives to untoward implications of borders and bordering processes such as exclusion and a lack of flexibility.

Though the scope of this study is limited to three contemporary North American novels, the analyses of the selected border fictions help to comprehend socially constructed borders, boundaries and bordering practices in a more ← 200 | 201 → nuanced and informed manner. This new understanding can lead to more comprehensive and multi-faceted concepts of borders. It resembles the multiple nature of geopolitical boundaries and symbolic borders. Future projects could deal with borders as represented in fiction by female and male authors from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds and tackle border texts written in the period before and post-9/11. Moreover, additional border locales along the Canada-U.S. boundary should be included, for instance the Alaska-Yukon boundary as well as the circumpolar North with the emerging geopolitical challenge of climate change, the extraction of natural resources and the themes of sovereignty and indigeneity.

The analysis of the three novels has proven the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach based on the concept of North American studies, the notion of “worlding,” and comparative border studies. Only by using a holistic approach can the results be productive for both fields, literature as well as border studies. The analysis of King’s, Mosher’s and Lynch’s novels in conjunction with each other covers the whole spectrum of important border and bordering-related issues. Changing perspective and adopting a position of parallax with regard to the three novels has led to mutually complementing insights for literary and border studies reminding of the multidimensional results of repositioning the drawing compass. The notion of “worlding” transnational American studies and Canadian studies broadens theoretical horizons, while North American studies and the inclusion of indigenous studies accommodates the subject positions of all stakeholder groups involved in border constructions and literary productions. Border studies in the vein of border poetics and with a strong emphasis on bordering processes and practices beyond mere description help shape the dialogue of contemporary North American border fiction in the context of concurrent geopolitics and underlying socio-mental border constructs. ← 201 | 202 → ← 202 | 203 →