Borders are “important”: they define, in legal terms, who we are, our identity, and our rights. Except borders are rarely imposed with any thought to the people actually living there. And once a border is imposed, it can radically change the lives of those who live alongside it, dividing communities forever more.
Lindsey Miller spent two years in North Korea from 2017 to 2019 when her husband was posted to the British Embassy in Pyongyang. Miller (some research reveals) has a career of her own (she is currently musical director at the Royal Shakespeare Company) and finding herself (one supposes) somewhat at loose ends as a diplomatic spouse, started taking photographs.
Living along a border can be literally living on the edge, for borders are places of uncertainty where death, humiliation and misery can be all too common. As Suchitra Vijayan points out in her book Midnight’s Borders, this is where entire communities can become stigmatized as foreigners, illegals, smugglers and traitors.
Return to Sri Lanka: Travels is a Paradoxical Island, the latest book by Razeen Sally, describes the country with the following words:
There are shelf-loads of recent books about bigger and better-known countries, not least on Sri Lanka’s giant northern neighbour. But little Sri Lanka hardly pops up on the world’s radar screen. When it does, it presents a fractional, distorted view – bombs going off one day, ethnic riots another day, alleged war crimes. On more peaceful days, it yields tourist images of ‘Paradise’.
“Approaching 30 and disillusioned with life in an old mining town near Glasgow, I sold everything I had and left for a new life in a remote fishing village in Japan. I knew nothing of the language or the new land that I would call home for the next 7 years.”
One can forget, when reading this gentle translation, that Li Juan’s account of her time with nomadic Kahakh herders in China’s Altay prefecture, was not written for us, the anglophone audience. Not only was Winter Pasture written in Chinese for a Chinese readership, it was a critical and commercial success. It’s easy to see why.
Joseph Conrad’s favored destination was Asia, the bustling transit port of Singapore, the remote islands and ports of the Dutch East Indies. It was from Singapore that he made four voyages as first mate on the steamship Vidar to a small trading post which was forty miles up a river on the east coast of Borneo. A river and a settlement which he described as “One of the last, forgotten, unknown places on earth”. His Borneo books—Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, The Rescue and the latter part of Lord Jim—were all based on the places he visited, the stories he heard, and the people he met during these voyages.