“We’re all world citizens in the boneyard.” An interview with Robin Hemley

Photo by Margie Hemley

Interviewed by Julia Lieblich

Robin Hemley has become something of a mushroom expert while sequestered in Iowa City, combing the woods for chanterelles and morels with his wife, Margie. “It feels really good to be in one place with my family,” he says, “but I’m sparked by travel.” Indeed, Hemley’s trips from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to the Falkland Islands have inspired numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, including Invented Eden, Reply All: Stories —the title story was first published in ACM—and A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, work that has earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship and three Pushcart Prizes. His latest book, Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of Nationhood, is a deeply reported and compassionate memoir in which Hemley explores how lives are shaped by political boundaries.

In the book Hemley celebrates Guy Fawkes Day in the Falkland Islands, where citizens try to be more British than the British despite Argentine claims on the land. Also he tells the heartrending story of an Afghan refugee who professes love for a country that would rather see him dead. He brings readers to the world’s most unusual border town, where Belgium and the Netherlands share more than thirty boundaries, revealing the sometimes comical and arbitrary conditions that divide people and the loyalties that bind them.

Born in New York City, Hemley has taught classes and writing workshops throughout the world. For nine years, he was the director of the nonfiction MFA program at the University of Iowa and for five years he was the inaugural director of the Writers Centre at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. More recently, he was the Jenks Chair of Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross near Boston. Previous university teaching jobs took him from Bellingham, Washington, to Charlotte, North Carolina. This June he became the inaugural director of the Polk School of Communications and the Parsons Family Chair in Creative Writing at Long Island University. The same month he earned his PhD in creative practice from the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

 Author Julia Lieblich recently interviewed Hemley by phone. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Julia Lieblich: You wrote that like Hannah Arendt you were born without the patriot gene in terms of loyalty to a country. How has travel led you to this conclusion?

Robin Hemley: It started at seventeen when I was an exchange student. My roommate at boarding school was from Japan, so I went to Osaka and he was my host brother. I wasn’t just traveling. I was immersed in another culture with people who had been there during the war. I walked around thinking thirty years before I would have been arrested and maybe executed. And now the US and Japan are best friends. It started me thinking about how I cared as much about other people and places as I did for people in my country.

You have said the complexity of the citizen to his or her nation is the big question of the 21st century. How does this relate to the pandemic?

It’s important for us to interrogate ourselves and our relationship to our countries and our country’s policies because we have to ask how we are complicit in the decisions our government makes with or without our approval. What is our responsibility as citizens to try to create a nation that is socially just? It’s been terrible to see the way in which countries have been nationalistic and saying it’s us against the world. To me it’s the complexities of interrelatedness: How are we responsible to people in other parts of the world? During the past several years we’ve turned inward in a very dark way. It’s a global phenomenon.

Like pulling out of the World Health Organization?

Yes, we’ve become used to irrational behavior. I always think about what Ernest Renan, the French philosopher said, if countries were people they would be shunned by everyone because they are the most vainglorious. They are the monstrous, awful people you would never invite to a party.

Do the worldwide protests following the death of George Floyd represent the best of us?

Yeah, I love it. A friend from Singapore said to me: Black Lives Matter has sparked worldwide protests and has made us grapple with our colonial pasts and the statues we have gracing our public squares.

Why is the country you were born into no longer the country you know now?

I don’t think I knew my country. A lot of what I was taught was a kind of propaganda. But my mother used to take me to NOW meetings when I was a kid so I was absorbing feminism. At thirteen, I started a little environmental group called the Society for the Prevention of Environmental Corruption. So I think a lot of people at the time were aware of social issues that needed attention: the environment, feminism, black empowerment and LGBTQ issues.

You wrote about the importance of observing your own vulnerability. What does this mean?

It is to understand some of the baggage you bring to the experience and understand that you’re not an expert in someone’s culture. To be humble about your interactions and the information you’re taking in. 

What did you think of the cancel culture controversy?

I believe in the power of the imagination. I also believe you have to be very responsible, do your homework, and understand the sensitivities of what you’re writing about. I would never write about a culture that I had just dropped into. I have spent years in the Philippines and I’m married into the country and consider it a second home. I’m cowriting with the writer Xu Xi a textbook for Bloomsbury on fiction writing and most of the models for stories are from Asia or the diaspora. Xu Xi wanted to include a flash fiction of mine set in the Philippines and published in The Iowa Review. It’s a true story of cultures clashing, and one that is virtually unknown. It’s an account of two American soldiers in the Philippines during World War II who behaved badly after being welcomed in the northern mountain village of Guinaang, and how the villagers responded. I’ve been to Guinaang with a linguist friend who lived there for twenty-five years. After many failed writing attempts from the point of view of the soldiers and even the point of view of myself, I decided the only way I felt I could do the story justice was to try it from the point of view of a young boy from the village whom I met as an old man. I relied on my firsthand research and my imagination and my respect for Philippine cultures and social justice. I think fiction writers can cross boundaries if they do so fully aware of the pitfalls and risks. I certainly don’t want to appropriate or misrepresent anyone’s culture, but I think it’s a very complex issue when it comes to fiction writing, and that the writer’s imagination does not always stay in its lane, for better or worse.

I know I’ve been too apologetic in my writing, going overboard to point out that I know I’m white and privileged.

I’ve had students do that. I tell them they don’t need to apologize. The sensitivity has to come through in the writing.

What has traveling taught you about yourself?

It makes you confront your own feelings, your identity as an American and how connected you are to the rest of the world because the rest of the world has opinions about America. When I traveled to the Philippines and elsewhere in Australia during the Bush administration, people would act like I voted for Bush even though I hadn’t. When Obama was elected, people were congratulating me as if I had personally installed them. I am currently writing an editorial about my extended family. My wife is from the Philippines and her family is having these hilarious arguments. One person is pro-Trump and lives in Mindanao and can’t vote for Trump, but she believes all the lies on Facebook. The sister of my wife lives in Chicago and she’s pro-Trump, and then there is a sister in Manila who is pro-Biden. And my wife doesn’t like Trump. It says how important America is in the world consciousness.  I bet people in Siberia are arguing about Trump right now.

I was particularly moved by your discussion of a refugee from Afghanistan who said he loved his country. And you thought, “And your country wants you dead.” What did you learn from that experience?

I learned you can listen to people’s stories and there’s nothing you can say to make it better. There’s nothing. There’s this big wave crashing over your head and you don’t even know what to say.

This is the question that haunts me:  Does telling the story really matter?

I have to believe it does. Even if it influences just one person. That’s a kind of victory. Because you know we can’t influence the whole world. I mean maybe occasionally there is a story that does. But I do think you have to chip away at things.

What did you learn about the arbitrariness of borders from your experience in Belgium and the Netherlands?

Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog are twin towns that intersect in a completely bizarre way so that when you may take a stroll in the evening, you can cross the border twelve times, and the border may go go directly through someone’s front door. There are two  police departments and two fire chiefs. They share a town hall, though the international border goes right through it. I’ve seen this room in which two people sit right next to each other and they’re in different countries.

Are you amused by this?

I’m completely amused. They’re amused. But it’s not just this sort of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. They’ve had real problems. In the 1960s, a  motorcyclist  landed in the wrong enclave and the ambulance crew was in a Belgian enclave and they couldn’t treat him. He and his girlfriend died. But I think the residents are very proud because what they have figured out is how to get along as a kind of model for the rest of the world.

How does your writing about “cruel and ineffective borders” apply to Trump’s border wall?

Well, it’s cruel, of course, because people are dying. In the desert people are being exploited, and borders are dividing families. There are places on the Texas-Mexico border where people used to  mingle freely, and now families are cut off from one another. In tribal areas, they are building walls though environmentally sensitive places, and it does nothing but satisfy the ego of the president.

You talk about people’s need for authenticity. What drives this?

The further people get away from the sense of  some Edenic existence, the more they think that there’s some real places that are gardens of Eden, something original and pure. And yet, there’s really nothing that’s pure, as I say in one of my essays. If you strip Hawaii of all its authentic flora and fauna, you’re pretty much left with fruit bats.

I’ve interviewed nuns who have taken a vow of hospitality, which I love. You have talked about Kant’s writings on universal hospitality and the rights of citizens to move freely between states. Is this your ideal?

Well, I don’t think Kant would have liked me and I would have found him impossible. He was such a creature of routine and didn’t like to travel. But he loved travel books. I do think that we have to be more cognizant of the way we use borders as exclusionary in a way that is economically damaging to other countries. So yeah, idealistically, I want that.

What do you mean when you say the identity of places is mutable?

Because borders are mutable. They are constructs that we create. You can stay in the same place and be in different nations. I give an example of a guy in India who never moved, but he lived in four different nations in his lifetime.

What are your thoughts about the tension between China and Hong Kong?

I love Hong Kong and I think the people are so brave. It just seems to me about the ego of the leader: “I’m not going to let Hong Kong do this because I represent China.” And so they move in and break something that was working. There had been just a small movement of people who wanted independence. Most people wanted to be part of China, but wanted the Chinese Government to actually live up to its treaty obligation. 

What has travel taught you about collective forgetting?

I think a good example of this is the Falklands. Before the Falklands War there was a lot of back and forth and a lot of shared history between Patagonia and the Falkland Islands. There are families in Argentina and Chile with the same last name as people in the Falklands because they traded populations all the time. As the Falklands solidified their ties to the UK, it led to a collective forgetting of those times.

You use the Yiddish word bashert—destiny—to describe your experience of travel.

I run into many encounters in so many of my books by chance. And yet they seem so perfect. It just happens I am in the right place at the right time to meet someone—or an event happens once every ten years and I happen to be there. And I love that.

Why did you tell your family you want a blank tombstone?

As I say in another essay, we’re all world citizens in the boneyard. That’s when where you are from doesn’t matter quite so much. And in the essay I embrace it and say, look, I don’t want anything on my gravestone. It’s obviously meant to be somewhat wry. I do hope that people do remember me a little for a little while, but I just wanted to make a larger point about how we think about permanence versus impermanence.

Does this relate at all to monuments crashing down right now?

Yes, completely. I always think of that poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. It’s a sonnet. This is all you need to know about monuments:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

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Julia Lieblich is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Agni, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and other publications. Her books are Sisters: Lives of Devotion and Defiance and Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning After Terror.

IMG_5232Margie Hemley is a nurse in internal medicine. She is originally from the Philippines but has made the US home for the past twenty-one years. Her grandmother was the head of the Manobo Tribe in Mindanao and Margie directs a Filipino cultural dance troupe. She’s an avid gardener and  mushroom hunter. She is married to Robin Hemley and lives In Iowa City.