On Wednesday, January 26th, from opposite sides of the US-Canada border, and across three time zones, I had the opportunity to speak with the writer Yanara Friedland about her latest book, Groundswell (Essay Press, 2021), a brilliant essay in twenty-seven parts, that destabilizes the idea of borders both in its form and content.
We spoke about trying to identify where/when the writing of a book begins, the role of failure in her process and a “poetics of exhaustion,” among other things.
Ben Robinson: In the book, you write that this project began out of “a failed lecture.” Can you speak about what it meant to begin out of failure?
Yanara Friedland: It is interesting that you locate this failed lecture at the beginning because I don’t think of the book starting there. For me, it’s hard to know where or when the book began. There were a lot of things that happened before I recognized I was moving toward a book that felt retrospectively very important. In a way, the book starts with me leaving Berlin after being invited as a guest researcher and finding myself in this somewhat bizarre double-natured context where I’m in a linguistics seminar and I’m not a linguist, where I’m at the border between Germany and Poland – literally the university looks over the border, over the river – and having to translate my concerns into that academic context or structure. And then by night, when I leave, attending to these other concerns that propelled me to go back to Germany, to return to this place that I’m from and that has really been the place I write from even though I’m far away from it. I think for me, the book starts with this transgression of entering into the seminar. It felt like a clandestine gesture. Giving myself an opportunity to return and investigate borders in a broad sense, and especially this Polish-German border where I was located in terms of the research, but then also being in Berlin which is the city of my birth and where I experienced being in a walled city space for the first years of my life. For me, that’s one of the beginnings.
And then coming back to the US – I was living in Tucson at the time – and returning to that border landscape, it felt like I was coming out of a failure of meeting the expectations of that research visit and began writing the book instead. But I was also engaged in writing the work that ended up being in the book much earlier. There was a whole manuscript prior to Groundswell that came out of walks I did several years before, across various former European borderlines. Parts of those writings became absorbed into Groundswell.
I could go even further back and say when I was still living in Europe, I had, in the context of my thesis in migration studies, looked at narratives that refugees and asylum seekers have to produce in the context of a legal hearing. I was working closely with a lot of different people connected to border crossings.
It’s interesting to try and locate a beginning.
One of the things that was important for me with Groundswell or that still actually feels important is that a lot of the ways we think about borders, the way we narrate borders, the way we narrate threshold experiences or experiences of displacement, I find the language often lacking. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s failed, but there’s a lot of jargon.
If you look at border studies or border theory, that to me feels extremely abstract. Then on the other hand, you have lived experience that is multivocal and contradictory. That’s the heart of what I’m interested in – what it means to live by the border, what it means to be a border crosser, what it means to exist in a world that is completely bordered. For me, there was a failure of academic language to capture that. So part of the way I’ve structured Groundswell is using these glossary terms that come from border studies as section titles, but instead of using the definitions, there are voices, language collected at borders.
The struggle, whether this is with Groundwell or other projects, is that I’m just more and more in uncertainty and doubt all the time. For me, there’s this inherent failure or gaping wound that keeps proliferating and permeating the pages of anything that I write.
It’s interesting that you mark this inconclusiveness as a failure because I think that often in books like Groundswell, that are working in more poetic or investigative modes, this open-endedness is held up as a merit. But there’s also a tension when you’re dealing with borders, which have real material consequences for people’s lives. I wonder if that’s where some of this idea of failure comes in and I’m curious how this connects to the method of exhaustion that Jill Magi invokes in the introduction to the book.
I love how Jill Magi identified that. It was startling that someone I hadn’t talked to, who just read the manuscript, picked up on a kind of poetics of exhaustion that I feel is an undercurrent of the work. Partly, I think why it’s difficult to re-enter the mind I was in while writing Groundswell is that this book didn’t resolve anything for me. It is inconclusive and ambivalent about itself as am I about it.
One of the very difficult parts of the book was using the stories of people from the archive I was working in at the Polish-German border. I still have conflicting feelings about that. How do you make sense of the archive? How much am I allowed to go in there and take? I didn’t really change the stories. I changed them in the sense that I translated them and edited them for length – some of these were 70 pages long – but they follow the arc of the original.
And then there were many other stories I just took out. The manuscript was probably double the size it ended up being. I had a lot of material from interviews. Where did they go? Exhaustion comes from knowing the limitation of the work. Or the question of why do it in the first place and who will care?
I think there’s also an exhaustion in navigating and negotiating these landscapes that to me are complicated, wounded landscapes. A lot of it was place-responsive work, so there was something about writing with the actual land that exhausted me and that was difficult to be conclusive about. I don’t know if that’s what you’re thinking about?
I’m also curious about how this method of exhaustion might differ from defeatism or a kind of nihilism. And I don’t see those things in your work, but I see them in the word. Do you see this method as hopeful or resistant?
For me, exhaustion has a lot to do with an inability to function and make sense of the world in ways that I might feel are expected of me. I think the writing is invested in going close to a kind of experience and capturing that and being really dedicated to, not necessarily truth, but listening. A lot of this work was about listening. It’s not about giving up and getting sloppy. I’m writing a book about sleeplessness right now and this state of not being able to rest or to recover, not being able to fully rejuvenate or be well. This method of exhaustion, I don’t know that I fully know what it is yet, but I think it has something to do with not trying to pretend otherwise and not making language pretty around it, really letting the language also fail or be transparent in its limitation. As someone who lives between languages, German and English, and who always has this feeling that I’m not fully correct in my grammar or that someone needs to proofread this because I’m not writing in proper syntax, what happens if you just let that stand rather than try to standardize or come to a place where you can make definitive statements and be the voice of clarity and conclusion and wisdom? Letting the rifts bloom.
I’m interested in what you were saying about writing with the land. Many borders rely on either the idea that land is stable, separable, singular – a line can be drawn through a region and that line will stay in place – or else this Genesis-esque separation between the earth and the waters. In Groundswell, however, you keep returning to the groundwater, this merging where the water flows through the land. I think the title, beyond its nautical usage, also evokes an image of land becoming liquid. Can you speak about this relationship between water/land/border and whether the fluidity of water might provide a new way of thinking about borders?
One obvious point is that the border I was primarily working with in Germany was the river Oder. I didn’t quite realize until I went there that the river was used as the place of demarcating and separating the two towns. Frankfurt Oder was once a single town and eventually was cut up in different ways depending on when you look at it historically. But primarily, it shifted its identity post-World War II and half of the town became Polish and the other part stayed German. The border was drawn along the river. That’s where the border checkpoints were and you had to cross the bridge in order to get to the other side, to the other country. So the river is a very evocative space. I spent a lot of time there, just sitting and writing. You can see the embankment of the other side. People crossed the river often at night. Especially during the GDR period, there was a lot of border activity: human trafficking, smuggling and many people died while crossing. The river as border, co-opted to fit a larger geopolitical aim.
I’m also interested in how land holds memory. This was important when I was doing the border walks but also in the context of my stay in Frankfurt Oder. I think there is something about the current of a river and the way memory moves through rather than remains in place. Also, this idea of the water swelling – that’s a really important image for me, the way things don’t disappear but come back up, like the corpses in the dream section of Groundswell that threaten to come through the faucets. There’s something about threshold spaces, like dreams or borders, they are really alive and unforgiving.
I was reading your Rumpus interview and you talked about submerging the physical book in water after its publication. Is that connected here?
It was more like an impulse than a strategic plan, but I felt compelled to submerge the physical copy. I love acts of decomposition and what happens when things are left out in natural settings and how nature interacts with the work and the text. I used that as a way to mark the book’s existence (during the pandemic and in the absence of a public reading/offering) and it felt important to do that through water. I think that Groundswell is a submerged space. I see the archives as a submerged reality as well, an underground reality or underworld, and so there was something about honouring that. Plus, I live in a place that’s surrounded by water.
Thinking more about form and formal models, you mentioned earlier that these section headings are drawn from glossaries of border studies. There also seem to be a number of possible formal models for the book littered throughout its own pages: Krankheit Als Weg, the idea of the lost book via Bruno Schulz, Jerzy Ficowski’s “smuggled unofficial version of history,” Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia, Ptolemy’s chorography. Why was it important to include these works directly in the text rather than just apply their lessons?
I don’t necessarily think of all those books as models. I remember finding the Münster. It was a revelatory moment to realize that cartography was not always cartography as we know it. It came out of this more textual tradition. And chorography being this amazing way of thinking about mapping space. So much of my initial proposal when I went to Germany had to do with how we map borders and how we do that through narrative. So when I came across Münster’s work, it gave me permission to use different forms, to include texts that are descriptive as well as gossip or anecdote, all on the same playing field. That was exciting to me and allowed me the possibility to think of this as a multivocal text.
I think of a swarming quality of synchronicities. I wasn’t just in Germany taking notes on borders, I was also taking trains and meeting people and having random conversations. Bruno Schulz was an interesting tangent that emerged because I was taking a train with this writer and translator. He was a Schulz scholar and had translated some of his work. So he opened up both Ficowski and Schulz for me. In some ways, things just entered my imagination as I was documenting and collecting. It would be interesting to make a list of all the books that make an appearance and the role they had. A lot of them had to do with a moment and who I was speaking to at that time.
Thomas Brasch, who is another figure that makes an appearance later on in the book, was a surprising encounter because it made me understand something about Eastern Germany as a vanished place that no longer exists and what it means for people who came from Eastern Germany or the former GDR, this experience of being erased historically. Brasch’s biography allowed me to reflect on some of those conflicts.
You’re talking about polyvocality and I think part of the way that you see that in Groundswell is in the form. I’ve read that you have thought about this book as a single essay and yet it’s comprised of twenty-seven sections. I’m curious about how this form relates to the idea of borders. You have this work that is both one and twenty-seven. How does that interact with ideas of wholeness?
That’s great to know that it’s twenty-seven. I didn’t know that. Part of the struggle with this book in terms of process was that it took me a long time to figure out the form and the sequence. For the longest time, I had it in three different parts, and they were very distinct parts. It was Germany, walking and then there was this last part, the more contemporary US-Mexico border landscapes. At some point, I realized that neat division into parts didn’t reflect my process well and there was something about my experience of time and how these landscapes mesh with each other that needed to be more drawn out. So I smashed all three parts together. It was an experience of de-bordering. We’re moving pretty swiftly between these different landscapes, timeframes. There are moments where we’re in the future, or a prophetic tone that assumes a future. It felt complicated, but also good to embrace the messiness of lifting those demarcations. I think that’s why I was excited to think about it as a single essay.
And yet the parts separated by the glossary terms remain as a structuring mechanism. That’s the thing with borders – borders separate but they also create links. So the glossary headings provide a thread of linkages. It would have been interesting to see what happened if I had taken those out too and let the book flow as one long piece. I’m not sure if that would have been manageable for readers. For me, the book is a dance, trying to create more passage and fluidity while also acknowledging certain bordering processes that are part of writing and language and encounter.
The form seems an enactment of the content, and there are a couple places where I feel like that comes up and we’ve touched on them a little bit. In the book, you talk about yourself as a “researcher of uncertain discipline” and to me that seems to resist these bordered ideas and rigid definitions of expertise and the academy. I’m also thinking about your walking and how, in a book that is considering migrancy and the crossing of borders, how fitting it seems that at least part of your process was through walking. So I’m curious about how intentional these approaches are or whether they are just a reflection of who you are and the way you approach writing?
In terms of walking, when I was working on my master’s thesis, I found myself really aggravated. Failure comes in here again. It’s part of a section in Groundswell too, where I was approaching someone who had gone through a harrowing process of not just making the journey into Europe but also having to recount the journey and be told their narrative is not credible or not true. There are all these complexities. Obviously there are many particularities to a migratory experience. After listening to people, and transcribing these interviews and thinking about their experiences, I had this desire to respond in an embodied way. I felt the limitation of the theoretical framework that I was operating in. I just felt that it was a way to acknowledge walking as an ancient way of moving across landscapes, whether they’re bordered or not. And also to acknowledge the ways people have been moving across Europe often on foot. I wanted to engage the question of what happens to places that had once been marked by a border (pre-European Union) and then at some point those borders were lifted. How does the landscape respond or recuperate? Are there marks or ways that presence is still felt? Those were all things I was sitting with when I was doing the walks.
Cultural cartography describes the archetype of a border crosser as someone who crosses between spaces and engages in some invisible aspect of the landscape. I have questions about that definition and yet resonate with being between spaces and languages, feeling the invisible alongside the visible. The book engages borders in many small unfinished moments that still reverberate. It actively gestures and works inside of different disciplines only to drown them all in a lake in the end.
I’m wondering too about genre – I’m interested in the relationship between this book and your previous book Uncountry: A Mythology. Both books share common concerns around migration and history. Although they lie on either side of the border of fiction/nonfiction, they share common approaches including the use of smaller sections, multivocality and a blend of fact and fable. I know you’ve said that you aren’t all that interested in genre distinctions and I think that you are working in forms that are more complex than simply fiction or nonfiction, but do you think having one of your books labelled a novel and the other a memoir overstates their difference between the two?
What is Groundwell labelled as? I’m actually not sure.
I think it’s a memoir.
Is that what it says?
I mean, there’s nothing explicitly on the cover. But even with Essay Press and what I know of them, the work they publish is explicitly, and I think exclusively, nonfiction.
If we think about the press, I think I would have had a harder time submitting Uncountry to Essay Press. I agree both books have these overlaps, a lot of similarities. They do have a different register though in terms of the way I use language. When I was working with Groundswell, because I was working with these living narratives and documents, other people’s stories that I was carrying into the manuscript, it was pretty clear to me that even though I was going to use my own perspective, which is inherently a kind of fiction, I would try to stay closer to some sort of notion of nonfiction than I did with Uncountry. Uncountry, to me, has a relentlessness. I did not restrain myself very much there. There are issues there too that I had to navigate around family history and what it means to fictionalize a family member or write into things where no one knows whether they happened or not.
In terms of genre, and I know this is not a great answer, but I just don’t know how much I care. I’m very aware when I submit the work that I have to think where it would fit given the genre expectations or what a press puts out. But in the writing, that doesn’t really enter my way of thinking. Even with Uncountry, you could call it a novel, you could call it essays, and I think that would be more of a stretch than what I did with Groundswell, but I think I would be okay with it.
There seems to be something fitting. We were talking about this sense of trespass and whether that’s something that you naturally gravitate towards, or something that you’re consciously enacting. I sense that you’re troubling this line between the two genres as well which is interesting, not just within a book but within a larger body of work.
I keep having this phrase that feels important to me: How does language happen to me? In relationship to these landscapes, in relationship to these questions, in relationship to these documents. What kind of language wants to emerge? I am very attentive to that – some people might say in a problematic way, in a hard-to- comprehend way, too many lyric intensities or fragments or whatever. With Uncountry, that was a lot of the feedback I got. It has often been labelled as poetry. I think even with Groundwell, there is a bookstore that has it in the poetry section. If people feel more comfortable reading it along those lines, fine. What is important to me is the way that language happens to me – in my body, in the encounter with the book’s concerns, the physical realities that I’m engaging with in a given moment. And that does feel very specific in Uncountry and I didn’t necessarily want to or even could reproduce that in Groundswell. I don’t think I do it in a particularly conscious way.
I guess that’s where I’d like to end. If you’re willing to speak about it, you mentioned the book on sleeplessness and I’m wondering if you could say a bit about that and perhaps how it relates to these other two books?
Interestingly, when I started writing Groundswell, I also began to write this other book. They feel like siblings even though they’re completely different works. But they came out of that same circumstance – I started writing it when I was in Berlin. It also started with coming back to the US during the 2016 election, re-entering the country in this tumultuous moment. I shouldn’t say moment, it’s ongoing. But it’s also a moment. So this sleepless book starts with an experience of insomnia which I’ve always had sporadically, but it became chronic in that moment.
It’s difficult for me to say what the book is because I’m still writing it and it’s actually changing a lot right now. One of the things I can say, and that relates to Groundswell, is that this method of exhaustion we were talking about really becomes the center from which the writing occurs. And one question raised is how sleeplessness affects language, how it affects everything actually. In a more tangible sense than Groundswell, you can feel the disintegration of a mind, the rise of a nocturnal spirit. I’m returning to the more unhinged, unleashed parts of Uncountry and yet it also works with biographies, other lives, and centers on Berlin or rather flows from it.
Ben Robinson is a poet, musician and librarian. His most recent publication is Without Form from The Blasted Tree and knife | fork | book. He has only ever lived in Hamilton, Ontario on the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. You can find him online at benrobinson.work.