On Borders, or The Sea Inside

Awkward, and almost always the idiot/ Savant, mutant, retard, I/ Travel my own effervescent weather,/ In my underwater/ Vessel, my sweet/ Mars, and soundless/ Daydream, magical sweep of Rimbaudian/Reverie.  – Cynthia Cruz, “Diagnosis”


Borderline: personality, characterized by a sense of non-existence, an inability to frame experiences in nuance or gradient, a proclivity towards self-destructive compulsions (booze, blow, BDSM, bath fixtures), behaviors designated enhancement but, when obsessive, escape – presumably, from the hyenas (A Little Life) or wolves or jackals that hiss and shriek, you do not exist.

IMG_2592 IMG_2593 IMG_2594

Borderline: Korday. Chaos and crush of bodies, the frenzy of checking documents, schnapps and Swiss chocolate at discount, a melding of pit-stink and countless cheap woven bags bulging with whatever it is to be ferried, a length of perhaps a quarter-kilometer that has the effect of rendering citizenship both arbitrary, a slip of paper, and essential: never are you more aware of the connotations of your dark navy leather, your embossed eagle, then when you stand, sweaty, re-reading the green sign above the uniformed kuzet that closes with, inexplicably, good luck. Exclamation point.


Border and borderland…serve as both site and metaphor: a place of transgressive potential from which to disrupt fixed identities of gender, race, or class and thereby critique essentialized accounts of identity…“Border” is experienced as a place of both limits and gaps: a site of barbed wire and invisible landmines, but also a place of vigorous exchange, of friendship and intimacy, a site of connections and opportunities as well as of threat. It is this multiplicity that interests me, as both an ethnographic object and a prompt to theoretical reflection on a distinctive modality of power…
Reeves, Madeleine. Border Work: Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia.


The border-crosser is always newly aware, and newly disengaged from, their affiliation, but the transition from Almaty to Bishkek is especially fraught, complex as are these national/ethnic/linguistics distinctions, both inter- and intra-. Discussions of what separates these two countries seem inevitably to devolve into, at best, the anecdotal; at worst, the banal.


Yogging, Kyrgyzstan.

I’m aware, too, of the limitations of my own observations, and that of the other (educated, conscientious, but still outside) Americans. The Kyrgyz are ___; the Kazakhs ____; distinctions in the degree of “Asiatic” features. Kyrgyz revere “gangsta” culture, as evidenced by hip-hop streetwear and AK-46 bumper stickers; Kazakhs “gangsters” and Wolf of Wall Street displays, as evidenced by white stretch Hummers, luxury-brand consciousness. On one side, mountains, gold, steppe, horses, oil. On the other, mountains, gold, steppe, horses.


No yogging in Aktau,


No jogging, two hours from Almaty.

The Russian adjective utilized  frequently for those-other-than-I is хитрый – cunning. This repetition falls under the category of Other Fulbright Proposals I’d Like to Float, a favorite procrastination device, along with faux-ethnographies, Knausgard-stylie I-novels, and parodic lifestyle blogs (Smoked Fish & Serotonin).

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Animal-print flats & shower gel & peach spritzers are not 6 Things I Loved in July.

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1/6 Things That I Did

I am six-ish months into the grant period.  The moment of panic, rupture, or inspiration, in the nether space where my perceptions of Kazakhstan, are revealed as naive, but the true place – this fixation, also naive? – remains elusive.


Who are we in the moment of crossing? Is the border an opportunity to erase signifiers, and is this elimination a relief or a cause for panic? Is the space itself site of lawlessness, the suspension of rules, an ethical leveling, an opportunity to situate in an existing community, to build new community, or reject the notion of alliances altogether?

“I think I passed up a lot of opportunities for love because I was too interested in identity politics,” she admits. “But as you get older, the distinctions of how you identify yourself, whether it’s about race or sexuality or your profession or money, really do start to fall away. The question is, what you’re left with.”

-Hanya Nagihara


IMG_2581Davidoff smoke curls over scarred wooden walls, dissipates into the high shelves, bottles of obscure (and not in the rarefied sense) whiskey. Around high tables, men with mussed jaw-length hair rest acoustics on their thighs, finger slim volumes, still plastic-sealed: a chapbook of Russian concrete verse, an anthology on jazz poetry.

Pavel Bannikov, a narrow silver ring on his thumb and in his left ear, holds court; Mamed Sadykh-Pur, the composer equal parts Neil Young and Bela Fleck and Steve Reich and Mandy Patinkin, improvises on the upright. It’s Tuesday. The bar is underground, unnamed, and accessible only to those holding an electronic card, reminiscent of the DATASYS plastic with which I clocked into my first DC job. Drinks in steins, not snifters, denim kneecap-exposing, t-shirts faded, coiffure pink-tinted or dead black, wild (women). 

Textbook Beatnik, a near-perfect homage to Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, their ilk. The replication is uncanny.. I’ve always loathed the Beats (except you, Sir Ginsberg), and forced myself to read On the Road only to teach it – thought it was self-indulgent, meandering, and just – boring, dumb ungenerous machismo rather than cool. (Plus, JK: “You’re a Genius all the time.”)



But this impulse towards re-enactment. Those subcultures of Gettysburg enthusiasts, live-action role players (sighted in Medeo: evidently Almaty’s mountains are perfect site for a laser fight), or even that early-naughts celebrity, Dita Von Teese.


Different than homage, with its knowing perversion of the original, the tweaking politicized. Take, say, Harryette Mullen’s Dim Lady, the pin-up girl aesthetic claimed by women outside the margins of the female body sanctioned desirable – Tom Wolfe’s social x-rays, “delicately emaciated, with just a hint of a well-managed eating disorder” (Kevin Kwan’s “China Rich Girlfriends”).

Channel and change.

If nostalgia is embellishment and longing for the past, it’s striking that one of Almaty’s literary circles creates its identity by moving back. The direct invocation of the space made. Is thiSaid1s bar, the particularities of this performance, a re-framing designed to accommodate the personalities and desires of the present moment, or Said2aversion? Rather than contending with the complexity of what a cultural event should look like in emerging Kazakhstan, is it more intuitive, or more logical, more soothing, to focus attention on re-creation? 

Does the border-dweller erase, regurgitate, or self-mythologize, like Ripley or Kurban Said/Essad Bey/ Lev Nussimbaum, subject of The Orientalist, which I read in the dining car of the Almaty – Aralsk train?



June. Riding the 17-hour plotzcar from Turkestan to Almaty, Uzbek children (O, shadow of long eyelashes as they sleep!) sharing my bed. Eyeing my travel companion and I, the littles ones played a question/answer game, variations on “Would you rather be Caroline or Michelle?” as we consumed carnation and violet steppe, tea, and heat-disfigured Kazakhstan chocolate eaten by spoon (hear ye: chocolate in transition from solid to liquid, friends, does not “pass” for Nutella).

Is the borderland in the hurtling train ? The coupe? The IMG_2587stations themselves?

In our contained state, I found myself both more apt to lie (married, yes) and disclose (opinions on Evangelism). En route to Aralsk, we bunked with the only other Westerner, a British vet investigating the mass deaths of the saiga. The circumstantial parallels – our matching MacBook Airs, her husband, born in the same Colorado town as Caroline – assumed an intensity. Intimacy. The air fetid and practically edible because of the containment, absence of circulation. Ordinary intersections in biography are correspondingly intensified into fate. Listening to the vet float theories on the animal deaths, (and what about the sleeping sickness in Kalachi?) the plots of novels-to-be unfolded, their brilliance corresponding to the logistical impossibility, while train-bound, of actually writing them. Just as, when I run – a borderland of its own, between speed and stasis – solutions appear, the trivialities of laundry and logistics dissolve, but of course, they cannot, yet, be written down.



A delusion that, as I synchronize with the rhythms of Kazakhstan, and “Central Asia,”  the external transformation (of space, of culture, of language) have entered me. Infusion or virus, depending. Winter, wearing mink and heels to blend, I was taken occasionally for a native (“…until she opened her mouth..”) and I loved it, treated it as implicit endorsement. Spring, small angers at cultural particularities, particularly in the female modes I observed, felt obliged to be alien/ated from. An uncontrollable enactment of behavior designed to draw attention to my otherness: shouting don’t even fucking think about it, cocksucker! to moving vehicles, untied shoelaces in spite of IBR* (inevitable babushka response). In Samarkand, I fingered ikat, and the vendor asked me, in Uzbek, what the “little Japanese tourist” (my mother, beside me) was looking for. I run my daily 11ish kilometers up Dostyk/Lenina, forego sun protection – the Uzbek-style parasols do not easily go mobile. In the Korean boutique, I buy mitts for the epidermis. The ladies: you resemble a Kazakh. Summer, languor, and a cessation of performing toward or against. A shift in perception: the border as material, fixed. In the Park of the 28 Guardsman, two boys scrutinized me and said gypsy. 

The border as longing, according to Hass, because (I know, I know) “desire is full of endless distances.” The anticipatory blank between perfection, worldly expression.

IMG_2073Jorie Graham, from Orpheus and Eurydice: When we turn to them—limbs, fields, expanses of dust called meadow and avenue—will they be freed then to slip back in?

The borderland is Euydice’s, Gretel’s, the well in Maxine Hong Kingston and Murakami. The Embassy houses in Banovo Brdo, Belgrade, where dip-brats grilled diplomatic-pouch brats, and, blocks away, Roma napped in their shanties. The woods. The cemeteries that dot the Steppe. The dense, soaked sand where Anderson’s mermaid first lay palm, then fin. C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe. The moors – Brontë, Austen, Carson. Bishop’s waiting room, Kafka’s single room and village inn – outside, Grete, “the first to stretch out her young body.” The castle – Nabokov’s highways, and his butterflies, and even this (nightmarish) lab space these Uncanny Lover hybrids inhabit, the gloaming, the frenemy, the memoir, the entire discipline of Cultural Anthropology. By turns static and dynamic. Stable and in flux.

Graham: a doorway open nothing on either side


Almaty, again, and Pavel’s Tuesday Poetry. I do not know, yet, whether the best performances occur at moments hybridized & border, when the assembled poets and musicians and painters and video-makers assemble and collaborate. “Without a parachute,” says Paul. “Without a net,” says Mamed. Any audience to such projects knows they can be spectacular, or spectacularly shit-the-bed or pretentious: each medium softening its process conventions in order to invite the infestation of other art forms, and this easing of limits either illustrates their importance or draws attention to their fragility.

The borderland has never been avoided as literary subject, but can it be, in the moment of its existence, the site of literary production?

Put another way: Who are the great contemporary Kazakhstani novelists? Where are they?

Pavel’s ambitions are to introduce creative-writing pedagogy to Kazakhstan and coax in a – the – new generation of the Kazakhstan literary scene. He directs a three-genre workshop, application only, which is stock for American classrooms but still, as I learned from a semester at KazNU, radical here. To say the Soviet system birthed a learning culture that privileges the rote and stigmatizes the risk and failure necessary to development in any subject is oversimplification, but it’s true that lit-as-blueprint rather than source for analysis is unusual. P’s curriculum: the Underground Russian poets, the Beats, Simic. (But where are the women? I asked.)  He introduced me as, “Michelle, who is writing on identity.” Collective fooooooh.

Discussion, compressed, as prose poem, re: contemporary Kazakhstani literature. Dialogue, unattributed, to account for anonymity, mistranslations, and the unreliable ear:They are trying, the young poets, they are ambitious. But prose – prose is more complicated. No one under thirty should write anything but poetry, my mentor told me once. You have to absorb world literature. In order to write what is both specific and universal. The syllabus in the Soviet system: Dreiser, Twain, Hemingway, Poe. Blinders. Myopia. I pantomimed a horse. There is no tradition of translating world literature into Kazakh. And insufficient translation of existing Kazakh literature. * There has been no great literature since the 1930’s. I disagree. In order to write, you must confront the past, the trauma of the past. The German word for dream is traume. And they don’t want to look back. Pora – pora. Encouraged to examine the archives from the Soviet era, they refuse: it is boring, it is clinical. Perhaps it’s some ambivalence towards the legacy of – colonialism, imperialism? The notion that the Kazakhs lack the terminology to “correctly” label the past. Patronizing? What would you call it? Kazakhstan is a young country. A teenager. An adolescent. From your parents, from your buddy who drinks beer with you in the park, from your schoolteacher, from the State, you hear this is how you should be. But you cannot process, consider, you only react. You try on, temporarily. You try on extremes. Schizohophrenia. Or you freeze.

And all this brings me to the simple point that the adolescent is the person who needs to experiment with self-betrayal; is the person who needs to find out what it is, or what it might be, to betray oneself. Which is not what it means to break the rules, but what it means to break the rules that are of special, of essential, value to oneself. And in order to do this you have to find out what these rules are. So-called delinquent behavior is the unconscious attempt to find the rules that really matter to the individual. And this is one of the most – if not the most – frightening quests. Phillips, from On Balance: 



An anti-drug ad on Dostyk, but reminiscent both of the mega-hit “Chandelier” & other content in this post.

Much has been written on the body (I am loath to even give it a definite article), especially the female body in adolescence, the terms psychic and violence in the next paragraph. Gluck birthed generation after generation of hunger-writ-austere. (That I disclaim, and take a wry distance from the subject that is, actually, close to me is its own variation on how can I be special if I belong). But disclaimers aside, and disorder/addiction mythologizing aside (see Kelsey Osgood, How to Disappear Completely.)


Border-dweller, border-aesthetics, nightmarish.

Fourteen. Craving invisibility and its inverse, the confusion of who am I simplified via decisions about weigh, sinew, and space taken up. This summary has nothing to do with the pre-conscious “decision” to simplify the world, and one’s place in it, through restriction or compulsion. So, too, the common narrative of the traveler’s perception of his environment, contingent upon: I do not belong, thus I am special – unsustainable in the every-day, where (so we are told) the goal is: I belong, and I am special. Fourteen: the hole in a friend’s concert t-shirt, near the collarbone; my sexy Latin teacher, with spectacles and a severe black bob, the loops of my mother’s cursive when she signed a check, and the sinewy tennis coach w/ mullet who lobbed green balls at us: all versions of maybe I should be this. This, too, is possible. In my very narrow world, these choices, the fiction that the self can be invented, and the disappointment, even terror, at how to make it stick.


continued, from “Diagnosis”:

The shame of being
Seen consumes me.
And I fight it back,
A landowner warding off
Leagues of feral thieves,
With fire, handheld torch, burning back
The onslaught.

desperate to ward the onslaught
Off. Until I am nothing
But a body.
Burn the body down
And, with it, out goes the pilot
Blue light of the mind.

Jennifer Egan: It is in the body of a true anorexic that the irony of equating thinness with power becomes grotesquely obvious: shriveled, weak, married to a project of self-erasure that often ends in death…How did it happen? For myself, I have an idea: As much as I longed to triumph, to have adventures, to succeed in ways my mother had not, a separate part of me was terrified to betray her…

Graham: What she dreamed, as she watched him turning with the bend in the road (can you
understand this?)—what she dreamed

was of disappearing into the seen
not of disappearing, lord, into the real—


To complicate this question of identity, adolescence, literature, and borderlands – potentially, fertile, potentially feral, (a hybrid creature in an underworld) – the question of ethnicity. 

Bhanu Kapil

Bhanu Kapil


That sticky term, Eurasian.

Gumilev, coiner of term,  tribute in Almaty.

Gumilev, coiner of term, tribute in Almaty.

The term ‘Eurasianism’ is more of a politico-ideological and philosophical concept and understanding with multi-dimensional features and aspects that emerged and re-emerged in various historical stages by philosophers, historians, nationalists, communists as well as individual groups and leaders for pursuing their respective goals and aspirations (Brzezinski, 1998; Shrielman 2009).

For more on Kazakhstan and Eurasia, see Joshua Kucera’s work. 

It’s problematic, and facile, to project some half-baked American notion of the Eurasian onto political slogan or agenda. Speak from the I – OK. To be labeled Eurasian, hapa, halfie, mongrel, etc. (I’ll skip the “my hips are too big for this cheongsam!’) means [    ]. When I try to frame it in narrative, I cannot, yet; in poems, though, the logic of the language makes the [    ] material. Yet  when I see this contention with border-dwelling, be it linked to gender or race or beauty or nationality, it’s a physical yes: when the right calf stabs through the air framed by two arms in Bird of Paradise pose, and the spine is somehow straight.


I see this war (borba) in you, said a Kazakhstani acquaintance, flatly, between Europe and Asia. I wish it were – you were – legche.

Борьба: fight, struggle; in sport, wrestling.

легче: from легкость: easier, lighter.

Больному севодня легче: The patient is feeling better today

Even this tendency toward quotes and excerpts of others, rote for the blog form, itself a projection of ambivalence to one’s authority. Or authority, in general?


Self-effacement or self-exaggeration, themselves, perhaps, an extension of the borderline’s negotiation, or “coping with,” a flimsy or absent sense of self. Borderlands, aestheticized thus? And another question – who can claim the “border” state? And do the particularities of the between-states matter (see the blowback re: Jenner and Dolezal ) or should this condition be treated more gently, more empathically, as both “specific and universal,” like (one) definition of great literature?

But this naming. But this confrontation. But this lancing. But this pus. But this purge. But this in service of progress. But this presumption of self.  “self.” The stable self. The American obsession with authenticity, that coexists with a faith in change, the necessity to “evolve” and “growth” towards actualization. How to hold these two processes in mind: that the American conception of the authentic self, which strikes me as a single entity, is also contingent and concurrent with dynamism, movement. The clear bowl, the little goldfish swimming inexorably upward. The seeming intractability of the body’s meat, the hushing and concealing surface of skin, when inside blood and lymph and cilia and the remainders of toast and plum jam dissolving and last night’s Parliament charring the bronchial tubes, then emptied out.


At the poetry reading, the conditionals we played with were: if the past is confronted, and excised, and negotiated, then literary production is possible – that the great tradition of the Souther Gothic, for example, would not exist without a cultural insistence on dialogue and confrontation (that still continues…)

I lined up two matchboxes. If this is Kazakhstan pre-USSR, and this, during, then what will the now be? And so, psychotherapy. It’s neat and tight and resonant. But.

Another car, from Bukhara to Samarkand, A Little Life balanced on my lap. Read the novel (“the great gay novel”), immediately. Read the interview with Hanya Yanagihara here. “But I don’t believe in it — talk therapy, I should specify — myself. One of the things that makes me most suspicious about the field is its insistence that life is always the answer.” Upon return to Almaty, this link, my inbox.


Everyone said
I was pretty back then.
Maybe, way back then,
Before I began.

photo: Sanat Ongrbaev.

photo: Sanat Ongrbaev.


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