Imagining Planetary Refuge

This is part of our special feature on Forced Migration, Displacement, and the Liberal Arts.


From the Global North, and from Berlin specifically, the so-called “refugee crisis” and those seeking refuge from acute and structural violence are imagined through two key figures: the camp and the border. I will focus on the second. As scholars, we know that the border is not a physical barrier that divides “us” from “them,” whoever falls into these groupings, but rather a regime comprised of actions by individuals and groups; assemblages of paper, surveillance images, and data transfers; the enmeshing and divergence of dreams of liberation and security; creative acts of imagination alongside state power, capital and force.[1] Yet in everyday discourse, border and wall remain fused—a fusion daily reinforced by the “fences” sprouting with dispiriting regularity on European soil as well as in the US. Why? Because, far from being merely the fantasy of rising authoritarian leaders, walls manifest the fundamental organizing principle of our current international system, creating a logic which determines the border-as-regime at least from the state perspective.

As Rogers Brubaker puts it in his classic Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany, since the eighteenth century, we have seen “the division of the world’s population into a set of bounded and mutually exclusive citizenries…[which] has paralleled and reinforced the division of the earth’s surface into a set of bounded and mutually exclusive territorial jurisdictions”  that together “exhaust the inhabitable surface of the earth.”[2] The globe has been sliced into walled-off territories, which (at least in theory) correspond to specific national citizenries. In between them are doors where state agents act as bouncers letting only certain people into their “membership” club.[3] It is the driving logic of the state to maintain such control, Brubaker argues, because in our world of popular sovereignty, states gain and maintain authority by being the state of a certain nation, ruling for a particular national group understood usually (though not always) in ethnocultural terms. Allowing just anyone in, being open to “strangers” who might eventually outnumber nationals, risks breaking the link between what Benedict Anderson famously called the “imagined community” of the nation[4] and the apparatus of rule the state seizes in the nation’s name—and thus the collapse of the legitimacy of the state itself.[5]

Brubaker was writing in 1992, and I’m sure theorists of globalization and neo-liberal capital will have a word to say about should be added to this picture. It should also be clear that nation, citizens, and territory never overlapped cleanly; all too many examples reveal the devastating impacts of the gap between nation and state.[6] Nevertheless, when it comes to questions of migration, let me reiterate that Brubaker’s overlapping territory and membership organization model not only reflects the vision held by many of our current politicians, but also reveals an inexorable logic built into our global order that remains fundamentally an international one, i.e. a system between nation-states. Europe may seem like a counter-example, having seen in the course of six or seven decades a tearing down of walls, from the Berlin Wall to the national currencies or education regulations which gave way as the EU was formed. Yet, to the extent that developments in EU integration have threatened nation-state control over migration, they’ve created forceful counter-currents that lead either to the reassertion of the nation-state’s duties as a bouncer for its own club (Brexit) or to redoubled mobile fortification of an outer ring around European territory which protects those “alike enough” to form a kind of European supra-nation (Fortress Europe, with the Mediterranean imaginatively configured as the castle moat).

What is at stake in altering this logic of walls? Nothing less than life itself. Just continuing to think of the Mediterranean: the lives of people lost in this sea, whose bodies now form part of a tragic underwater archive.[7] The future lives of people who do reach the shores safely and also of the volunteers trying to stop senseless death but caught up, whether imprisoned or facing trial, in efforts to criminalize sea rescue and humanitarianism more widely. Historical lives we could learn from by celebrating the many kinds of crossings which took place in different directions across these waters, such as the flight of Greek and Italian communists to Egypt in the early twentieth century.[8] In a less embodied but nonetheless vital sense: the life of our Northern democracies as we battle the reemergence of fascism.


I’m wary of strict distinctions between North and South. South Africa is also a country of walls, and I’m reminded of Nadine Gordimer’s short story “Once upon a time,” in which a young child is killed by the razor wire set around his suburban house to keep him safe.[9] This story was originally written in 1989 and might be dismissed as apartheid history; but as the walls between classes and races within the post-apartheid state have begun to come down, some have argued, they have been rebuilt between South Africans and those perceived as foreign.[10] The South has however been an incredibly fertile space for imagining alternative logics and orderings of the world—among other reasons, because of the way the border lines drawn by the colonial powers in Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent were at such a mismatch from the imagined communities that actually governed people’s lives in these regions and because these borders have been used to “entrap” people in grossly unequal conditions (Achille Mbembe describes how colonialism “turned the [African] continent into carceral space and each [African] into potential illegal migrants unable to move except under increasingly punitive conditions”[11]); because pre-colonial knowledge and value systems continue to shape many people’s lives, offering other possibilities; and because it is so often there that forms of fast and “slow” violence first reveal the perils of thinking on anything other than a planetary scale.[12]  I’ll turn now to two examples of this Southern inventiveness which, ultimately, prompt me to make a case for planetary border abolition. Both novels I’ll explore are from South Asia, a region over which I claim little expertise. I approach them not as a professional critic but as a citizen trying to respond to the “multi crisis” facing us at present and as a lover of good stories. (This shift from critic to “amateur,” in Edward Said’s sense of the word, is something I’ll return to by way of closing[13]).

The first novel is Indian writer Amitav Ghosh’s 1988 text The Shadow Lines.[14] The novel depicts the struggle of its unnamed narrator to come to terms with the loss, when he was still an eight-year-old child, of his favorite uncle Tridib. Tridib was a formative figure for the narrator, one who trained the young narrator’s imagination, giving him the capacity to challenge the “normal” order of things, and to invent new stories through which to live. “We could not see without inventing what we saw, so at least we could try to do it properly,” Tridib argued, explaining that “the alternative wasn’t blankness—it only meant that if we didn’t try ourselves, we would never be free of other people’s inventions.”[15] Even with such a mentor, however, it takes the narrator fifteen years to realize that Tridib was not killed in an accident, as he had been told, but by a nationalist, anti-Indian mob while visiting Dhaka, a city at the time of his murder in East Pakistan. The narrator fails to understand Tridib’s death simply because it happened outside of India: his imagination short circuits when it comes to the seemingly domestic affairs of another nation-state.

The extent of his mental colonization by “methodological nationalism”[16] becomes clear in one of the most beautiful sequences in the novel, when the now-adult narrator looks back over an atlas Tridib had given him as a child and draws a series of circles into it with a compass: “His atlas showed me, for example, that within the tidy ordering of Euclidean space, Chiang Mai in Thailand was much nearer Calcutta than Delhi is; that Chendgu in China is nearer Srinagar. Yet I had never heard of those places until I drew my circle, and I cannot remember a time when I was so young that I had not heard or Delhi or Srinagar.”[17] This is first of many circles he draws across the globe, and it leads to a poignant articulation of the error of the logic of walls and borders:

When I turned back to my first circle I was struck with wonder that there really had been a time, not so long ago, when people, sensible people, of good intention, had thought…that there was a special enchantment in lines. I had to remind myself that they were not to be blamed for believing there was something admirable in moving violence to the borders….for that was the pattern of the world. They had drawn their borders, believing in the pattern, in the enchantment of lines, hoping, perhaps that once they had etched their borders upon a map, the two bits of land would said away from each other like the shifting tectonic plates of the prehistoric Gondwanaland. What had they felt, I wondered, when they discovered that they had not created a separation, but a yet undiscovered irony–the irony that killed Tridib: the simple fact that there had not never been a moment in the 4000-year-old history of that map when the places we know as Dhaka and Calcutta were more closely bound to each other than after they had drawn their lines.[18]

The point has unique resonance in relation to the Partition, but the narrator’s realization here is more general and bears underscoring: borders do not divide. They bind the people and things supposedly separated by them ever more tightly in ways that all too often end in tragedy.

The Shadow Lines points to an ultimate need to abolish such borders, to stop dividing regions and populations that could be whole into nation-states set up against each other. However, the passing reference to Gondwanaland is the closest Ghosh gets to providing a concrete vision of what such a world might look like. For more elaboration I turn to a second example, produced across the Partition line: Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 novel Exit West.[19] Almost as if completing the work of Ghosh’s narrator, Hamid writes about his childhood: “I was a map buff, and for my tenth birthday,”—the one, he notes, just after he had returned to Pakistan from six years in San Francisco—“my parents bought me an exquisite atlas. Pencil in hand, I would create new countries: non-existent Pacific islands with snow-capped volcanoes and tightly packed contour lines…a confederacy of mid-sized city-states scattered across a variety of continents.”[20] The spirit of what Hamid identifies as his earliest “creative writing” is at one with the work of inventing a new world at the heart of Exit West.

This novel is, at core, a love story about a couple that comes together and eventually splits apart in the context of war and exile. Nadia and Saeed meet in an unnamed city in the Middle East just as it explodes into war. Unable to cope with the constant violence and social transformations that accompany the fighting, they choose to flee. But it is not just Nadia and Saeed’s normal, middle-class urban life that collapses, rather—and via a conceit of speculative fiction—the “normal” nation-state order of the world itself collapses. This conceit posits a new form of migration first dismissed as gossip: “Rumors [begin] to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away…Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without any warning, to any door at all.”[21] As more and more normal doors become portals to far-removed places, connecting for instance the door of a dentist’s waiting room in Nadia and Saeed’s city to that of a public toilet in Mykonos, and another Greek door to the closet of an upscale house in London, the ability of states to control such entrances and exits slowly breaks down. When anyone can walk through a door anyplace in one country and have it open in an unpredictable elsewhere, even the most technologically sophisticated surveillance and counter-insurgency technics ultimately fail. Borders become so perforated they must ultimately be discarded.

What takes their place? Nadia and Saeed live the transition from a world that feels very much like today into an entirely new reality, including a dangerous turning point into London, when the group of Nigerian migrants with whom they have been sharing an occupied house face annihilation at the hands of a nativist mob. Yet eventually there is a negotiated solution: the development of the “London Halo, one of innumerable human halos and satellites and constellations springing up in the country and the world.”[22] There “in exchange for their labour in clearing terrain and building infrastructure and assembling dwellings from prefabricated blocks, migrants were promised forty meters and a pipe: a home on forty square meters of land and a connection to all the utilities of modernity.” They further became subject to a “mutually agreed time tax” where migrants contribute to the “natives” for some time and eventually themselves come to benefit from the tax.[23] While the London Halo reveals the persistence of different kinds of borders that may survive the nation-state’s demise, including those that settle formally and informally around race, ethnicity and gender and continue to mark “foreigner” from “native,” the settlement at least provides a start for constructing a different kind of world.

Both of the proposals for “forty acres and a pipe” and a “time tax” are worth discussing, but I’ll address the former here because of its clear reference to the “forty-acres and a mule promised to African-Americans after the US civil war. This is a specific link to a larger project of abolition, a link strengthened when—in a last ditch attempt to save their failing relationship—Nadia and Saeed leave the London Halo for San Francisco and Saeed ultimately falls in love with the daughter of an African-American preacher organizing a new government in an unrecognizable California, “a regional assembly for the Bay Area, with members elected on the principle of one-person, one-vote, regardless of where one came from.”[24] With this plot twist, Hamid yokes together the situation of migrants and enslaved people to show the continuities of oppression across space and time. Forty acres and mule was not enough to secure equality for African-Americans in the US, a project that would take minimally another 100 years until the successes of the civil rights movement and which in any full sense has still not been secured. Yet the novel also refuses to give up hope that justice can prevail, especially when the experience of African-American displacement is linked with that facing undocumented migrants, much as the current prison abolition movement also has begun to forge links with border abolition advocates.[25] Indeed, Exit West depicts the very process of calling that justice into being, as new political arrangements crystallize.


Following on from Hamid: Must response to the so-called “refugee crisis” (soon to become a much bigger, actual crisis as climate changes forces ever more human motion) involve the creation of planetary refuge via border abolition? From all appearances at the moment, our current order is so rooted in the logic of walls described via Brubaker that reform is impossible and we must think things anew. So my answer is yes. Yes, that is, unless we are able to create conditions of equality across the globe such that no one is forced to leave their homes to have the life they deserve, a scenario which would likely approximate a borderless world at any rate. Others may offer alternative visions of radical equality that would look very different from what Hamid has produced. I’m not sure myself that his vision of a world without borders is what I would picture. But the question of what I would picture is precisely the point. To return to Tridib’s teaching: if we don’t invent the world for ourselves, we are stuck in other people’s inventions. It is easy to say of a concept like border abolition that it is impossible and for that reason to dismiss it. But it is possible, at least in our imaginations. Let me extend Achille Mbembe’s call to imagine a borderless Africa[26] to the globe, and ask us concretely to imagine what a world without borders would look and feel like, what we would eat, where we will work and who we will love. Let us compare our visions. And only after we have together fashioned the kind of world we want, let us return to the question of feasibility.

Perhaps these sentiments are naive. I’m willing to risk that, as I’m willing to risk offering thoughts about two works that I have no claim on other than that of “amateur” enthusiasm, because I think such risks are needed in our era of “multi crisis.” Here I follow Said. In Representations of the Intellectual, Said argues that choosing the “risks and the uncertain results of the public sphere” as opposed to safe spaces “controlled by experts and professionals” is vital to maintaining the freedom and critique at the heart of true intellectual enterprise and offering an education that matters.[27] He calls for amateurism against professionalization, defining amateurism as “literally, an activity that is fueled by care and affection rather than by profit and selfish, narrow specialization.” He continues:

The intellectual today ought to be an amateur, someone who considers that to be a thinking and concerned member of a society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity as it involves one’s country, its power, its mode of interacting with its citizens as well as with other societies. In addition, the intellectual’s spirit as an amateur can enter and transform the merely professional routine most of us go through … instead of doing what one is supposed to do one can ask why one does it, who benefits from it, how can it reconnect with a personal project and original thoughts.[28]

Amateurism is here a way of refusing to be bound by specialization when it comes to issues of public import (without, of course, getting rid of the core of rigorous argumentation and critical reflection missing from so much political debate today), and it can reenergize in ways that reveals the stakes of what we do in the academy and transform our engagement with our work.

In the literary humanities there is much to transform: We have (I have?) too often retreated into the comfort of ironic distance and critical analysis, which without a positive project tied to it can be deadening. Perhaps the role of literary studies now is to recapture that moment when reading something changes what is possible to think or feel, when stories leave us speechless with beauty or sorrow or shock or confusion, and offer us the chance to make sense of things once again in a new way. I think it is important to share these moments and the commitments that stem from them through writing and public engagement. And it is perhaps even more important, as we strive to come to terms with what Sarah Nuttall calls the “redistributive university,”[29] to refocus on our teaching practice and to challenge ourselves to reimagine and expand our classrooms. It is in conversation with the next generations, and especially with underserved student populations all too often shut out of or steered away from the powers of counterfactual imagination nurtured by the humanities, that we as teachers have the chance to follow in the footsteps of Tridib, Ghosh and Hamid and inspire others to take up the challenge of inventing the world for themselves—the only process through which real life equivalents to magical doors in the walls of Europe, the US, South Africa and beyond may come.



Kerry Bystrom is Associate Professor of English and Human Rights and Associate Dean of the College at Bard College Berlin. Previous publications include the Democracy at Home in South Africa: Family Fictions and Transitional Culture (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016), The Global South Atlantic (co-edited with Joseph R. Slaughter, Fordham University Press, 2018) and South and North: Contemporary Urban Orientations (co-edited with Andrew J. Webber and Ashleigh Harris, Routledge, 2018).

Note: This essay was originally written as a talk for the workshop “Multi Crisis: Global South Literary Humanities in an Era of Global Crises,” held at WISER at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa on October 30-31, 2018.



[1] The introduction and definitions set out in “New Keywords: Migration and Border” gather such theoretical approaches and offer them as ways to “rework the by-now well-known focus on the image of the border as ‘wall’ and its corresponding concept of the ‘exclusion’ of the migrant.” See Miriam Casas-Cortes et al, “New Keywords: Migration and Borders,” Cultural Studies 29, no. 1 (2015): 55-87, 57.

[2] Rogers Brubaker, “Citizenship as social closure,” in Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 22, 26.

[3] Brubaker, “Citizenship as social closure,” 23.

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Rise and Fall of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1993).

[5] Brubaker, “Citizenship as social closure,” esp. 28, 30.

[6] See, for instance, the case of inter-war Europe in Hannah Arendt’s “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” in Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, Harvest, 1968).

[7] Mapule Mohulatsi discussed this underwater archive in her presentation at the Multi Crisis conference. See Mapule Mohulatsi, “Black Aesthetics and the Deep Ocean” (lecture, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, October 31, 2018). 

[8] This specific example was brough to my attention by Alia Mossallam in a talk at Bard College Berlin. See Alia Mossallam, “What is Liberating about the Liberal Arts” (lecture at Bard College Berlin, Berlin, Germany, October 16, 2018).

[9] Nadine Gordimer, “Once Upon a Time,” in Jump and other stories (London: Bloomsbury, 1991), 23-32.

[10] See inter alia Sally Peberdy, “Imagining Immigration: Inclusive Identities and Exclusive Politics in Post-1994 South Africa,” Africa Today 48, no. 3 (Fall 2001): 15-32 and Loren Landau, “Loving the alien? Citizenship, law and the future in South Africa’s Demonic Society,” African Affairs 109, no. 435 (April 2010): 213-230.

[11] Achille Mbembe, “Decolonise: Open Africa’s Borders,” Mail & Guardian, March 24 to 27, 2017, 24.

[12] On “slow violence” see Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[13] Edward R. Said, Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Vintage, 1996).

[14] Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New York: Mariner Books, 2005 [1988]).

[15] Ghosh, The Shadow Lines, 31.

[16] Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick-Schiller, “Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences,” Global Networks 2, vol. 4 (2002): 301-334.

[17] Ghosh, The Shadow Lines, 227.

[18] Ghosh, The Shadow Lines, 228.

[19] Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (London: Penguin, 2017).

[20] Mohsin Hamid, Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London (London: Penguin, 2015), 20.

[21] Hamid, Exit West, 70.

[22] Hamid, Exit West, 167.

[23] Hamid, Exit West, 168.

[24] Hamid, Exit West, 219.

[25] For an attempt to bring together border and prison abolition, see Jenna M. Loyd, Matt Mitchelson and Andrew Burridge, Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders and Global Crisis (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012). I’d also like to thank Josh Dubler for his help in introducing me to the American prison abolition movement.

[26] Mbembe, “Decolonise.”

[27] Said, Representations, 86. Sarah Nuttall has also inspired me to think about risk in her edited volume At Risk. See Sarah Nuttall ed., Writing On and Over the Edge of South Africa (Jeppestown: Jonathan Ball, 2007).

[28] Said, Representations, 82-83.

[29] Sarah Nuttall, “The Shock of the New-Old,” forthcoming in Social Dynamics.



Photo: Barbed wire on fence with blue sky | Shutterstock
Published on March 5, 2019.


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