Home in the Hinterlands: On Robin Hemley’s “Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of Nationhood”

A reporting trip to topographical curiosities sheds light on what it means to be a world citizen.

Home in the Hinterlands: On Robin Hemley’s “Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of Nationhood”

Borderline Citizen by Robin Hemley. University of Nebraska Press. 216 pages.

FEW WORDS ARE so cosmopolitan as “cosmopolitan.” Though its phonetic variations may have settled into languages around the world (kosmopolitan in Javanese, kozmopolît in Kurdish, et cetera), it maintains a stubbornly foreign air. Most languages have numerous native words for those who are native and those who are not. Few have very many homegrown synonyms for “cosmopolitan.”

Greek in etymological origin, the word’s underlying concept nevertheless cannot be claimed for Western civilization (or any other). Far from a badge of world fraternity, in historic practice the term suggests something to be resented or monopolized: the rootless Jews Stalin sought to expel from the Soviet Union, the polyglot elites flying first class at a distance from others.

In recent decades, the meaning of cosmopolitanism has wobbled a bit. In 1999, the year of massive anti-globalization protests in Seattle, the prime minister of Singapore — a country half the size of Los Angeles, and little more than a generation old — divided the city-state into two symbiotic groups: the heartlanders who keep “our core values and our social stability,” and the “cosmopolitans” who are “comfortable anywhere in the world” and connect the city-state to world markets. Nations big and small began to share a new understanding: cosmopolitans were no longer just useful guests of the nation-state, but permanent citizens.

Part reportage, part memoir, part meditation, the hybridity of Borderline Citizen: Dispatches from the Outskirts of Nationhood befits its subject. At the outset, author Robin Hemley recalls flying from St. Petersburg to Moscow, in a race to transit to Hong Kong before his Russian visa expired. Noticing Hemley’s US passport, his Ukrainian seatmate asked if he considers himself a patriot.

“I guess,” the author remembers replying, genuinely uncertain what the word means. Hemley wonders whether for someone like him — a liberal, well-traveled American, “born without the patriot gene” yet fond of the traditions of his adopted Midwest — the ideal situation might be that of the Acadians, who have a flag and a national anthem, but, since their eviction from British Canada in the 1700s, have no homeland to defend from perceived enemies and intruders. But most of the world’s borderline citizens cannot afford to live without nations, no matter how questionable their claims on them.

This is especially true of Hemley’s main subjects, the inhabitants of the world’s enclaves and exclaves. Such territories are entirely surrounded, or cut off from their main bodies, by other nations. A particularly complicated version of this are the chhit mahals on the Indian-Bangladesh border: 162 pieces of land, some only 500 square feet, stranded across the border from their main territories in the 18th century, thanks to a land swap between the Mughal Empire and the Kingdom of Cooch Behar. Recently the land was returned, and the residents resettled in camps across the border, while they await the sale of their former lands. However neat this might seem on paper, this “homecoming” has proven less than smooth. On his visit to the Indian camps, Hemley learned that the residents — many of them Hindu — tend to be seen by their fellow citizens as suspect: “The residents of the chhitmahals had been made to feel inferior to their neighbors by dint of where they lived and how they identified nationally.” Thus, Hemley reports, they found themselves “stranded between wishful thinking and the realities of global and local politics.”

This turns out to be a theme, as suggests the story of a more figurative exclave: the Falkland Islands. Almost all of the residents of these windswept islands off the coast of Argentina are descended from British Islanders, who began migrating there in the early 19th century. For generations, the “Kelpers” intermarried and moved back and forth from the Patagonian mainland, their mobility reinforcing that “the islands were merely the islands, the coast was merely the coast, and all claims were contingent.” Indeed, the Falklands had never been recognized by Argentina as British. With the post–World War II decline of its overseas empire, the British government would have preferred to surrender responsibility for the islands to the colonized majority (as it had in Hong Kong and Rhodesia), forcing the British-descended minority to repatriate under British passports. On the Falklands, however, the “Kelpers” were the majority. They chose to remain, becoming more British than British, especially following the 1982 clash with Argentina.

Interviewing the island’s residents — most of whom had never been to Britain — Hemley found he needed to be cautious about acknowledging the situation. One man chided Hemley for mentioning his Singaporean residence before his American passport. “I’m a Brit,” the patriot said. “No matter where I am in the world, I’ll always be British.” To be a foreigner might be suspicious, to imply that one is simply a citizen of the world, more so.

“All inhabited landscapes, and some that are not, are constantly being read and translated in new editions,” Hemley writes, in a chapter exploring the Russian city Kaliningrad. Unlike the long-contested Falklands, the city’s modern translation and retranslation took place rapidly and decisively: at the end of World War I when it became an exclave of Germany within Poland, and in 1944 when it was largely destroyed by British bombing attacks, and subsequently annexed to the USSR. At an even earlier date, Kaliningrad had been the Prussian settlement of Königsberg, home to the most famous Enlightenment proponent of the cosmopolitan ideal: Immanuel Kant.

Though Hemley’s brief vignettes give little space to Kant’s vision of world government, he casually suggests that the philosopher’s ideas were shaped by his experience of living in a Prussian exclave cut off and occupied by Russian troops. Their officers introduced such exotic innovations as punch and ballroom masques to the formerly conservative town. As a habitué (one struggles to imagine this), Kant was seemingly impressed with the virtues of a cosmopolitan social scene. Yet when the Russians left, according to Hemley, Kant reminded his superiors that the occupant of the coveted professorship in Logic and Metaphysics had been appointed by the occupiers; as a consequence, the chair was reassigned to Kant.

It is hard to say whether Kant was playing off nationalist sentiment, invoking the international law he idealized, or both. Two centuries later, the Russians who occupied the city after World War II certainly did not heed “Kant’s view of the perfect world, [in which] visitors were always welcome, but they weren’t supposed to stay.” Stalin removed the Germans to Kazakhstan and the Volga, while Russian settlers took their places, rebuilding the city in Soviet style. Still, in the minds of ethnic Germans on both sides of the Iron Curtain, it remained Königsberg.

This vision outlived the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Kaliningrad became an exclave once again, this time of Russia. Now surrounded by Lithuania and Poland, it began to receive a stream of nostalgic Germans in search of the Prussian past. Aside from the recently fabricated neighborhood of “Fish Village,” “with its wan imitations of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cafés,” along with plaques pointing out Kant’s presence, Hemley finds little of that old Prussia left. The city now has a sizable population of ethnic Germans, yet there is little prospect of Kaliningrad leaving the Russian Federation. An irony of the place, the author observes, is that its most identifiable local famously questioned the boundaries of his own subjecthood. Nowadays, “the only person indisputably who seems to belong here is Kant.”

Borderline Citizen makes not only for interesting historical reading, but an absorbing vantage on our contemporary crises of belonging. Numerous in the days before efficient borders, actual exclaves are now few in number. Even so, their spirit defines the fragmented geography in which we now live, in which remote islands are tethered to the metropole by the frayed dreams of empire, which tourists traverse in search of one ersatz Fish Village or another. These case studies reveal a necessary part of the angst of globalization: it is not that the nation has been invaded, but that its myth has begun to expire. As Hemley concludes: “[M]ost human beings feel about their homes — that their homes define them — when, really, it’s the other way around.”


A historian of 19th-century United States, Justin Tyler Clark is the author of City of Second Sight: Nineteenth-Century Boston and the Making of American Visual Culture (UNC Press, 2018).

LARB Contributor

A cultural historian of the 19th-century United States, Justin Tyler Clark is assistant professor of history at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is the author of City of Second Sight: Nineteenth-Century Boston and the Making of American Visual Culture (UNC Press, 2018). His latest book is The Zero Season (Penguin, 2022), a novel of love and revenge set in post–World War II Paris and Cambodia. His essays have appeared in the Journal of American StudiesNew England Quarterly, American Journalism, Time & Society, The New York TimesThe Boston Globe, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Justin_T_Clark.


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