The Place You Now Live: On Lauren Markham’s “A Map of Future Ruins”

Stephanie Elizondo Griest reviews Lauren Markham’s “A Map of Future Ruins: On Borders and Belonging.”

The Place You Now Live: On Lauren Markham’s “A Map of Future Ruins”

A Map of Future Ruins: On Borders and Belonging by Lauren Markham. Riverhead Books. 272 pages.

YEARS AGO, while researching the psychic toll of US borderlines for a book project, I met a woman with a talking tree. Her name was Estella. She lived on a ranchito 90 miles north of the Texas-Mexico border but swore her famed olive tree came “all the way from Jerusalem.” Sometimes, she said, it sounded like a heartbeat; other times, like Jesus knocking. Pilgrims traveled hundreds of miles to hear it. She urged me to listen. I gamely pressed my ear against its bark and, to my surprise, heard water trickling as if a fountain was buried inside.

Fantastical experiences abounded in the US borderlands—so many that I couldn’t help wondering: Does coexisting with an arbitrary, consciousness-warping line prime you for additional cognitive leaps? Or do you reach for the mystical when earthier explanations run dry?

Whatever the case, Estella’s Greek equivalent appears only eight pages into Lauren Markham’s stunning new book, A Map of Future Ruins: On Borders and Belonging. Demetrios is his name, and he sits on a stool in central Athens, strumming a bouzouki as he serenades birds flitting about the oleander. “I speak bird because every day one thousand people are coming to Greece,” he explains to Markham, adding later: “Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Africa. […] I must talk bird […] because soon there will be no Greek people anymore.”

Impulses toward animism aren’t all that Demetrios and Estella share. Each of their homelands have transformed into graveyards for migrants trying desperately to cross them—Estella’s because of the sand, Demetrios’s because of the sea, both because of brutal immigration policies. No wonder they’ve turned to the birds and the trees; human realities are too maddening. Plus, no one else is listening.

At least, these were the conclusions I drew in my book. Yet when “eerie occurrences” crop up in Markham’s research, she considers them points of entry. The woman who treats her pet duck to lunch in a public square; the “possessed” donkey who attacks Markham’s husband on the island of Andros; the giant black spiders that dangle, repeatedly, in the journalist’s face—“What other signs did we need that we’d slipped into some other realm, into a current of sinister unreal?” Each experience or omen drives Markham on to deeper excavations. In the process, she calls on figures from the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch to the Soviet-born theorist Svetlana Boym, shuffling through a host of philosophers, cartographers, travel writers, and tarot card readers as well. The resultant tome might be the most expansive contribution to border literature I have yet to read.


A Map of Future Ruins begins in hell. It’s 2019 and Ali, a 16-year-old Afghan, is marched to a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos after the Hellenic (Greek) Coast Guard intercepts the terrifyingly overcrowded boat he paid smugglers in Istanbul 1,000 euros to board. No one believes his age—“We Afghans look old,” he explains—and he is registered as an adult. The distinction deprives Ali of the vital services reserved for minors, including prioritized legal support for asylum. Consequently, he is forced to fend for himself at Moria, a dilapidated and gang-dominated camp originally built in 2013 for 3,500 residents, yet which, by the time of the pandemic, had swelled to an unbelievable 11,000. In September 2020, Moria bursts into flames. Markham recounts how Ali joins the exodus, but all roads to safety are blocked by police or far-right extremists.

Just five years earlier, Greek volunteers in Lesbos extended so much compassion to refugees arriving on their beaches that two were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But a toxic brew of financial crisis, COVID-19, and nationalist rhetoric has since poisoned the country’s collective empathy well. As more boats washed ashore, empathy was transmuted into anger, until refugees became scapegoats for nearly every local discontent.

This is certainly the case for Ali. A week following the fire, he and five other Afghan refugees—“the Moria 6”—are accused of setting the wretched camp aflame, despite strong evidence to the contrary. As Markham grimly notes, “someone had to pay, and it seemed these six kids would do.” Covering their case for The Guardian stokes the journalist’s curiosity about the mechanics of belonging and exclusion; after all, Greece is not only the birthplace of Western civilization but also of Markham’s own ancestors. Both factors fuel her investigation into the “valorization of times and migrations past” that inspires (white) family mythologies like hers, and the “criminalization of contemporary migration” that sends (Brown) people like Ali to prison. As projects go, it is the intellectual equivalent of a minefield—but Markham proves admiringly nimble on her Converse-clad feet.

Whiteness is the first grenade with which she contends. Wondering how her homeland acquired its “collective identity of whiteness” when actually “the ancient world was largely multiethnic, a crossroads of many lands and peoples,” Markham scours the annals of history and homes in on Petrarch. The Italian scholar and poet was reeling from the catastrophic loss of life wrought by the bubonic plague when he started collecting ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts, and the wisdom of those long-dead philosophers resonated deeply. His subsequent, interdisciplinary studies are credited with not only ushering in an era of humanistic scholarship but also christening the “Renaissance” itself. A century later, in 1489, Italians dug up a massive sculpture of Apollo that “gleamed white and noble.” Never mind that such statues were originally painted as if they were wearing “psychedelic-patterned leggings of the sort [Markham] might impulse-buy at Target”—upon their unearthing, they were invariably scrubbed clean of paint and displayed as pristine and white. Markham quotes Margaret Talbot’s “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture” in her explanation of the way this ubiquitous iconography has conditioned us all to “equate whiteness with beauty, taste, and classical ideals, and to see color as alien, sensual, and garish.”

Meanwhile, medieval cartographers all over Europe struggled with how to depict the vast, as-yet-unknown territories on their maps. From both aesthetic and imperialist standpoints, leaving empty space was verboten, so they drew monsters to fill the gaps: sea dragons, bird-lions, water horses, and the like. As Markham notes, the consequent “horror vacui,” or “fear of emptiness itself,” primed colonizers to seize upon the foreboding regions and “set in motion generations of war and subjugation and flight, bringing the truly monstrous to life.”

Let me interject that, having never studied classical Western humanities, I cannot vouch for these historical interpretations. Yet I am wholly persuaded by Markham’s arguments about the dangers of myths: first, that they can “propel a populace back toward an imagined time of national and racial purity”; and second,

[that t]he increasing normalcy of border violence can numb us insiders, making us believe in myths—hidden giants, marauding invaders coming to take what’s ours—and in lies: that pushbacks [forcibly ejecting migrants at the border] aren’t really happening or, perhaps, worse, that they have nothing to do with us, and there’s nothing we can do to intervene.

Markham has spent the last 15 years advocating for the rights of immigrants, as a writer, speaker, and administrator at various nonprofits. Like many who work in this heartbreaking field, she wrestles with recurrent feelings of futility. (“Why, or to what end?” she wonders of her insistent desire to ask questions.) For one thing, journalism (her primary occupation) is “often an industry of extraction, no matter what we tell ourselves.” And then, during her reporting on the Moria 6, she finds herself driving through the mountains of Lesbos, wanting desperately to stop and offer aid to the 34 Eritrean and Somali refugees who she knows have hidden in the woods with neither food nor water—yet fearing the legal consequences. “Choosing not to intertwine my story with theirs wouldn’t save me from being complicit in whatever became of them,” she thinks, driving on.

I had a similar experience 20 years ago, on an isolated farm road between Tucson, Arizona, and El Paso, Texas. The day felt hotter than Hades; cresting a small hill, I saw a large group of migrants in the middle of the road below. They vanished into the brush, but not before searing my conscience. Why didn’t I stop to ensure they were okay? Place a call for them, or offer a ride? I should have left a bottle of water, at the very least. Instead, I kept driving for the same reason Markham did: I was afraid.


“When does the fortress become a penitentiary?” This question, originally posed by the political theorist Wendy Brown, pervades Markham’s book from start to finish. Only one dozen walls demarcated various world borders at the end of the Cold War; today, there are more than 70 border walls. In both Markham’s motherland and my own (South Texas), far-right politicians have demanded that even naturally occurring borders like oceans and rivers be reinforced with deadly razor wire. People who extend helping hands to migrants, meanwhile, are ruthlessly prosecuted. And this is not only the case for activists—in January 2024, the Texas National Guard physically prevented US Border Patrol agents from rescuing migrants drowning in the Rio Grande.

For all their supposed reverence of classical ideals, far-right politicians seem to have forgotten the ancient Greeks’ belief that it was “a moral function of the state […] to provide haven for those whose lives were at risk elsewhere.” To turn someone away was to risk the wrath of the gods. In their time, as Markham notes, “an asylum seeker could enter a foreign city, find his way to a designated house of refuge—typically a temple or sanctuary—and twist an olive branch around his arm to signal his need for protection.” These days, in Greece as well as in the United States, he would likely be treated as a criminal, even though seeking refuge is legal under international and most domestic laws.

Markham carries Ali’s story as far as she can. She interviews him in prison. She follows him from one courthouse appearance to the next. Anxious weeks of waiting turn into anxious months of waiting, which turn into anxious years of waiting—all without resolution. Meanwhile, the Greek tragedies keep coming. The New York Times publishes a video of men in Hellenic Coast Guard uniforms leading refugees onto a vessel only to abandon them in the middle of the Aegean Sea. A fishing boat bound for Italy carrying more than 700 migrants capsizes, drowning at least 600 on the same coast guard’s watch. A pregnant Afghan refugee sets herself aflame in Lesbos, survives, and is charged with arson by Greek authorities. “[M]y spirit was brought to its knees,” Markham admits. Yet she forges on, telling herself—as many journalists do—that “writing about injustice seemed more useful than doing nothing about it at all.”

Back stateside, Mother Jones assigns her a story about assisted species migration, the process by which scientists physically move forests to cooler, wetter areas that offer better chances at survival. Through her research for the piece, Markham learns that trees “live in interdependent networks, like families,” and shift “their growth patterns so that everyone gets enough sunlight.” Driving up and down the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California, she is heartened to witness trees actively engaged in “an intergenerational march against their own disappearance.” But then she visits a bristlecone pine forest in eastern California, where she realizes that—at 12,000 feet—the trees have already reached the last leg of their journey, “because beyond their hilltop home is only sky.”

It doesn’t take Estella to translate what these pines are saying. To migrate is to stay alive. Trees know this. Birds know this. And more and more people are reckoning with the same, often callous truth. The UN Refugee Agency anticipates that by the end of this year, 130.8 million people will have been forcibly rendered stateless worldwide. Given our unconscionably inadequate responses to intersecting and proliferating crises like climate change, political instability, and war, it takes the mightiest cognitive leap of all to think we won’t soon be following in their footsteps, olive branches tied to our wrists. Because, as Markham indelibly reminds us, “when stripped of myth and magic, ‘home’ is merely the place you now live.”

LARB Contributor

Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the author of two books about the US/Mexico borderlands: Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines (2008) and All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the US Borderlands (2017). She teaches creative nonfiction at UNC Chapel Hill.


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