Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A Land Lacking Definition

Thomas King’s Borders is a unique piece of literature not only for its unique story, but for its intriguing subject matter. Simply writing about borders is a feat in itself because borders are such an odd, intangible, subject. King masterfully manipulates this unease to his advantage, drawing from the readers own preconceptions to define his world. Borders exists in a surreal place, paradoxically elusive and concrete. While we may not be able to see borders, they exist on maps and globes—they literally define our world in a geographical and cartographical sense. King also takes the question of borders to an internal level, dually using the setting to make us question how we see our world and how we define ourselves.

King creates a feeling of ambiguity from the first words of his story, setting the tone for what follows. As the narrator begins, he tells us that he was “twelve, maybe thirteen” when he went to visit Salt Lake City (133). He also is unsure of his age when Laetitia left, citing it as “seven or eight” (133). While this may be a device used to insinuate that these events occurred a long time ago, they also have the effect of causing unease, distrust in the narrator, and confusion in the reader. We do not know if we can take everything at face value.

The next section of the story creates a division between the narrator and his mother, essentially defining the split between the present generation and the past. His mother is still caught up in tradition—as later evidenced through her declaration at customs. When the departure of Laetitia is remembered, we see a conversation wherein the mother criticizes the coffee in Coutts. Laetitia replies, “You’re just angry because I want to see the world” (134). There is a fragmentation of the worlds of these two characters, Laetitia wanting to expand hers and the mother wanting to preserve hers. The suggestion that the coffee is bad because of foul water is also highly suggestive of a deeper meaning, that the sustaining nature of the outside world is tainted. Even in the syntax words there is evidence of this division, when the narrator describes a scene between the mother and Laetitia, “’You can still see the mountain from here,’ my mother told Laetitia in Blackfoot. ‘Lots of mountains in Salt Lake,’ Laetitia told her in English” (135). The mother references the mountain from a back referenced perspective, and speaks in the Blackfoot tongue. Laetitia on the other hand, looks forward to the future, and speaks in English.

Through rhetorical devices such as these, King immerses us in the world of his reader. We contemplate our surroundings and how we define ourselves when presented with the nature of how these characters do the same. It is poignant that the borderland is described in terms of Canadian and American sides, with nothing in between but the duty free shop. There is nothing there except a store that exists as a part of the border—there is no actual substance to the border. This world is much like Anzaldúa’s, a borderland defined by the people within it—who can barely define themselves. The place is ambiguous, almost ethereal in its lack of true substance.

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