A Guest in the Shadow Country

November 9, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 6 6 min read

cover“I have a plan,” the Canadian pornographer told me. This was at the beginning of 2002, the first time I moved to New York City, and we happened to be regulars at the same café. I can no longer remember his name, but he was an affable guy. He’d been pointed out to me by my then-boyfriend as a friendly pornographer from Montreal, and he’d sat with us once or twice when the café was crowded. I’d arrived in the café alone today, and he’d stopped by my table to discuss his immigration schemes. “You see,” he said, “I’m bloody sick of being illegal.”

I nodded. No one likes being illegal, although it isn’t necessarily an impediment to finding employment. I was pretty sure all of the waitresses in this particular café were illegal aliens.

“So what I’m going to do,” the Canadian pornographer said, “is I’m going to pose as a Cuban. I mean, I sort of look Cuban, don’t I?”

I agreed that yes, he did sort of look Cuban, but I asked him if he was really certain that this was the most logical way to go about getting a green card. He was.

“It’s foolproof,” he said. “I speak a little bit of Spanish, and I know Cuba a little bit. I know some towns on the coast that were washed out by hurricanes, so if they ask, I’ll just say my birth records have been lost. Look, you make it to land as a Cuban, it’s automatic citizenship. Not even a green card: citizenship. An American passport. You know how hard it is to get a green card as a Canadian?”

Yes, I said, I knew all about it. New York’s teeming with illegal Canadians. I thought at the time that I was one of them; I’d been staring disconsolately at the Immigration and Naturalization Service website for months. My latte arrived and I carefully emptied four packets of sugar into it.

“I’ve been illegal for seven years,” the Canadian pornographer said. He opened the top of his backpack; the kitten that he carried everywhere with him stirred sleepily in the canvas shadows. “I don’t want to move back to Canada. I’ve got my life here, and my cats. But I’m sick of being illegal, you know? So I’m just going to tell them I’m Cuban. It’s brilliant. I’ve got this all worked out.”

I’ve found myself troubled by nationalism lately, by borders and by the inconvenient and at times peculiarly arbitrary ways in which they corral us. It’s partly the inconsistencies of immigration policy, the absurdities of law and accidents of history that lead to bizarre Cuban-impersonation schemes in Manhattan cafés—because if you make it to land as a Cuban it’s automatic citizenship, but arrive from any other country and they’ll probably send you back—and partly my personal confusion about national identity. I was born and spent the first twenty-two years of my life in Canada, but I’ve lived these past seven years or so in New York. I hold citizenship in both countries.

It’s not that I’m confused over which country I should feel more patriotic towards; it’s more that I’ve come to realize that I would be more or less the same person if I were a citizen of Britain, Australia, or just about any other English-speaking country. (I think the language we speak shapes the way we see the world and thus who we are as people, but that’s a topic for an entirely different essay.) More to the point, I don’t think I would be writing very different novels if I had a different collection of passports; and yet I have an impression, not to be too blunt about it, that my status as a Canadian novelist is somewhat helpful to my Canadian sales numbers.

cover“There are two basic contexts in which a work of art may be placed,” Milan Kundera wrote, in his excellent extended essay The Curtain,

Either in the history of its nation (we can call this the small context), or else in the supranational history of its art (the large context). We are accustomed to seeing music quite naturally in the large context: knowing what language Orlando de Lassus or Bach spoke matters little to a musicologist, but because a novel is bound up with its language, in nearly every university in the world it is studied almost exclusively in the small, national context.

What’s interesting to me is that literature is often studied in its national context, not to mention marketed in its national context (it’s common to find a Canadian Authors table in any given Canadian bookstore) even when it’s written in a language that spans multiple countries. I think that I’m no longer entirely sure why this is.

“Did you feel a loss of identity when you took on American citizenship?” a Canadian once asked me.

I replied that the only loss of identity I felt was that I was no longer an illegal alien.

Being an illegal alien means living in a twilight kind of place, a much more perilous city than the legal citizens of New York inhabit, a shadow country where paranoia and real risk bleed together until you start to think that any mistake might lead to exile. It’s a secret realm of dishwashers and waitresses and day laborers, people living carefully on the margins of the city. I imagined myself one of them, but it was only ever a case of mistaken identity: I didn’t find out my father’s American birth certificate entitled me to dual citizenship until I’d been living quietly in the United States for several months.

I boarded a northbound train to Montreal and spent a week camped on a friend’s sofa, making trips to the American Consulate and getting all my papers in order. The US Consulate in Montreal is a forbidding godawful place, as places concerned with the protection of borders always are: a windowless tower way downtown with airport-level security measures and an elevator that makes no stops between the basement and the 19th floor. The first time I went there, I collected a stack of forms. The second time I deposited an armload of documents, evidence of my father’s early life in the United States. The third time I came back with one last document I’d forgotten and a photograph for my new American passport.

“This seems to be happening very quickly for you,” the woman behind the bullet-proof glass at the Consulate said, the last time I came to her. I was inclined to agree, but there was something in her voice that I didn’t quite like. Something slightly accusatory. An intimation that getting into her country was supposed to be harder than this.

At a Canadian literary festival a few weeks back, surrounded by a very international group of authors who slipped in and out of English and French and Spanish depending on who they were talking to, I was reading the short list for Canada’s most prestigious national book award when it suddenly struck me: I don’t think I want to read the best Canadian writers. I don’t think I want to read the best American writers, either, or the best Mexican writers, or the best Brits. I want to read the greatest writers, period.

I’m not arguing against the Governor General’s Award, or the Giller Prize; being nominated is a vast honor and a spectacular boost to a given (Canadian) writer’s career, and I’m all for anything that helps writers. It’s just that grouping writers according to their countries of origin or of citizenship seems strangely arcane to me sometimes. These just don’t seem like useful divisions, especially in the case of fiction: because when we go into a bookstore and ask for a book recommendation, do we specify countries? (I want to read a really, really good novel, but only if it was written by an Australian.) Or do we say, if not to the bookseller than perhaps to ourselves, moving between shelves and tables and picking up books and reading the first few paragraphs, looking at the cover art, I want to read something that changes the way I see the world. I want to be captivated. I want to read something that moves me. I want to read something true.

I wonder every now and again what became of the Canadian pornographer, if his deranged plan to pose as a Cuban worked or if he had the courage to try it, if he drifted back up to Montreal or if he’s still illegal in downtown Manhattan with his beloved cats. I don’t think I ever saw him again; I took notes on our conversation after he left the café, but I doubt I’d recognize him now if we passed on the street. I’m not at all sure that he was a good person in any absolute sense of the word—his profession was arguably questionable, and he’d alluded once or twice to a Canadian criminal record—but I knew him as a friendly guy who loved cats, and we were residents of the same shadow country for a while.

[Image credit: Jesse Edwards]

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn. www.emilymandel.com.


  1. Your mention of the Canadian books table in Canada reminds me of the regionalism you see in bookstores in the U.S. As a former bookseller in LA, I can tell you that we celebrate our local authors, as well as books about Los Angeles and the west coast. At Vroman’s in Pasadena, it isn’t just California that gets the love, and it’s not Los Angeles they celebrate, but Pasadena and its place in literature. And when I went to New York, I noticed the requisite New York (or even, Brooklyn) sections. So it becomes authors of specific cities, or even burroughs, that we seek out.

  2. It’s true, regionalism is everywhere. It’s an interesting form of tribalism, and a little puzzling — am I supposed to be more interested in a book because the author lives down the street from me?

  3. I’m inclined to agree with you that I’d like to read the best authors from everywhere in the world.

    And yet, if the author lives down the street from me and writes about that street maybe I am interested in reading about it, too. There’s something exciting about intersecting with a character in a book, or finding the secret (or fictional) history of a place that one is familiar with.

  4. Excellent topic! You’re right, Emily. We should be reading literature of the world, not just literature written by those who share our location. Milan Kundera’s comparison to music was on the money.

    But then I remembered a trip to Germany where they piped David Hasselhoff songs overhead and the entire restaurant sang along to every word. I wondered if, wrong or right, like Mindy alluded, it comes down to regional taste. For example: I lived a significant portion of my life in Virginia, and I happen to love southern literature. It doesn’t mean I don’t read and champion all kinds of other books, but I immediately identify with characters and settings familiar to my experience. It’s human nature. When it comes to marketing, booksellers would be foolish not to tap into readers’ propensity to want to see a reflection of themselves.

    So maybe it isn’t as black and white as I originally thought. Yes, we SHOULD have a universal reading palate, but the truth is, we don’t. How do we change that? I don’t have the answer, but the fact that it’s on the table for discussion is a good start.

    Thanks again for an astute essay. Being a woman of mixed cultural background, I love examining the yardstick by which we measure and define identity—personal and artistic.

    Yours truly, Sarah

  5. Mindy and Sarah — Good points! I like reading novels set in my city too.

    And yet, one thing I find interesting about this whole thing is that often the authors on the “local books” table will have novels that are set everywhere from Naples circa 1944 to Tudor England to deep space circa 2080. So it isn’t that we’re necessarily encountering our own experiences in books written by authors from our region (although of course we sometimes do, and that can be delightful); it seems to me that there’s an implicit assumption that we should value those authors more than the others not because of what they’re writing, per se, but because they’re “one of us.”

  6. When we go to the bookstore we usually don’t ask about the author’s nationality because we assume all books in the store are written within a framework we understand. Similarly, your argurment for a bookstore with books by “the greatest authors, period” is implicitly based on the idea of some universality of human experience. I do believe that there are human universals, and that borders are fabricated, but we must recognize the effects borders have on our senses of identity and shared history. We must admit that even if geopolitical borders are constructed, they have very real effects on our cultural reference points and feelings of belonging. We read books to make sense of the world, to situate ourselves, to feel part of something bigger. Whether national identity is politically constructed or a metonym for one’s sense of belonging, we cannot discount it as a valid means by which to systematize the world and thus organize our bookstores!

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