Bordering the Ocean

I have been thinking about borders. It is hard not to think about them when a presidential candidate is talking about walling off the United States from Mexico and Canada, and the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.

I have also been thinking about them because I have been reading Gloria Anzaldua‘s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. It is a semi-autobiographical book discussing the ideological borders between men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, and Latin American and non-Latin American, and the physical border between Mexico and the United States.

Anzaldua describes a border as “a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge” (Anzaldua, 1999: 25).

Borders give the impression of defining and dividing the edge of one thing and the beginning of another. They clarify difference, United States as different from Mexico and Canada, male as different from female, land as different from ocean. However, most of these borders are not visible, and there are people, places, and things that do not fall easily on one side over the other.


Maben’s Beach, Bamfield B.C., Summer 2009, taken by Tanya Nielsen

Is the border between men and women the difference between a XY chromosome and a XX chromosome? Is the border between Mexico and the United States what defines Mexican and American? Is a coast line the border between land and water?


“A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” (Anzaldua, 1999; 25).

I like the visual image of a coastline as a metaphor for borders and borderlands. Can we define this border as the difference between solid and liquid? Wet and dry? Sand and salt water? One can see the border on a map as the black outline that edges countries and continents, but the line is not so fixed when standing on the actual coast. The tide comes in and goes out, soaking the sand, carrying driftwood, and creating tidal pools where life grows.


St. Ives, Tide In, St. Ives England, Summer 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen


St. Ives, Tide Out, St. Ives England, Summer 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen

At any given moment, the border between water and land shifts. In St. Ives, it can leave boats immobile, tilting on sand, but people expect it to happen because they know the tide will go out. They know that it is a vague terrain that alters with the time of the day, yet they still use it.

And when people go to a beach, they spend most of their time standing in that borderland, letting the waves wash over their feet. They stand both on land and in water.

People, places, and things that are not easily defined gather in the borderlands. It is a place where culture, ideas, characteristics, and people, ebb and flow. It is where things meet, and it is a place where new things are created.

“Living in a state of psychic unrest in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create” (Anzaldua, 1999: 95).

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

© Tanya Nielsen (,  2016


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