When I applied to write for The Correspondent, my biggest impetus was the excitement I felt about its journalistic principles .
I never considered myself a journalist. In fact, my identity as a writer is one that I find myself re-negotiating with some regularity. So my first instinct was to not apply for the role of Correspondent. But then I couldn’t resist the appeal of being able to write on subjects I care deeply about, in a way that would enable me to learn from people I’d be writing for. The transparency inherent in this process feels deeply attractive, and encourages me to share as I learn.
As you may be aware from my newsletter, I’ve spent the last few weeks ruminating on borders - thanks to a member’s recommendation of Jason De León’s powerful book, The Land of Open Graves. De León’s investigation of the deaths of people crossing the US-Mexico border leads him to assert that fatalities are far from accidental. When I picked this book for my bookclub, The Other Shelf, my starting thought was that people erroneously consider death to be the great equaliser. In many ways, death is a great marker of inequality.
Reading De León’s book set me on a different path. Suddenly, I became preoccupied with borders: what they are, why they function as they do, and what they mean for people. At first, I was thinking quite literally about borders as geopolitical lines. Eventually (and unsurprisingly, since I am the Othering correspondent, after all), I began to think about how every human identity is the product of some sort of border.
We all construct our identities along the social lines we know, the hand we were dealt. Or when these norms are too constricting, we can try to create new lines. We understand ourselves as distinct from other people because of the ideological, experiential and other lines that separate us. While national borders might be a relatively new invention, the fundamental concept on which they are based – the social boundary – is as old as humanity itself.
As I attempt to wrap my mind around the ideas swirling in my head, in a way that allows me to share them with our readers, I find that I come upon a hard limit I had not expected to hit so soon. This limit is my own learning curve. As a writer accustomed to the freedom to publish only when I was absolutely sure about what I wanted to say (which essentially meant publishing relatively infrequently), I struggled to process these new ideas in a timely way; to be more productive, if you will. Where I might have spent several weeks, even months, turning my thoughts over and over until they were polished to a high sheen, now I only have a matter of days from when an idea occurs and when it has to be written up and available to the world.
It’s been interesting to go through that. Being the typical overachieving Nigerian child of typically difficult-to-impress Nigerian parents, I have little experience with not being good at something I’m actually interested in. As a result, one of the lines along which I have always defined my identity is my intellectual capacity. Then, suddenly, I’ve experienced what felt like an excruciatingly long period of simply not knowing how to do a thing that mattered very much to me. I’ve been on the brink of an existential crisis!
Thankfully, I am slowly emerging on the other side of this conundrum. I’m exercising intellectual muscles that I’ve never before had to use, pushing myself to keep faith in abilities that I’m not sure I’ve fully acquired yet, and mostly trying not to be too hard on myself. I’ve discovered a newfound respect for the people who are already at the end of this particular learning curve; those journalists who can turn a seed of insight into a tree of beautifully worded knowledge – or at the very least, a small hedge, in record time. Kudos to you, wherever you are. I can’t wait to be like you when I grow up.
In the meantime, my next publication will attempt to make sense of what felt like an anguished flurry of ideas about borders. Too many of these ideas melted on my metaphorical tongue before I could quite grasp them, but what remains has pointed to beliefs at the core of everything I write: we must interrogate every idea, construct or institution that divides and dehumanises us. While there are many things I still have to learn, this is one thing I know for sure.