Kirk Wisland on Barrie Jean Borich’s Body Geographic
Maps are the current rage in nonfiction. In the last few years we’ve seen an explosion of mapped essaying, from Denis Wood’s Everything Sings to Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands to Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City. While some may see this as just another faddish fetishism of the archaic—as if old technology and technique were to grant a creative endeavor instant credibility—I don’t find this cartographical craze surprising. Most nonfiction writing is about finding the self, as the essayist tries to navigatemeaning in the world, to pin herself on the map.
In Body Geographic, Barrie Jean Borich uses maps—literal andconceptual—to explore layers of personal history. We follow her family’smigration from Bohemia to Chicago, andBorich’s own migration across the Midwest, which parallels the evolution of her sexuality. Through first-hand accounts (or her stylized imagination), we meet Borich’s ancestors, her living family members, her lesbian Minneapolis enclave, and her wife, Linnea. Borich offers contrasting images of her various historical locations—for example, her family’s gritty south-side Chicago is juxtaposed with the artificial “Alabaster City” created for the 1893 World’s Fair, which Borich describes as “mere intoxication, a touchable mirage.”
Travel is a means to map her story, not just between her twin homes of Minneapolis and Chicago but on journeys to California, New York, and New Orleans, where she seeks to find her father’s jazz history, or convocations with old Croats who still remember the Bohemian rhythms of imported rituals.
I love the maps Borich integrates into Body Geographic—particularly the archaic maps, such as that of Islandia, in which a sixteenth-century cartographer has filled European waters with fanciful sea monsters, or the seventeenth-century map of California, which presents the coast as an island separated—literally, as it is figuratively—from the inland empire. Here the unreliable cartographer evokes the unreliable narrator. Essayists seek the truth, but our quests are haunted by monsters, our attempts at a personal cartography warped by the unreliability of memory, our truth separated from the land as an imagined island.
Essayists seek the truth, but our quests are haunted by monsters
I was a son of Minneapolis, who frequently dreamed of migrating east to Chicago, seeking adventure in the regional bully and dream-magnet. As a native it is fascinating to encounter the emigrant’s view of your hometown: In Borich’s prose renderings of Minneapolis I see the neighborhoods I occupied and streets I traversed at the same perilous times of night when Borich naively strolled them as a new arrival in the early 1980s.
Borich’s narrative holds extra meaning for me as the son of a gay father who also lived in Minneapolis at that time, a second degree of communion. I follow Borich not just as a guide through those known streets of our shared experience, but as a fellow resident of my father’s world. I see glimmers of alignment, imagined meetings and crossed paths, flickers of my father at the periphery of the bars and dinner parties detailed in Borich’s Minneapolis scenes.
Borich charts her narrative course through a lyrical collage-recitation, wherein she zooms into a particular moment for a few paragraphs before making an associative leap to a divergent thread of her story. She frequently uses “inset of” to zoom in on these particulars. Inset of the Gray City. Inset of Middling America. We are spinning the globe of Borich’s life, her prose a kind of lyrical Google Map wherein Borich pinpoints the details of finite moments.
For me, there was one crucial image missing from these essays: the tattooed twin skylines of Chicago and Minneapolis on the author’s back. The opening pages vividly detail Borich’s suffering under the tattoo needle inking this vision, and in a book filled with personal imagery, from the early maps of Borich’s ancestral homeland up to the MRI scan of Linnea’s brain tumor near the end, this seems like a peculiar omission. But perhaps this blank space is the mark of a confident essayist leaving something to be revealed in a future cartography.
Kirk Wisland’s work has appeared in The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, The Diagram, Paper Darts, Electric Literature, Phoebe, Essay Daily, and the Milkweed Press Minnesota fiction anthology Fiction on a Stick. He is a doctoral student in Creative Writing at Ohio University.
Body Geographic by Barrie Jean Borich • University of Nebraska Press • 272 pages
Image: Morgan Childs