Tag Archives: literature

What is a border figure?

My research task in the EUBORDERSCAPES project is to investigate how novels and autobiographies by immigrants may confirm or change our ideas about what borders are.

One of the most useful concepts in this work has been that of the border figure. But what is a border figure?

Let me first break things down: border + figure. Both these words can mean different things, but what do they mean specifically when we’re talking about border figures?


The border can be so many different things. The simplest way of thinking about the border is to think of it as a line dividing two different territories. But does the border have to divide between two nation-states? Of course not. We can also talk about provincial borders or the borders between different neighbourhoods in the city. Or borders on a much smaller scale, for example borders between the inside and outside of a house (walls, doors, thresholds, windows), between the pavement and the street (the kerb), or between the inside and the outside of the body (skin).

We can talk about symbolic borders, for example the invisible lines which may be crossed (or not crossed) between different communities and identities. In the English language we can talk about borders as frontiers, limits, boundaries etc. The border does not have to be a line or a barrier: it can also be a zone and a place of crossing.

To find out how border concepts are changing, we need to be aware that borders are part of our lives in many different ways. The main aim of the EUBORDERSCAPES project is to discuss exactly different variants of the border concept and why they might be useful in different situations.


But how do we conceive of borders? My answer would be: with words, images, hands-on experiences, stories, treaties, etc. And indeed: figures. This is another word with a multiplicity of meanings. In English, a “figure” can be a number, or a person. Borders can of course be enumerated and quantified, i.e. expressed in numbers (e.g. the number of people who cross the border between Turkey and Greece illegally, and the number of people who have died in the event). And there are various people associated with borders, for example migrants, refugees, border guards, smugglers, borderland dwellers etc.

Here however I am most interested in a more technical use of the word, the one used mainly by literary researchers or sometimes in daily life, when we talk about the “figural” meaning of a word (rather than its “literal” meaning). This is what we are refering to when we talk about “figures of speech” or “rhetorical figures”. For us literary researchers, a figure is a way of using language to say something indirectly. This is something which we all do – especially when we are talking about borders – and which authors and poets do, often in a very advanced ways to express things which are difficult understand concretely, such as borders and border-crossings.

Border figures

For borders, precisely because they can be so many things, and because they ultimately are rather abstract phenomena (even when they lead to segregation, violence and death), are difficult to describe and conceptualize directly. Take the word borderscape, now very popular in border studies, and for good reasons. The borderscape is a border figure, since it makes the claim that the border is something like, or part of something which is like, a landscape. In a literary text, the border and border-crossings can be expressed through more concrete figures, such a pane of glass, or a mirror, or a kite, or a contrast between green and yellow grass (I am taking my examples from novels and autobiographies by Carlos Fuentes, Amal Aden, Romeo Gill and Maria Amelie).

Sometimes border figures are metaphors, but the more complex configurations of space and time we meet in stories of border-crossings can also be border figures. A story can convey the way a border creates spaces of disorientation, waiting, in-betweenness, doubleness, etc. through its plot, without actually naming these spaces directly. Border figures do not have to expressed in words, they can also be images (the term used above, “figures of speech” is misleading) and even things, such as a border fence. A border fence both enforces and figures a border.

All such border figures imply different things in different situations, and it is our job to find out what – if we are to understand how we conceive of borders.

Johan Schimanski

Further reading


Schimanski, Johan. “Crossing and Reading: Notes towards a Theory and a Method”. Nordlit.19 (2006): 41-63. http://dx.doi.org/10.7557/13.1835


Aden, Amal. Min drøm om frihet: En selvbiografisk fortelling. Oslo: Aschehoug, 2009.

Maria, Amelie. Takk. Oslo: Pax, 2014.

Fuentes, Carlos. La frontera de cristal: Una novela en nueve cuentos. México, D. F.: Alfaguara, 1996. (in English: The Crystal Frontier. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.)

Gill, Romeo. Harjeet: Roman. Oslo: Oktober, 2008.

Gill, Romeo. Ung mann i nytt land: Roman. Oslo: Oktober, 2011.