Borderized Bodies: The Performance of Becoming Human

Story by Devin Windelspecht

Arts and the Social Sciences are often seen as polar opposite ways of looking at our world. Whereas social science may approach an issue analytically and objectively, art instead seeks to get at the raw, unfiltered aspects that social scientists tend to gloss over: the emotions, desires, hopes and dreams of the people caught in history’s making.

It is these aspects that Daniel Borzutsky, a poet, translator, author and 2016 recipient of the National Book Award, brought to Northeastern University through a reading of his most recent collections of poems, The Performance of Becoming Human. A Chilean-American native of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Borzutsky came to Northeastern to speak for the Center for International Affairs and World Culture’s Borders, Boundaries, and Belonging lecture series, a month-long event that tackles the question of borders and identity in our world.

“This is not an academic problem,” read Borzutsky in “The Gross and Borderless Body”, one of several poems collected in his award-winning poetry anthology, The Performance of Becoming Human. “It totally sucks to have to travel the world, to leave my people and my village, and to get stuck in some town in Indiana where the portions of the restaurants I can’t afford to eat in…could provide multiple meals for like eight of my nephews and nieces.”

Borzutsky’s poetry focuses on bodies: the bodies of immigrants pleading for a job, the bodies of migrants perished in the Arizona desert while attempting to enter the United States, the bodies of those facing racial discrimination today in his adopted city of Chicago. At times brutally realistic, and at others surreal and dreamlike, the poems of The Performance of Becoming Human are meant to shed a light onto the lives affected by the borders we put between ourselves, and the injustices created by them.

“The project of the book is to situate the United States and Latin America in a relationship where they are part of the same body,” says Borzutsky. Born a child of Chilean immigrants, Borzutsky’s own background emulates how Americans —North and South—have become separated by borders both literal and imaginary. In his poetry, Borzutsky continuously draws comparisons between Chicago and Chile, commenting on the exploitation of immigrants and the poor by those in power.

“These bodies belong to a terrorist group that’s called humanity,” Borzutsky reads in “Archive,” “And dawn is the border between civilization ‘X’ and civilization ‘Z’”.

In Borzutsky’s poetry, the bodies of those who have suffered oppression under Pincohet’s regime in Chile, and those continuously suffering from racial discrimination in Chicago, are all victims of the same interconnected suffering that extends across the Americas. In the case of the United States and Chile, it is an interconnectedness that has existed since a group of neoliberal economics.  The so-called “Chicago School” came to Chile from Chicago during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet to change the Chilean economy into a capitalist, free-market state — in doing so supporting the political ambitions of a dictator who ruthlessly killed and oppressed many of his own people.

It is an issue that Borzutsky sees in many ways now happening in the United States. “It is a similar pattern,” he says, “Violence towards poor communities becomes a smokescreen to enact certain economic policies.”

Or, as he reads from another of his poems, “There is distribution and despair, and there are things we decide to see, and things we decide to see when we shield our eyes from the violence.”  But for as dark as Borzutsky’s writing may be, it does not come without a glimmer of hope.

“I’m trying to create a space with light so you might walk more freely,” Borzutsky reads in one of his final pieces in the Borderized Bodies event. As often as Borzutsky writes on bodies that have become wounded and killed by borders, or by the greed and oppression of the rich and powerful, there is also a notion of light that extends through many of his pieces. By shedding light on the suffering of our world through art, Borzutsky’s poetry seems to hint at a kind of freedom that might be achieved: a freedom for people on all sides of the borders we have put between ourselves, if only we care enough to break them down.