“Lines of Sight: When a Literary Landscape Comes to Life”
“Lines of Sight: When a Literary Landscape Comes to Life,” an essay by Francisco Cantú is currently available online in the Virginia Quarterly Review Spring 2020 issue. In his essay, Cantú meditates on landscape, violence, and borders, inspired by a walking trip he took along the Suffolk Coast described in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Cantú’s 2018 book The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border explored the harsh realities of the U.S./Mexican border and it made several top ten book lists that year. To better understand the issues facing those who were trying to smuggle themselves north into the U.S. he enlisted as a Border Patrol agent for a while.
In “Lines of Sight,” Cantú writes of the universality of Sebald’s message.
I first began to read Sebald during the years I worked in the deserts of Arizona, as an agent for the US Border Patrol. I was in my early twenties, living alone in a two-bedroom home built for mine workers in the former copper town of Ajo. I read his books one after another in that hot, silent, sparsely furnished house, encountering detailed descriptions of his European wanderings and long digressions into obscure chapters of world history, immersing myself in places and stories that were distant and foreign, yet still somehow familiar. The way Sebald interrogated his surroundings—the reminders of horror he found in abandoned buildings, pieces of detritus, swaths of cleared land—reminded me, perhaps, of the glimmers of violence I encountered day after day in the borderlands. Despite writing from another continent and another decade, Sebald somehow seemed to be speaking about the precise moment I was living in, about the very nature of my own work as an agent of oppression, about the violence being imprinted into me each day as I rose to police the border. More broadly, his work gave language to how violence has been normalized throughout history and written into our landscapes, cities, cultures, and bodies. Sebald’s books taught me, in effect, to look for what had been hidden in plain sight all around me.
Read the piece now. Cantú warns on his Twitter feed that the piece will eventually go behind a paywall.