Writing on the Edge: A Borderlands Reader, by Tom Miller, Reviewed by Mark D. Walker

I’ve gotten to know the author over the years based on a shared appreciation of iconic writer Moritz Thomsen, whom Tom met in Ecuador. He accompanied me to the University of Arizona Library, which acquired his archives, including six boxes of materials on Thomsen that I used to research and write several articles. With Tom’s help, I’d write my anthology, Moritz Thomsen: The Greatest American Writer Nobody Knows About.

Tom and I also share a love of travel and travel writing. His best-known book, The Panama Hat Trail, is one of my all-time favorites, and I was impressed to learn that he’d traveled twice to Ecuador in eight months to complete it. My wife, who is Guatemalan, loved another of his many books, How I Learned English, a series of stories of Latinos learning English.

I picked up a copy of this book at a recent signing in Tucson of his memoir, Where Was I: A Travel Writer’s Memoir.  Writing on the Edge seemed even more timely as asylum seekers were being bussed and flown to places like Martha’s Vineyard and New York City, and the end of Title 42 under Trump, which politicized and endangered migrants and undermined the right to asylum. All of this reflects a lack of consensus on a policy on immigration. Although this book does not address this situation, it provides two ingredients necessary for any eventual appreciation of the role of immigrants and a viable policy—an appreciation and empathy for those coming across our southern border and a better understanding of why it’s so challenging to reach a consensus.

This wide-ranging anthology celebrates the twenty-mile-wide and two-thousand-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border as a country unto itself. The story’s geography is reflected in the two maps, “Sonoran Desert” and “The Literary Borderland,” which highlight the sites with which each author is identified.

Over 80 contributors’ stories, essays, song lyrics, and poems provide a new appreciation of the border and its literary legacy.  The materials are divided into eight parts, with a quote at the beginning of each section that anticipates what to expect, such as at the beginning of Part 1, “These pieces tax all five senses. Fiction, essay, and poetry seduce the casual reader inside the borderland.”

This quote at the beginning of Section 2 provides a poignant reminder, “Stereotypes are born, not made. Here are some of the best stereotypes aborning.”  Another quote warns,” The following pieces will take you so far inside the borderland you won’t know which way is out.”  If you manage to get out, a brief bio of each contributor and credits are provided at the end.

The artists represented in this book are as disparate as Carlos Fuentes, Maya Angelou, and Allen Ginsberg, including some of my favorite writers such as British novelist Graham Greene who went to Mexico in 1938 for materials he needed to write The Lawless Roads and The Power and Glory. He reflects on how crossing the border can affect you.

The border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, and a man with a gun. Over there, everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers…



Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, best known for The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, chronicles Mexico’s pain looking north.


…Five years ago, there were already twenty thousand North American colonists in Texas, and many enslaved people were purchased in Cuba or the corrals, where the gentry of Virginia and Kentucky fatten up little blacks. Now, the colonists hoist their own flag, the image of a bear, and decline to pay taxes to the government of Mexico or to obey Mexican law, which has abolished slavery in all the national territory…


InLonesome Traveler,” Jack Kerouac describes his border experience as follows:


When you go across the border at Nogales, Arizona some very severe looking American guards, some of them pasty-faced with sinister steel-rim spectacles, go scrounging through all your beat baggage for signs of the scorpion of scofflaw; you just wait patiently like you always do in America among those apparently endless policemen and their endless laws against (no laws for)—but the moment you cross the little wire gates, and you’re in Mexico, you feel like you just sneaked out of school when you told the teacher you were sick and she told you could go home, at two o’clock in the afternoon.—You feel as though you just came home from Sunday morning church and you take off your suit and slip into your soft worn smooth cool overalls, to play…



American social commentator and performer Wood Guthrie’s songs lamented the conditions of Mexican workers in his song “Deportee.”


…My father’s own father, he waded that river.

They took all the money he made in his life;

My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,

And they rode the truck till they took down and died…


Mexican interdisciplinary artist and writer Guillermo Gomez-Peña, a MacArthur Fellow, writes a revealing poem on how dialogue can be a monologue, “From the Battle of El Alamo to the Signing of NAFTA:”


Dear ex-friend,

I’m saddened by the fact that we simply couldn’t agree

In our first meeting

I wanted to talk about everything with a good cup of coffee

You wanted the meeting to be over quickly

I was too suave and talkative

You were plain rude & too direct for my chilango taste

I called you “gringo” de cariño

You called me “minority” twice

We didn’t mean it, of course…


The literary gems, which come in many forms and styles—in English with some Spanish, provide an invaluable overview of the unique world known as the borderlands and are as revealing now as it was when it was published in 2003.



The Author


Miller was born and raised in Washington, D.C., attended college in Ohio, and since 1969, has lived in Arizona, 65 miles north of the Mexican border. He has written about Latin America and the American Southwest for over thirty years, bringing us extraordinary stories of ordinary people. His highly acclaimed adventure books include “The Panama Hat Trail,” about South America, “On the Border,” an account of his travels along the U.S.-Mexico frontier, “Trading With the Enemy,” which takes readers on his journeys through Cuba, and, about the American Southwest, “Revenge of the Saguaro” (formerly “Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink” — which won the coveted Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book of the Year in 2001). He has edited three compilations, “Travelers’ Tales Cuba,” “Writing on the Edge: A Borderlands Reader,” and “How I Learned English.” Additionally, he contributed to the four-volume “Encyclopedia Latina.”

Miller, a veteran of the underground press of the late 1960s, has appeared in Smithsonian, The New Yorker, LIFE, The New York Times, Natural History, and many other publications. He wrote the introduction to “Best Travel Writing – 2005,” and has led educational tours through Cuba for the National Geographic Society and other organizations.

Well-traveled through the Americas, Miller has taught writing workshops in four countries, and his books have been published in Europe, Latin America, and the United States. In recognition of his work, the University of Arizona Library has acquired Miller’s archives and mounted a major exhibit of the author’s papers, including Moritz Thomsen’s materials. He is affiliated with that school’s Latin American Area Center.


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The Reviewer


Mark D. Walker is a contributing writer for The Authors Show, Wanderlust Journal, Revue Magazine, and the Literary Traveler. His column, “The Million Mile Walker Review: What We’re Reading and Why,” is part of the Arizona Authors Association newsletter. One of his essays won a Bronze in the Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing. His first book is Different Latitudes: My Life of the Peace Corps and Beyond.  His latest book, My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road, is now available on Cyberwit.net. His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can find over 65 book reviews and 25 of his articles at www.MillionMileWalker.com.





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