Oct. 29, 2020
By DUSTIN ATLAS
Mira Sucharov’s Borders and Belonging is an intimate memoir of formation, something of a Portrait of a Political Scientist as a Young Woman. A contemporary work, its trajectory is non-linear: hopping from year to year, we see intimate flashes of feelings, events, and relationships; there is no sense at the book’s end that the process is complete, or that the insecurities which propelled the story have been resolved. This, along with the book’s intimacy, is one of its many strengths.
Sucharov, a political science professor at Carleton University, fearlessly arms the ungenerous reader. I myself would not be capable of writing with such transparency, and left the book respecting her bravery.
However, this is not the main reason the book is valuable. There are, after all, many “unflinching memoirs.” It is valuable because of the way the book tackles a difficult question: How much of a person’s political position is owed to their ideals, and how much to their pathologies? The position in question here is, as one might expect, the issue of Israel and Palestine.
This issue, which inflames arguments, ruins parties, and deadens critical thought, is the book’s breadcrumb trail: the shifting of Sucharov’s position is well detailed, and the arguments found along the way will be familiar to many. What is less familiar is how candid Sucharov is about her own psychological investments, and how they inform her politics and thinking. Where less honest writers claim to be fighting for justice, or perhaps loyalty, or some other transcendental virtue, Sucharov’s memoir reveals a tangle of insecurities, humiliations, sexual desire, hypochondria, panic, allergies, and a need for affirmation. And through it all, Facebook, relentlessly amplifying these insecurities, trivializing them while intensifying them. The book’s art is in neither reducing her politics to these pathologies, nor in separating them cleanly, acting as if they have nothing to do with one another.
So, while Borders and Belonging may not have a specific answer, it does have a question: how much of our politics is owed to coping with being a human being – something which is never easy, no matter how generous life has been – and how much is owed to reasoning or disinterested ethical commitment? The book shifts between argument and psychology, unwilling to give either the final say.
Sigmund Freud features as a character in the background, but not in a heavy-handed way. If anything, he offers comic relief: the young Sucharov intones his words without understanding them, the teenage Sucharov anxiously talks about his Jewishness to a security guard. The same goes for the narrator’s many political arguments: they are serious, but Sucharov shows us how a passing insecurity or flirtation can disarm the most strident case. Rather than decide between the two, the book gently asks the question, “is this a matter of justice, or just a way of coping?” and then performs the answer. To use a cliché, Sucharov shows us an answer, but does not tell us one.
This is a brave book, and will be of interest to anyone looking to delve into an anthropology of academia, who wants a collection of snapshots from Canadian Jewish life, or who has spent too long trying to honestly discern why we care about the causes we care about.
Dr. Dustin Atlas is the Director of Jewish Studies and Assistant Professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. He specializes in contemporary Jewish thought, identity and aesthetics, especially works that concern fragility, imperfection, and non-human creatures.