Finding Here-ness in the Grey Zone

Emi Noguchi




When people on Grand Manan talk about the Grey Zone, they are typically referring to the waters claimed by both the United States and Canada near Machias Seal Island, a lonely rock of a place inhabited during breeding season by seabirds—most famously the puffin. The Grey Zone is significant because it’s a place where lobstermen from two nations share the sea and its yields more or less cooperatively. In Japanese, the term Grey Zone is transliterated to グレーゾーン, and refers more generally to a space (generally legal) of ambiguity. The first time I heard the term used, my father’s sister was summarizing how I might account for the borders running through my face, name, language, and passport as second-generation Japanese born and raised in the United States. I was a person claimed by both Japan and the US, sometimes by neither. My aunt had designated me a homeland: I am in and of the Grey Zone.

Our team of three arrived here on July Fourth, and given the current political climate of the United States, it felt good to mark the holiday by crossing the border into Canada, asserting we had brought neither munitions nor pepper spray nor food of any kind. It felt good, on the Grand Manan V, to pass near the Grey Zone. When one of us asked Alison Deming where we were, it felt good to hear her response: “We’re nowhere now.”

In the distance is Maine. There’s a border in that water.

Along with the other Arizona writers, Eshani and Laura, I have been working with six local high school students to articulate their own lived realities or use their experiences to imagine different ones. At the beginning of our stay, I gave the students a prompt to help them write from and about the in-between place that is adolescence. When they turned in their work, I recognized my own memories of how it felt to be a teenager, what it was like to know a place well, to want to stay and want to leave. How it felt, being young with eyes wide open, to constantly butt up against the border between everything I had ever known and the world beyond, into which I desperately wanted to step.

Laura and Hayley talk poetry and writing on ferries

It didn’t occur to me for my first ten days on the island, that I was having trouble writing because I was working between genres, between countries, between routines and vernaculars and specializations and time zones and communities. Writing felt like aiming for a basketball hoop while perched on a rowboat. I have long considered the ways in which I am in-between—races and hemispheres, education levels and classes—to be a source of great discomfort. At times it has felt that I might never find sure footing anywhere. Our young writers reminded me, though: for all my in-betweenness, I am a newly minted thirty years old. Adolescence is one zone which feels very distinctly behind me. When I composed this piece, our team had just two nights before leaving the island and heading back to our homes on the desert border between the U.S. and Mexico. I felt my grey zones shrinking. The waves calmed just a little.

Squid jigging: an exercise in patience

Towards the end of our trip, some of the Grand Manan high school writers met with the Arizona team on the North Head Wharf to go squid jigging. It was a new moon, or something close to it, and down below the lights of the wharf we could see ghostly schools of squid gliding by. I had never been squid jigging before, but the scene on the wharf was familiar to me, having grown up in a place where there’s not much for teenagers to do. Pickups rolled in and out with a quickness, playing reggae and country loud as proclamations. Windows rolled down and the Grand Manan teenagers identified who was inside, just as those inside identified who was jigging. Some kids set off fireworks as we stood bobbing our jigs in the water. One firework ended up in the water. It let off a little green glow before going dark.

The students who met us at the wharf were generous to accompany us “from-aways” in our first sorry attempts at catching a squid. They laughed at my tangled line and splashing jig. We shared snacks and gossip. Someone accidentally tossed into the water a blue gummy in the shape of a whale. Despite inky silhouettes up and down the wharf from jigs past, I caught nothing but seaweed. We called it a night after just an hour and left with a dry, empty bucket.

A squid jig

Squid leave their final inky marks on the wharf











I know that all of Grand Manan is not quaint and safe. I know that, like where I’m from and other places where I have lived, there are problems here with drugs and declining economic opportunities, with fast money and corporatization, an exclusive sense of who can belong to this place, a sucking dry of natural resources. There was something comforting, though, about commiserating over the trials of retaking a driver’s test, the shared recognition of how much patience it takes to wait for a squid to cross over your jig. It was a little bit magical to do something that depends on animals and the lunar cycle, that involves walking home late at night with the crook of your friend’s arm linked through your own.

Maybe this is just another way of saying that what impressed me about the night was its very here-ness. How everyone knew everyone. How there wasn’t much else to do but what we were doing. How despite border conflicts and tariff hikes and work and family issues and whatever other problems we all had floating at the edges of the night, the lights on the water shrank our world to one little wharf, one small task, and one set of companions, if only for an hour.

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