Award Winning Memoir "Maps" Author's Journey

Jun 20, 2014

In less than a week, Barrie Jean Borich won two big awards this spring for her latest book, Body Geographic.

On May 28, her memoir tied for a gold medal at the Independent Publisher Book Awards, or IPPYs. Then on June 2 it won a LAMMY, or Lambda Literary Award, which recognizes LGBT authors.

In Body Geographic, Borich uses images of maps, tattoos and migration-themed artwork to chart her journey away from her childhood on Chicago's south side.

She says her fascination with maps began at an early age but intensified during the many trips she made between Chicago and her "port of immigration," Minneapolis.

"I was fascinated about how different the two places felt even though they're only 350 miles apart," Borich says. "And so for years I've been trying to write about how geography impacts the culture of a place, and the people who come from a place."

She also wanted to chart what she describes as "the American coming-out story" which, for Borich, has similar themes of migration. Minneapolis is where, in the 1980s, Borich began living openly as a lesbian. It's also where she met her spouse, Linnea.

When we meet the author, she's lying face-down in a tattoo parlor while an artist creates a design on her back:

The actual woman's body in the middle of her life is neither map nor archetype, is both settlement and frontier. I choose now, at age fifty, to treat the surface of my back as a cartographer's canvas. I stretch out on the tattooing table. My body clutches and shivers. The artist inks a dual city skyline. My Chicago in the center. My Minneapolis to either side. The infrastructure of that sharp black ink stings worse than I imaged it could. Linnea squeezes my hand, but again I shoo her away. I came here to pull all my maps to the surface, not just a drunk girl's hallucination this time, but a marking more permanent. Of course it hurts when he maps me into my history.

Barrie Jean Borich, author of Body Geographic.
Credit Dan Klefstad

At the time the tattoo was created, Borich did not intend to move back to Chicago. But in 2012 she returned with Linnea to join DePaul University's English faculty.

"In some ways," Borich says, "the tattoo feels more accurate in terms of place, of being, a signifier of who I am."

Borich weaves other "migrations" into her memoir. There's her own recovery from alcoholism and a sexual assault. She also imagines the journey of her great-grandparents from Croatia to the U.S., and other immigrants as they move across the Midwest.

During a reading for WNIJ, Borich tells the story of a ride on Amtrak's Empire Builder line, which runs between Chicago and Puget Sound. On the train, the author notices a young blonde who symbolizes the mystery and vulnerability of people on the move. To hear this excerpt, click the first Listen button near the top of this page.

In addition to her own writing and teaching, Borich edits Slag Glass City, a magazine that calls itself "a creative nonfiction and new media journal engaged with sustainability, identity, and the arts in urban environments."

Next Friday, our Summer Book Series concludes with The Confessions of Frances Godwin, the latest novel by Robert Hellenga. Listen during Morning Edition at 6:34 and 8:34, and then come back here for more.