Illustration: Jia Sung.

My six-year-old is perched on the rungs of a ladder in the backyard, a grin on his face, one loose tooth. His hair is glowing, just like cactus spines do in the golden desert light. He’s helping my dad to unfurl the yellow tongue of a tape measure. For weeks, they have been carefully documenting the death of an octopus agave.

One day, the agave shot up a pink stalk, which grew at the remarkable rate of six inches each day until it was fourteen feet tall. It transformed then, burst open into thousands of yellow flowers. The agave blooms just once in its entire life—up to a decade for the octopus agave, and longer for other types—and then it promptly dies. But the process is simultaneously death and self-propagation, for when the flowers slough off, they are replaced by tiny clones of the mother plant.

To make a story from the desert is not unlike the work of the agave. Something must transform. Flowers must burst from unexpected places. There must be sugar or pheromone or even blood left for the swooping bats, the packrats, the reader. It must catch us off guard, spit us out like a seed.

When writing the desert, my recipe is this: Write the heat and caliche and pigweed. The radio static and the country bar. The yipping of coyotes on a cold night. Write neon sunsets over wide streets and the smell of creosote, plucked from the stem and made into salve. Write cactus fruit spilling out their seed, and a monsoon circling the city like a dog. Make poetry from sand and lizard bones. Old bedsprings abandoned in the arroyo. A child on a ladder, measuring a dying agave in the evening light.

The writers in this issue know the desert as nuanced and extreme—both muse and deathtrap, shapeshifter and tomb, a walking meditation and a political bargaining chip. The people you will find in the desert are just as complicated. Some are already home, anchored by a long root sunk below the brush and dirt. Others come and go, trading the desert for places with fog and maple trees and snow. Still others are forced—by climate, or war, or men in air-conditioned rooms making laws—to traverse the desert in a cruel migratory roulette.

The writers in this issue ask and answer: Is the desert empty? Or is it full—and of what? The Egyptian desert that Basma Abdel Aziz describes is “full of enormous contradictions.” Its “silence is louder than any sound.” After setting out to write about an oppressive regime and “top-level political activity” in her country, she’s warned by colleagues against publishing for fear of retaliation—“Writing has become dangerous now”—and Aziz is forced to change course. She writes, “Since the smooth yellow began transforming in many pictures into crimson red, sand soaked with lakes of blood, I have lost my desire and appetite for the desert in general.”

“The first thing to leave you in the desert is time,” writes Claire Vaye Watkins, of the Lake Tecopa hot springs near her home in Death Valley. She recalls neighbors stripping nude to soak in the water, to heal maladies with mud and steam. “If it’s buoyancy you’re after, come to the hot springs, float free, for once, and do it daily. Let your bigness rise in brackish water.”

From Turkana County, Kenya, Nanjala Nyabola reports on the country’s eighteen-month drought, “arguably the most political drought” in its recent history. Amid a newly reorganized political landscape and a complicated web of aid organizations, the conditions of the dry spell have intensified. As more and more livestock have perished, rural Kenyans fear for their future. Nyabola writes, “When the goats start dying, a hard year is on its way.”

Will Atkins travels through China’s Gobi Desert and weaves his own account with the stories of desert explorers, missionaries, and conquerers who traveled, documented, and bloodied the region over centuries. And Anna Badkhen spends months in retreat on a ranch in West Texas, where residents and corporations battle over precious natural resources, and history is extracted and erased by machines. Of the desert, she writes, “A kind of nostalgia saturates the idea of it, turns all this imagined emptiness into a landscape of desire—from the Latin desidero: to feel the want of, to regret. This landscape mirages, shows you what you want to see: deliverance, supernatural feats, at least an epiphany.”

In an excerpt from a memoir by Abdi Elmi, co-authored by Linn Bursell and translated here from the Swedish for the first time by Gabriella Ekman, a fourteen-year-old Elmi is sent to Europe to escape the warlords terrorizing his country of Somalia. Of the harrowing journey through the Sahara Desert, led by smugglers, he writes, “It is like prison: the strong take from the weak. Everyone is desperate. But it isn’t certain that the strong are the ones who’ll survive. People wonder how I survive, why I am not screaming after water. But there is nothing strange about this. I cannot scream. There is sand in my throat.”

Kimi Eisele reminds that the body is a landscape as real as the one around us—uterine fibroids as obstructionist as miles of cactus and rocks. A place in the Sonoran Desert, “between a saguaro, an ocotillo, and a barrel cactus,” becomes the burial site for a miscarriage. She writes, “The baby stayed in the desert. I myself stayed in darkness for a long time.”

Teresa Krug interviews engineer Sonam Wangchuk, the creator of the “ice stupa” as an innovative solution to water scarcity—and a future of climate migration—in the Himalayan desert. And Anna Brones examines the term “food desert” with food justice activist and community organizer Karen Washington. Replace that term with “food apartheid,” says Washington, which includes conversations about race, faith, and economics, and “the real conversation can begin.”

Guernica’s special issue also features a conversation between Lauren Markham and former Border Patrol officer Francisco Cantú on borderlands and their debut books; fiction by Cari Luna and Gabriel Urza; poetry by Gabriel Dozal and Julio Serrano Echeverría; an interview with Dutch artist Lotte Geeven, who is building a machine to make sand from around the world sing; a Mormon pioneer trek undertaken by sexually frustrated teens in period costumes; some magnificent original art and photography; and more.

—Guest editor Debbie Weingarten

In this issue:


Basma Abdel Aziz, translated from the Arabic by Henry Peck: In Egypt, the Drying Up of Dissent

Claire Vaye Watkins: Naked in Death Valley

William Atkins: Rebellious Women and Other Demons of the Gobi

Nanjala Nyabola: Kenya’s Thirsty Year

Anna Badkhen: The Mirage: Writing and Upheaval in the Chihuahuan Desert

Kimi Eisele: Hello Blood: The Dance of Miscarriage

Abdi Elmi and Linn Bursell, translated from the Swedish by Gabriella Ekman: Words Disappear Here: My Journey from Somalia to Sweden

Miles Fuller: A Long Hot Walk to the Mormon Promised Land

Autumn Watts: Animals Died at Our House, and Other Things that Burn or Wear Away

Ed Winstead: Dessert in the Land of Plenty

John Washington: Is the US Border Patrol Committing Crimes Against Humanity? 



An Ice Fountain Brings Water to the Himalayan Desert: Teresa Krug interviews Sonam Wangchuk

It’s Not a Food Desert, It’s Food Apartheid: Anna Brones interviews Karen Washington

Border Patrol: John Washington interviews Francisco Cantú and Lauren Markham

Crowdsourcing the Songs of Sand: Jennifer Gersten interviews Lotte Geeven



Gabriel Urza: Cassiopeia

Cari Luna: Superman



Julio Serrano Echeverría, translated from the Spanish by José García Escobar: XV

Gabriel Dozal: you’ve always been a border simulator


Art: Jia Sung, Ansellia Kulikku, Daniel Chang Christensen, Xia Gordon, Natalie Mark

Photography: Nicol Ragland, Nanjala Nyabola, Kimi Eisele, stills + audio from the collection of Lotte Geeven

Special issue editor: Hillary Brenhouse

Guest editor: Debbie Weingarten 

Editors: Raluca Albu, Meakin Armstrong, Eve Gleichman, Eryn Loeb, Regan Penaluna, Meara Sharma, Ed Winstead, Erica Wright