Friday, March 18, 2016

All aboard the Interpretive Map Express!

How do you draw a map of chaos?

My Postcolonial Lit students just completed their second Interpretive Map assignment, which requires them to map out the locations in a piece of literature in a way that illuminates contexts or themes. For this assignment, they could choose to map out a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri, a chapter from Salman Rushdie's Shame, or a short story by Krishan Chander. Nearly half of them chose the Chander story.

It must have looked like an easy pick, especially compared to the Rushdie chapters with their rapid shifts in place and time. For instance, two students mapped out Rushdie's "Mother Country," one as an ever-evolving labyrinth with no clear way out, the other as a set of clearly defined steps in which the paths multiply and meander toward chaos.

Those who chose Chander, however, may have thought that "Peshawar Express" would make for easy mapping, since it's narrated by a train carrying Hindu refugees fleeing the newly-created Pakistan immediately after the 1947 Partition. The story traces events of senseless bloodshed, violence, and hatred, but on the other hand, how hard could it be to map out the route of a train?

Pretty hard. "Peshawar Express" offers many names of places, but students couldn't always tell whether those place names referred to cities or regions, and names of unfamiliar landmarks left them scratching their heads. They also discovered the fluidity of geography: names changes; routes vary; borders move. No two maps of the train's route looked quite the same.

One map showed a very clear route for the train but then down in the little box in the corner of the map, where you would expect to see an explanation of symbols or demographic data, I found a list of the number of people killed or at each point on the route and the method of killing. The juxtaposition of cold, hard data with brutal bloodshed was positively chilling and effectively evoked the mood of the story.

When we were learning about the massacres surrounding Partition, a student asked, "Why haven't we heard about this before?" Good question! One student said drawing the map made him sad because it made him aware once again of how much we don't know about the pain of others, while looking at how his classmates chose to map out the stories made him realize that "we pick and choose our history."

I told them when we started this that every map is an interpretation--an act of picking and choosing what matters and deciding how to represent those things visually. I'm not sure they believed me at first, but now? They've boarded the train and set out on the route, even if it leans pretty close to chaos. 

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