Monday, September 20, 2021

Mapping the imaginary

I showed my Honors Lit students a map of North Carolina this morning, but it was a singularly uninspiring map: here is Raleigh; here is Cold Mountain; here is a long stretch of state in between the two. The map comes alive only as we read Cold Mountain, following the footsteps of Inman as he walks across the state on his long homeward odyssey; students will follow Inman's internal map layered over William Bartram's descriptions of the state and the smaller maps other characters provide. "Island can only exist / if we have loved in them," wrote Derek Walcott, and I hope my students will love Cold Mountain enough to develop a vivid internal map, although it's just as likely that they won't.

My Postcolonial Lit students, on the other hand, showed me maps they'd made illustrating contexts of various works we've read so far this semester. Some of the maps are rudimentary, and I grade them on the quality of the information presented rather than on artistic merit, but a few stood above and beyond the rest. How, for instance, do you draw a map of a book of poems Chris Abani wrote about his time confined in a Nigerian prison? A talented student drew the outline of Nigeria, marked the places where Abani was born and imprisoned, and filled in the rest with important words from the poems. In the center is a small barred window filled with a work of art by Viktor Ekpuk, and together the art, map, and words evoke the freedom of creativity within captivity. Lovely.

Another student mapped Paule Marshall's short story "To Da-Duh, In Memoriam," in which a small girl travels to Barbados to visit her grandmother, who cannot believe the child's stories about life in New York City. The student juxtaposed maps of Barbados and New York, with the island map showing what the grandma loves the most--her house, her garden, the tall hill nearby. From the New York map, though, the Empire State Building throws its long shadow across the sea to hover over the island, a visual reminder of the way progressive urban values overshadow and ultimately overwhelm Da-Duh's agrarian island life.

When we shared these maps in class last Friday, students commented on how vastly the maps differed, even though some were mapping the same literary work. I reminded them that every map is an interpretation, pointing us toward the map-maker's values as well as the real world; these maps, though, are especially subjective because they focus on works of the imagination. A good map leads us to a destination, which is difficult enough when that destination is a point on the globe but infinitely more difficult when the destination exists outside the realm of gps. Who can map a poet's mind? Who can map the outline of abstract concepts? 

And how do we map the places that exist only because we have loved in them?

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