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Writing on the Map – how we write about places

Maps, like poems, can mean different things to different people.
If I were to draw a map of my neighbourhood I might include completely different things to my neighbours, or the lady in the flat upstairs. I would be sure to include the homes of the friendlier local cats, the house with the boarded-up windows, the café with the best vegan cake. Mapping in this way is selective and is based on your priorities; I probably wouldn’t mark the one-way streets because I can’t drive so I’ll never have to worry about them, and I’ve only lived here for six years so any historical references might be limited. In other words, my map would be a selective report of the things that I think are important within this neighbourhood, and that I want other people to know about.
The process of map-making has to be selective, even for an organisation like the Ordnance Survey who aim to give an accurate representation of the land.  We as writers are always focusing and editing our work, to make sure what we say is the right thing, and so our task in writing about a place will need to be similarly selective.
Eavan Boland’s poem That the Science of Cartography is Limited describes the poet’s visit to a famine road (a futile building task given to the starving Irish by the authorities) in Connaught:

‘Where they died, there the road ended

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of
the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that

the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.’

Using the accepted map the poet cannot truly address the history of her country and instead questions the decision of the map maker, for all their artistry, in making a choice that has such political implications. With her poem, she addresses what has been left out.
Kei Miller’s Forward Prize-winning collection The Cartographer Tries to map a Way to Zion  examines the difficulties of mapping through the character of the Cartographer, a Westerner charged with creating a map of Jamaica. The task becomes difficult as he learns more and more about the land he is supposed to measure and starts to understand its complicated and sometimes brutal history, much of which is bedded in the place names of the island: Flog Man, Bloody Bay, Wait-a-bit, Me-No-Sen -You-No-Come.  It is impossible for the Cartographer to remain indifferent to the stories of injustice and struggle he hears, but it is also impossible for him to put them all on his map. As his sometime guide the rastaman  says:

‘draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?’


The map, then, is never truly objective. The writer can ask questions of the map and its choices through the things we choose to show and don’t, and identify what might be lacking in those precise, scale-drawn maps we use to navigate. We can show the things in our environment that the cartographers can’t. As Rebecca Solnit says in her Field Guide to Getting Lost: ‘The landscape in which identity is supposed to be grounded is not solid stuff; it’s made out of memory and desire, rather than rock and soil’ (p.121). We can represent the many layers of stuff that surround any physical location, from the personal to the historical, the landscape is ever-changing.
You can’t tell everything about a place, and along the way you must make choices, research, omit some things, and include others in order to tell the story of the places you’ve found. The question is, where do you want to explore? What do you want to write about?

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Posted by author: Suzannah Evans
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2 thoughts on “Writing on the Map – how we write about places

  • In an all too brief discussion after a reading by Kei Miller I asked him about the notion of a cartographer as editor, relaying a partial view of the land as he maps for those requiring a mediated perspective. He smiled, a man of few, but beautiful words. And that miscomprehension on the name Shotover, which then inherits its own oral history in a language navigated between two colonial overlords intent on missing the point.

  • Thank you Suzannah, lots to reflect on. Maps are on my mind following an event I attended as part of a literature festival this week. The speaker referred to Winifred Holtby and showed a map she had drawn of the area where “South Riding” is set. The map shows significant places that are referred to in the book.
    A story I am working on at the moment is set in a fictional community and I am inspired to draw a map of the area, to add another dimension to my planning. I am not an artist but am open to different ideas.
    I have a treasured book of maps of Frodo’s journey from Lord of the Rings. They are drawn by Barbara Strachey who is described as not being a cartographer or professional artist, but loved the books. She waited for more detailed maps to accompany the books, and in the end drew the maps herself.

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