(Photo Credit: Ashwin Ravi, submitted through My Shot)
Our friends at Google Maps Mania, citing Robert Frost, remind us that, “all literature begins with geography.” And it’s not just the physical world that inspires poetry, prose, history, drama, and spoken word. Geographies of the mind inspire stories as well. I first thought about geography’s role in actually creating literature while reading Ricardo Padróns “Mapping Imaginary Worlds,” in which he gives the history of the map of Treasure Island:
I this case, the map came before the adventure story. Robert Louis Stevenson drew it with his father and stepson, and only afterward thought to write a pirate story to go with his treasure map…. The island itself, that perfectly possessable geographic object, displaces the treasure as the reader’s object of desire.
What Padrón is saying is that cartography is a way to imagine and explore the subjective world of art, not just the positivist world of science.
But geography’s role in literature has other facets: deconstruction and comprehension. Not only does literature begin with geography, but geoliteracy is an important tool to unpack and interpret great writing. The Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature at RISD(ee) recommends mind mapping as a way to improve reading comprehension and dissect stories. Another fun way to map text is with wordle, which creates an artistic representation akin to a tag cloud.
Take it one step further and you can map the actual story over the space in which it occurs. Once, when preparing a role for a theater class, I used My Maps (an editable section of Google Maps) to chart the major landmarks of This is Our Youth, a play by Kenneth Lonergan. The play follows a day in the life of two young Manhattanites in the 1980s. The act of mapping the streets and locations in the play informed my understanding of the characters. Using street view, I got to see the same brick buildings on the Upper West Side, where much of the action occurs. Now that I’ve made my map public on Google, other people can view it and make comments and suggestions. Extend that same functionality to group projects, and you’ve got a great way for students to really interact with the material and with each other.
Google Lit Trips offer a sophisticated set of already prepared maps linked into Google earth. They are stuffed with information about books like The Grapes of Wrath, The Kite Runner, and others (but they don´t give away any of the content, so you still have to read the book!). These tools are great, but I have to temper my enthusiasm for Google Maps and Google Earth. Construction paper and pens can still be the most time-efficient and appropriate approach for creative mapping projects, particularly in a classroom setting.
Geography isn’t always the best lens for all works of literature, but it always complements other approaches. In high school, my teacher told us to draw a map that represented everything about Africa that we had learned reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One student drew symbolic representations–an outline of Africa with a black heart–while another drew in an area of the Congo where, according to Cliff Notes, Conrad had visited years before writing his book. Most of us drew nothing, because we couldn’t think of anything in the book that actually provided us spatial information about Africa. In fact, there is almost nothing in the book that mentions real locations or even captures any sense of place. The point our teacher was trying to make: Conrad didn’t write about Africa, he wrote about the aspatial and amorphous human soul, from the perspective of Victorian England. So, maybe mapping isn’t the best way to understand all literature, but even trying to draw out the aspatial stories can teach you a lot.
-Cedar Attanasio for My Wonderful World
N.B. “Mapping Imaginary Worlds” is the 5th chapter chapter of “Maps: Finding our Place in the World,” edited by James Akerman and Robert Karrow Jr.