Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Maps and Literature

By Temitayo Olofinlua
March 30, 2009 04:54PMT

Curiosity kills only the ‘cat' of ignorance, I finally mumbled to myself as I thought about the theme of PAGES for the month of March: The World is Flat. So, I decided to wear my cap of curiosity in search for knowledge.

I sweated in the bus on my way to Yaba under the hot Lagos sun even as questions filtered through my mind: how can they say the world is flat? Was it ever really flat? Has it stopped being spherical as I was taught in my Geography class? What is the meeting point between Onyeka Nwelue's The Abyssinian Boy and the shape of the world?

PAGES, a monthly event organised by Kowry Kreations Media (KKM) in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, usually revolves around a particular theme but brings together various art forms in a bid to understand our world better.

Last month, I confronted graphic images exploring female sexuality (Lucy Azubuike's ‘Menstruation Series' and Zanele Munoli's photo studies of black lesbians) and there was a discussion of Jude Dibia's Walking with Shadows.

Thus, I had an expectation of something "shocking," and was quite caught off guard when I entered the venue but only saw THE WORLD IS FLAT painted in bright colours on the wall, with various maps of different places on flat tables.

Then, I knew that art should not be predictable in whatever form it comes to you: literature, painting, cartography, drama, photography. It should be able to not only shock you, but crawl into your skin, sometimes bringing knowledge or pleasure and at other times, something you can't describe.

The Exhibition: Understanding the World through Cartography

We were less than 30 in the audience and there were five discussants on the table: Johanne Logstrup, the curator of the exhibition and one of the artists whose work was exhibited; and Bisi Silva, the artistic director at the CCA; Onyeka Nwelue, author of The Abyssinian Boy; and Deji Toye, a literary critic and writer.

Bisi Silva helped us across our rivers of ignorance with her introduction, and paved the way for Logstrup to talk more deeply about the theme.

I listened, rather patiently as I tried to enter the world of maps, subjectivity, cartography, the interpretation of maps and the way artists (and people) come to maps. Maps are supposed to be factual, accurate and objective when it comes to description and showing places, however, an artist confronts a map subjectively.

‘The World is Flat' is aimed at seeing the world, not only through maps but through the eyes of the artist in a different way. Okay. Let me break it down from what I understood: if you tell 10 cartographers to draw maps of Lagos, you will get 10 different maps.

Not that they'd differ in size or location, but the way they'd approach the subject of "Lagos" would be different, resulting in different interpretations of Lagos on their maps. Consequently, in the individual maps, we will find different questions answered: geographical, historical, political, cultural and creative.

Logstrup took questions from the audience ranging from her choice of the theme to the aim of the whole project.

From her brilliant responses, I was able to see that, just as maps should not be seen as only geographical tools, we should begin to ask questions about our world in order to see it anew, not just "a one-way-traffic" of seeing without taking on board the possibility of other realities.

The Reading: Maps in the World of Fiction

Where does reality end and fiction begin in a work of literature? When does the writer cross over from the world of real landscapes into fiction? How true is the statement: work with what you know as a writer? When does New Delhi get too real or unreal in Onyeka Nwelue's portrayal of the city in his novel, The Abyssinian Boy?

How real is the Rajagopalan House where most of the events unfold? These were some of the questions Deji Toye raised by way of introduction to the author, Onyeka Nwelue, who in a way bridges the gap between literature and the world of cartography.

Nwelue said later that he tries to stay true to his description of the places that the novel takes the reader to: New Delhi, Lagos and Ezeoke, his village. He travelled to India and walked the streets of New Delhi. He, however, felt that in his bid to make New Delhi real, he made it "too small."

However, those who have been to New Delhi, agree that the descriptions are true and they could recognise many places. The author read from page 11 of his novel with a focus on the "cultural mappings" that we make around ourselves.

An Indian couple want to get a visa to honeymoon in US but are not allowed for reasons best known to the American Consul; the lovebirds commit suicide because they are indebted to the tune of over two million rupees. This leads to a protest and the closure of the British and American embassies for two weeks.

Just like maps, "visas" are tools that we use to define our territory and maintain our control over it and other people.

Questions now arise as to whether it is possible for a writer to describe perfectly a place that he/she has "no knowledge" of.

True or false? My answer: false. Whether a place exists in reality (as in Sefi Atta's Swallow or Joy Isi Bewaji's description of Lagos in Eko Dialogue), or is a mixture of the real and the ideal (as inverted Nigerian history in Eghosa Imasuen's To Saint Patrick) or does not exist at all (see in JK Rowling's novels or Ben Okri's world of the abiku in The Famished Road)--the place truly exists vividly in one place: the writer's head.

Reality transcends what it seems; and most times, in a work of literature, reality does not necessarily have to exist in "real life." However, unreal a place may be, verisimilitude allows the writer to make an ideal setting so real it's believable.

Just as the subjectivity of the cartographer brings a new interpretation to a map, literature breaks boundaries that have been created by maps, and takes the reader on flights to places: known or unknown, real or ideal, to meet characters, real or fictive.

The writer as a map-maker

The next round of questions showed that the writer is, amongst other things, a map-maker whether he stays true to describing reality as it is, mixes it with fiction, or goes into the realm of fantasy. S/he creates new worlds, new streets (and new characters) that are believable.

Walking around to take a look at the works in the exhibition, I entered Shahram Entekhabi's world of ‘parasite architecture' and had a brief history lesson about the Tuileries Garden (with an antique marble statue of a wild boar in it), Paris, which set me thinking.

Over time, the significance of the garden has changed: from a site of great slaughter, the extension of a royal palace and a royal prison, a gathering spot for evil spirits, hangout for homosexuals, to a resort centre, playground, and who knows what it can be tomorrow? The boar has been moved to the Louvre Museum since 1992.

Since places change, the writer (and cartographer) stays true to not only description of place but the mood and timing, amongst other things. For instance, we encounter Lagos at different times in Cyprian Ekwensi's Jagua Nana and Toni Kan's more contemporary Nights of the Creaking Bed.

Thus as map-makers, writers are also historians because each setting has a story: personal, social or political. They preserve moments through their stories whether real or ideal.

The debate is an ongoing one, however, the writer is many things and the creative process of writing is one that is very difficult to dissect.

Just as the uniqueness of each map-maker and map-reader contribute to the map, the individuality of each writer and reader brings a lot of subjectivity to our interpretation of fiction and the world around us.

PAGES has shown through this exhibition, "The World is Flat," that there are many ways of, not only looking at maps or fiction, but the world around us, and promises more interesting ways of understanding our world from many sides of this coin called art. To this end, my ignorance is dead because now I know.

Olofinlua is a writer and editor based in Lagos.

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