The Map is not the Territory: Re-imagining Place, Reweaving Story

Natalie Mitchell, a first-year MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, shares insights from Professor Marina Warner’s lecture that took place as part of the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Birkbeck joining the University of London.

City of women map by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, ‘City of Women 2.0’, 2019. Courtesy: the artists

Professor Dame Marina Warner took her audience on a fascinating journey through the role of mapping in storytelling and memory, in her lecture, which forms part of the 100 Years of the University of London lecture series. Using Alfred Korzybski famous axiom ‘the map is not the territory’, which suggests that a map cannot encompass the true quality of a place, Professor Warner considered the re-imagining of place and how mapping can become a rebellious act.

She began the lecture considering the many roles of cartography in territory making, defining borders, resources, military and governance, and how this informs our memory of place. The map attempts to ‘actualise history’ through naming, marking and dividing, but the construction of history is a type of narrative. A point Professor Warner emphasised through the words history and story, which are the same in many languages. As such, mapping can control the narrative of a place and becomes an important tool for colonisers, although it may bear little resemblance to the reality of a place by its indigenous people.

Adam Dant – Shoreditch as New York – 2018

The activity of creating maps can also realise fiction, such as the detailed fictional maps in the novels Gulliver’s Travels and The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, star maps give mythical gods a presence in reality through the stargazer’s eye and theme parks and Disney castles parody real locations through the child’s imagination. In this way, the fictional locations of stories can become real locations; these narratives ‘folding back’ onto the actual.

Professor Warner went on to suggest that the map can function in time as well as space, making the past present. This was particularly notable in Emma Willard’s mapping of aboriginal tribes in America and her Progress of the Roman Empire, charting time using the course of the Amazon river. These reworkings of maps can also perform a ‘historical resistance’ as seen in Layla Curtis’ NewcastleGateshead collaged map of all the places renamed after those cities, which highlights the colonial activity of claiming places through naming. Such use of cartography revealed the potential rebellious nature the renaming of maps can perform.

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease - Monarchs and Queens - 2010

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease – Monarchs and Queens – 2010

This type of resistance was expanded further by Professor Warner through many recent examples of the renaming and reworking of maps and places. In Paris in 2015, Osez le Feminisme flyered the city’s street signs, renaming them to notable women from history. Artists have also reimagined places via the redrawing of maps, such as Rebecca Solnit’s and Adam Dant’s maps, which create a visual narrative, questioning the authority of the map and returning to a cartography blending art and science. Similarly, Simon Patterson’s iconic reworking of the London tube map in his work The Great Bear renamed the stations after a myriad of famous and forgotten figures from history. Through each of her examples, Professor Warner showed how the reimagining of the map ‘makes the familiar unfamiliar’ and how a sense of place can be reclaimed by those in situ.

Simon Patterson - The Great Bear - 1992

Simon Patterson – The Great Bear – 1992

Professor Warner’s lecture was bookended by her recent work with a collective of young migrants in Palermo, Sicily, through the Stories in Transit workshop project Giocherenda. These workshops involved the young people developing stories of the city using the figure of The Genius of Palermo, a 15th century icon who has become a synonymous symbol of the city. The workshop took place around the city, where the young people placed the historical figure in different locations. Through this, they could develop their own sense of their new home in Palermo, but through the use of the city’s history. She expressed how it was the children who wanted to use mapping in their story creations and in doing so created a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar place.

Professor Warner concluded her lecture by emphasising the importance of continuing to create stories. Storytelling is an action and a way of history-making and in the days of fake news and big data, it is even more paramount.

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William Matthews Memorial Lecture: ‘European Journeys, Medieval and Modern’

Dr Marion Turner’s lecture on Chaucer’s writings and journeys reframed the quintessentially English writer as a great European poet and source of inspiration beyond the continent.

Dr Marion Turner took an audience of Chaucer enthusiasts on a journey through the poet’s works for the 2019 William Matthews Memorial Lecture. Following on from her own travels around Europe, where she contrasted the medieval with the contemporary, she demonstrated how Chaucer weaved his journeys through Europe into his works of poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet and author, whose most famous works include The Canterbury Tales. He is often thought of as ‘the Father of English Literature.’

During her research, Dr Turner endeavoured to go on a physical journey through contemporary Europe in order to retrace Chaucer’s journey through Medieval Europe, to understand his interests, works and what gives the writer appeal beyond the borders of England.

Early on in the lecture, Dr Turner shared the impetus of her travels; being approached to write a biography of Chaucer’s life. She lamented that, upon sitting down to write the book, the plan she sketched was not very different from any other biography written about Chaucer. Frustrated, she set out on a walk to help her find ways of approaching the structure of the book, when she came to her ‘road to Damascus moment’; the idea to approach Chaucer’s work through his travels through Europe in the fourteenth century as a way of understanding the writer in the reader’s imagination.

Dr Turner reflected on numerous characterisations of Chaucer as an English poet firmly rooted in the English imagination and identity. She used the example of UKIP aligning Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Alisoun with the party during the 2013 election, thus painting her as an English archetype. But this trope is challenged by the numerous writers of colour, particularly women, who have taken Chaucer’s work and adapted it to create stories in their own contexts.

What’s more, through her travels she found that Chaucer’s stories came from distant places made up of diverse demographics. Particularly Navarre, located in the northern region of Spain, where Chaucer visited and saw members of the three main religions living harmoniously. She highlights that in the medieval period the most educated of the population were multilingual and that Chaucer himself would have been influenced by French, Italian and Latin poetry, which he enjoyed.

Chaucer’s travels through Europe also highlighted to Dr Turner the importance he places on perspective in his work, and it is this transition of perspective that characterises much of his poetry. She gives the example of the prominence of birds and someone who can only see from the ground as a way of demonstrating these different perspectives, which will inform an individual’s thinking on any given situation.

The lecture concluded with a reflection on Chaucer’s views of time and crossings, the place of crossing being “a place of magic, darkness and possibility” – an ongoing action in which the past infiltrates the present, much like the persistent influence of Chaucer’s works on writers across place and space within the literary canon.

The William Mathews memorial lecture is an annual lecture on either the English language or medieval English literature.

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The Booker at Birkbeck: Atonement

Ian McEwan, the best-selling author of over twenty books, came to Birkbeck to discuss the process of adapting a novel into a film with Atonement screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Birkbeck Lecturer Dr Agnes Woolley.  

L-R: Christopher Hampton, Agnes Woolley, Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan joined Birkbeck’s students, alumni and wider community to discuss his Booker Prize shortlisted book, Atonement, alongside screenwriter Christopher Hampton, with whom he adapted the title for the big screen. The discussion was mediated by Dr Agnes Woolley, Lecturer in Transnational Literature and Migration Cultures at Birkbeck. Focusing on the collaboration between the writers, they discussed the process of adapting a book for cinema, and the unique challenges and opportunities this brings to storytelling.

Atonement is set in three time periods; 1935 England, Second World War England and France, and present day England. It hinges on the fateful mistake of upper-class Briony, who as a child witnesses – and misinterprets – a series of events which lead her to falsely accuse her family’s housekeeper, Robbie, of raping her cousin, Lola.

“Sometimes powerfully in people’s lives,” explained McEwan, “believing is seeing. It’s part of the reason the police no longer rely on identifications from line-ups. Memory is very malleable.”

Robbie, who is truthfully in love and beginning a relationship with Briony’s sister, Cecila, is imprisoned; and the lives of all three are irreparably damaged by the lie. Following his release, Robbie joins the army, and is seemingly able to reunite with Cecilia prior to fighting in the war. In 1940, Briony visits Cecilia to atone for her actions, while Robbie is home, on leave from the army. Cecilia and Robbie both refuse to forgive Briony, who nonetheless tells them she will try to put things right.

McEwan, an accomplished screenwriter himself, turned down the job of adapting the title for film declaring himself “in a long term sulk” about the process following a particularly excruciating previous experience. This decision, he says, was vindicated when Hampton came on board, who himself said he had become enthralled with the novel while reading it on holiday: “I scarcely left my hotel.”

The ending of Atonement, wherein the reader learns that Briony is the author of the preceding story – and that Cecilia and Robbie were in fact never able to reunite before their premature deaths – was an “overwhelming” challenge from a screenwriting perspective. “Part of the success of the film,” said Hampton, “was that after going through a lot of labyrinths [to tackle this], what we ended up with was much more simple.”

He remembered one possibility they explored involved Vanessa Redgrave, who plays 77 year old Briony, appearing throughout the film observing her ‘characters’ and narrating different parts; but in the end they kept the three-part structure of the book, with the final section seeing Briony’s older self, a successful writer whose health is in decline, explain that the fictionalisation was her atonement: it finally allowed the lovers to be together.

McEwan noted that “the breadth of the imagination in the adaption” was complemented by the “fidelity to the source material.” He added that while he wouldn’t dare to intervene with the filming, there is a certain “chaos” to film sets, and where things are filmed out of sequence, the author can be useful as they “always know what’s going on in the psychology of a character’s head.”

McEwan is one of the most adapted novelists working today, a testament to “how well his novels work as dramas,” according to Hampton. “Even Atonement, which is a very ruminative novel, is very dramatic.”

Before the event, McEwan attended a prize-giving for a creative writing competition at Birkbeck, and kindly presented the awards to the winner: Richard Roper for his short story The Carousel of Progress; and the runners-up, Matthew Bates (Another Language) and Marienna Pope-Weidemann (Dandelion).

The Booker Prize has been the UK’s leading literary award for over 50 years. Every autumn, Birkbeck hosts an evening with a Booker Prize nominee, which gives students, staff and alumni the opportunity to hear from, and pose questions to, a celebrated writer.

Find out about Birkbeck’s previous Booker events, with authors including Ali Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro and Hilary Mantel. 

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“I envisioned the day I could at last say, ‘I graduated from university’”

Esther became homeless when family tragedy and funeral expenses meant she couldn’t afford her rent. However, she was determined to graduate from her BA Creative Writing and English programme at Birkbeck, writing assignments on trains, buses and a night shelter. Today she achieves that remarkable feat. 

Growing up in Kenya, Esther Wangui’s passion for literature was carved through Sunday School, where she studied the Hebrew scriptures, and weekly cinema trips, where she developed an interest in script-writing. When she came to Birkbeck to study Creative Writing and English she became interested in form, critical creative writing, and unpicking literature with her classmates in seminars.

However family tragedy struck when her step-son died by suicide in the first year of her degree. The funeral expenses meant she was unable to pay her rent, and she was evicted by her landlord after falling into a month of arrears.

She says: “Homelessness is not something one can share easily, so I didn’t tell my friends or fellow students. Staff at the shelter were very supportive, cheering me on. And although my class tutor did not know I was homeless, he was always very supportive.

“It was difficult at first. I felt stupid, ashamed, and angry at myself. I was staying at a night shelter in Kingston, so I had no privacy, nowhere to cry, no friends to share the downs with… I just kept moving towards the end of my degree. I come from a small town in Kenya which is home to numerous world-class athletes. I used to compete for my high school so I know to always keep my eye on the finishing line.

“The greatest challenge was being woken up early every morning, having to leave the shelter at 10:00am and returning in the evening, cold and tired. I craved what Virginia Woolf called a ‘room of one’s own’. While I was homeless, I even ‘slept’ at the airport several times, but mainly I read or wrote poetry. I was constantly lacking sleep and at times, fatigue affected my concentration. I thought of doctors and world leaders dealing with huge problems and was inspired to carry on, but I envied them for having a bed to go back home to. I could not afford to call my family in Kenya to share my problems. I prayed, I learned from others, and I thought about the fact that I had waited all my life to go to university. It was such a privilege to get an education at Birkbeck.

“I wrote most of my assignments on the long train and bus journeys, and on weekends I worked from the Kingston University library, watching the winter turn to spring and then to summer. I envisioned the day I could at last say, ‘I held on, I tried my best. I graduated from university.’”

Now back in secure accommodation and excited for her future, Esther has started a Master’s degree focused on Near & Middle Eastern studies and Hebrew. She hopes to one day learn all four of the main Middle Eastern languages and go on to work in that region.

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