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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True Crime Fictions

This post was contributed by Dr Joseph Brooker, from Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Read the original blog post on the Centre for Contemporary Literature’s website. Here, Dr Brooker reports from True Crime Fictions a one-day, interdisciplinary conference held at Birkbeck investigating the growing corpus of hybrid fictions working with accounts of true crimes and their increasing interest to literary, legal and criminological scholars.

In Absolute Power (1997) Clint Eastwood plays a burglar who laconically states: ‘I love true crime’. I always found it entertaining that Eastwood’s next film as an actor was called True Crime (1999). These were fictions referring to a genre of non-fictional narrative, which capitalises on a public appetite for details of crimes that have really taken place. The critic Mark Seltzer has written a major work on the genre, describing it as ‘crime fact that looks like crime fiction’. But what about ‘true crime fiction’? What does that look like?

Northern Crimes: the Moors Murderers and the Yorkshire Ripper

Birkbeck creative writing lecturer Mark Blacklock's true crime fiction novel, "I'm Jack"

Birkbeck creative writing lecturer Mark Blacklock’s true crime fiction novel, “I’m Jack”

Het Phillips (Birmingham) started the conference with a discussion of materiality in true crime, drawing in a wide range of references, mentioning crime writing from the Moors Murders to David Peace. What most struck me was her emphasis on detail as a textual feature of crime writing. Detail might be a literary relative of the detective’s ‘evidence’; reading could be forensic attitude. Phillips referred not just to Roland Barthes’ account of detail in ‘The Reality Effect’, but even, strikingly, to Hugh Kenner’s discussion of material details in Joyce’s Ulysses.

Martin King’s (Manchester Metropolitan) approach was oriented to social science and media studies. His focus was particularly on David Peace’s Nineteen Seventy-Four and the TV dramatization Red Riding, and on the versions of masculinity explored in both. King suggested that Peace cannot be wholly separated from a more prurient representation of gruesome crime. What Mark Blacklock called ‘culture industry questions’ – where is a fiction situated, who is the audience, whom does it benefit, is there profit to be made? – come into play.

Helen Pleasance (York St John) closed this panel with a paper given from a creative writing background, in which creative non-fiction and memoir were key genres. She revealed a personal connection to the investigation of the Moors Murders, via her father who was a probation officer in Greater Manchester at the time. This had deterred her from engaging with the history of that crime – yet she has ultimately been unable to avoid it, and spoke of ‘what it means to know too much about Myra Hindley’. Pleasance criticized Jean Rafferty’s award-winning novel Myra, Beyond Saddleworth (2012) but found much more virtue in David Constantine’s story ‘Ashton and Elaine’ which she described at length. Constantine’s story, it emerged, addresses the murders obliquely and looks to find a way beyond them for the region.

The panel not only highlighted the particular role of the North in crime writing, but also suggested that two cases in particular have dominated the modern history of ‘Northern crime’: the Moors Murderers and the Yorkshire Ripper. Of the two, it seems to me that the former has had the deepest hold over public imagination and has been more prone to mythologization – as was indicated, for instance, by the connections that various quotations drew between the Moors Murders and Wuthering Heights.

True Crime in the United States

The second panel shifted our attention over the Atlantic. David McWilliam (Keele) described the ‘activist ethics’ of author Sarah Burns’ work on the ‘central park five’, a case of wrongful conviction. McWilliam’s presentation opened issues of race, representation and incarceration in the United States. These were also pertinent to the presentation by historian Roger Panetta (Fordham University, New York), who is undertaking a history of Sing Sing Prison. His work took us back to the nineteenth century, as he outlined his aim to better describe the prison’s inmates, ‘retracing the lifelines knotted in one cell’. Adam Gearey (Birkbeck) discussed a work by the former Weatherman activist Bill Ayres, taking ‘true crime’ into the realm of what could be called ‘domestic terrorism’ or home-grown revolutionary activity in the counterculture era. Gearey’s emphasis was not so much literary, legal or political as philosophical, drawing on Aristotle to emphasize ideas of virtue and self-fulfilment, and suggesting that bad rhetoric indicates bad ethical action.

Graphic Art and True Crime

Harriet Earle (Birkbeck) could not be present on the day but her paper was read out. Earle’s discussion of comic book art offered tools for formal analysis, with the comics My Friend Dahmer (2012) and Green River Killer (2011) her particular examples. David Platten’s (Leeds) presentation was on the fiction (written and graphic) of French communist author Didier Daeninckx. Platten showed how Daeninckx had returned repeatedly to the incident of state brutality on 17 October 1961, when Algerian protesters were murdered by police.

Ethical Issues in True Crime Writing

In the final two sessions we moved from criticism towards creative practice. Professor Martin Eve chaired a panel of authors who had written about true crime. Mark Blacklock spoke of his novel I’m Jack (2015), which fictionalizes the Wearside hoax that diverted police attention from the Yorkshire Ripper investigation. Andrew Hankinson is the author of You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] (2016), a narrative based on extensive study of the Geordie killer’s statements and actions. And Daragh Carville spoke of his authorship of a forthcoming BBC drama about the Shankill Butchers of Belfast. The intensity of the material struck me. Author events and interviews often stay at a genial, genteel level; but here, I gradually realized that all three authors had engaged with deeply disturbing and violent material, sometimes in forensic detail. This in turn raised ethical issues – who has the right to write true crime? What about the feelings of the victims’ families? Can you be sued for libel? – which were aired in discussion.

Another point that connected the three was an emphasis on place. Hankinson’s Geordie background connected him to the Moat case. Blacklock talked of his Sunderland background as his crucial motivation, even of his novel as an ‘exorcism’ for his home town. And Daragh Carville spoke of his love for ‘that weird city’, Belfast: a little like Helen Pleasance in her initial avoidance of the Moors Murders, he had avoided the Troubles all his writing life, but here at last he found himself confronting it directly. This intense concern with place – specifically with towns and cities – in turn made me wonder how large a city would need to be to transcend the effects of a particular crime. Sunderland, for instance, is a city of 175,000. Would London, at nearer 8 million, be too large to be haunted by one individual’s actions? True, Jack the Ripper and the Krays are notorious London criminals, but they are also very closely associated with the specific area of the East End. Perhaps the last crime to feel ‘London-wide’ in its effects was the 7/7 bombings: a murder case belonging to that special category called terrorism.

True Crime and Memoir

©Line Kallmayer

©Line Kallmayer

The day closed with a presentation from Line Kallmayer, a visual artist from Denmark who is currently resident in Italy after several artistic residencies in different countries, notably the United States. She described the case of the serial killer Dennis Lynn Rader, who was caught in Wichita, Kansas in 2005. Kallmeyer gave us a narrative of Rader’s life and crimes, but it was intertwined with an account of her own travels in Kansas investigating the case. True crime was mixed with memoir. But it was also a profoundly visual presentation, as Kallmayer’s text was accompanied by a sequence of many photographs that she had taken on her travels. The effect was extraordinary. The academic format of the day was now incorporating a work of art, which accordingly asked for a different response. The quality of Kallmayer’s writing was matched by her immaculate reading and the intriguingly uncertain, Sebaldian status of her images. I already thought that we had witnessed a day of high quality work, but Kallmayer closed it by taking it to a different place, and making us listen and watch differently.

What could the future hold for the study of true crime? Is there more discussion or publication ahead? I hope that this conference has started the conversation in a way that delegates will find helpful as they continue their research on true crime fictions.

This conference was generously supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

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