Crossing borders

Detail from The Writer's State

We human beings are clannish and tribal by nature (as are many other animal species, of course), and in our creation of families and communities that can be a beautiful thing, but our compulsion for drawing boundaries and rigorously patrolling them too often goes a step too far. We see this everywhere, played out on large stages and small, from the geo-political borders of the current refugee crisis, causing anguish for so many, to the painful social borders of our teenage years, separating the cool kids from the losers, the jocks from the nerds, the rich from the poor, the tribe from the Other in a thousand different ways.

In Wednesday's post, Scott Russell Sanders reminded us that fighting for diversity in our social endeavors is not unrelated to conserving the exuberant diversity of the natural world; while on Tuesday, Rob Cowen spoke out for the beauty and vitality of edge-lands and borderlands, where two worlds come together, where the lines between us and the Other blur -- whatever that Other may be.

In the publishing industry, we have a small-stage example of borderlines and border controls, for not only are books categorized and segregated into genres, but those genres are then formed into a class system, with certain works of "serious" literature penned by canonical authors at the very top and other forms of fiction -- "chick lit" or romance, for example -- ranked near the bottom. And woe betide the author who steps outside of his or her class...er, I mean genre.

A literary map of the United States, 1940

A literary map of the United States, 1957

A literary map of canada, 1936

This is not to say there is no value in categorization, as linguist Eve Sweetser points out in an essay for the Interstitial Arts Foundation:

"Scholars across various schools...agree that the human neural system is a categorization system," writes Sweetser. "It’s evolved to take in stimuli and group them according to similarities and differences that have proven useful to human animals and their ancestors. If we didn’t constantly categorize new stimuli relative to our extant category system, we’d be back to the condition of a newborn -- most things would be A pictorial map of English literaturebrand-new every, time and we’d have to start over with identifying every new entity we encounter. It’s categorization -- and I mean routinized, established, unconscious categorization -- which lets us know that a chair is a chair, a floor is a floor, a book is a book, so that we can get on with life instead of needing to grab (and probably lick) every new object to see what it’s like.

"The same is true of art and literature. If I didn’t have genre expectations -- and general expectations based on previously encountered texts -- I would not be a sophisticated reader, able to notice intertextuality, enjoy creativity, differentiate expected from unexpected elements, and helpfully fill in background from traditional expectations about a genre. Caroline Stevermer once told me that male readers of her novel Sorcery and Cecelia [an epistolary novel that borrows from fantasy literature and Regency romance] (co-written with Patricia Wrede), expressed enjoyment of the book’s wit and humor -- but puzzlement over the fact that the authors made it so obvious, so soon, who was going to marry whom. To female readers, more familiar with the romance genre, the obviousness of Wrede and Stevermer’s heroes as matches for the heroines was part of the spoof on that genre. When you see the tall, dark, fascinating but arrogant guy, and sparks flying between him and the heroine, the ending should be predictable. If we didn’t have entrenched categories, we’d have nothing to play with, nothing to play off. It would all be starting over again, every time."

The London Book Map

A detail from the Book Map of London, Dorothy Studio

The problem, of course, is not the genre boundary per se, but when those boundary walls are so rigidly enforced that crossing over them is difficult or impossible: when, for example, writers working in children's or genre fiction are routinely passed over for literary prizes, grants, and fellowships, no matter how good or ground-breaking their books may be; or when a mainstream writer attempts to work in a genre of lower status and is viewed as slumming.

This is changing, thank heavens. I no longer dread being asked what I write at literary events; the word "fantasy" no longer provokes an awkward silence and immediate dismissal as an artist of any worth. (To be perfectly honest, this does still happen, but not each and every time, and I count that progress.) Millions of readers have embraced books by J.K. Rowling and Phillip Pullman (among others) without becoming social pariahs, or somehow incapable of reading A.S. Byatt as well. And, best of all, a new generation of writers has grown perfectly comfortable with slipping back and forth among genres, or dwelling in the wild borderlands between them, creating works that gleefully defy expectations and easy categorization. This is precisely the kind of work that the Interstitial Arts Foundation was set up to champion, and I recommend their website, online magazine, and books, if you're not already familiar with them. 

Detail from The Map of Literature by Martin Vargic

Writer and academic Theodora Goss wrote the following piece on literary borders for the IAF, and has kindly given me permission to reprint it here:

Crossing Borders, by Night
by Theodora Goss

A literary map of Great Britain by Geoff Sawyers & Bridget HanniganWhen I was a child growing up in America, I liked to read books with maps: The Wind in the Willows, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit. These books were contiguous countries. By putting down one and picking up another, I could cross from the River Bank to Middle Earth. I did not know there were borders. No weasel asked for my travel papers, no orc searched my luggage. In literature, at least, you could travel freely.

Later, as a student studying literature, I was told there were borders indeed: national (English, American, colonial), temporal (Romantic, Victorian, Modern), generic (fantastic, realistic). Some countries (the novel) you could travel to readily. The drinking water was safe, no immunizations were required. For some countries (the gothic), there was a travel advisory. The hotels were not up to standard; the trains would not run on time. Some countries (the romance) one did not visit except as an anthropologist, to observe the strange behavior of its inhabitants.

A map of children's literature in Britain by Geoff Sawyer & Bridgett HanniganAnd there were border guards (although they were called professors), to examine your travel papers as carefully as a man in an olive uniform with a red star on his cap. They could not stop you from crossing the border, but they would tell you what had been left out of your luggage, what was superfluous. Why the journey was a terrible idea in the first place.

My problem is not with borders, although they are often badly drawn, so that villages within sight of each other, whose inhabitants have intermarried for generations, are assigned to different countries, or Jane Austen, who acknowledged the influence of Ann Radcliffe, is placed in a different tradition.

My problem is with the guards who say, "You cannot cross the border." Because when borders are closed, those on either side experience immobility and claustrophobia, and those who cross them (illegally, by night) suffer incalculable loss.

My aunt has a diplomatic passport. When she crosses the border, she need not wait in line. Her luggage is never searched.

May we all, in life as in literature, be accorded a similar status.

A literary map of the United States

A literary map of Australia

I'd like to conclude today with a passage from an essay by Jeff VanderMeer, pointing out how life itself can be interstitial, "filled with juxtaposed moments that remind us of just how strange and wonderful and full of contradiction the world can be," when we value the borderlands themselves and not just the places that our boundaries divide.

"We talk of borders and interstices, corridors and edges," he writes. "It seems to me that the very act of creating, whether it’s music or fiction or painting, sculptures or performances, is by definition to stand upon the edge, offering the world something that we’ve seen or heard on the other side. Presenting it, we become the bridge, mirror, threshold, messenger: We elect to become the in-between. "

A detail from The Writer's State map, Australia

The London Tube map as Storylines

The titles of the maps pictured here can be found in the picture captions, along with artist credits. If you're a fan of maps, I recommend the Bodleian Map Room blog, and the Literary Maps exhibition on the University of Michigan Library site. Next week on Myth & Moor: more on borders, edge-lands, and the folklore of the in-between.


Kith and kin

Wind in the Willows

Today, I'd like to look at the ways that some people's lives are defined by attachment to the place they come from, whereas others (in increasing numbers) live uprooted from their original place, or un-rooted in any place at all. The world has always had its wanderers, of course -- but the balance has shifted in modern times, with more of us in motion than staying put. As we move, and move, and move again, can Treasure Islandwe genuinely root ourselves in each new place, learn the language of each land's flora and fauna, its myths and folklore, its unique spirit? Or are we doomed to transient, restless lives in which the voices of the land, of the plant world and our animal neighbors, are ones we can no longer hear?

In discussing the Aboriginal culture of Australia, which, like most indigenous cultures, is deeply rooted in their sacred landscape from birth until death, Jay Griffiths writes:

"From song, from dream, from elements of earth and water, spirit-children are imminent in the land. They are left there by the Ancestors of the Dreaming, who sang their way across the land, leaving an imprint of music like an aural footstep. And sometimes a woman who has already physically conceived a child chances to step in that same footstep, and, if she does, part of the song and the spirit-child leap up into her so she feels a quickening, sharp as an intake of breath at a kick within, sweet as a night surprised by song. Sometimes it is the father who, seeing something unusual -- a particularly large fish or an animal behaving strangely -- may know it as an indication of a spirit-child. Or a man walking by a lake may find a spirit-child jumping into his mind, which he will send in a dream to his wife, inseminating the spirit-child within her. Then the Lawmen, the knowers of the songline which the mother or father was on, can tell which stanzas of the song belong to that child, its conception totem and, in that sinuous reflexivity of belonging, its quintessential home.

Winnie the Pooh

The Land of Oz

"To be born," notes Grffiths, "is, in Latin, nasci, and the word is related to natura, so birth, nature, the laws of nature and the idea of an essence are related. It is as if the language itself has embedded birth in the natural world. In the Amazon, people say childbirth should always take place in forest-gardens so that the condensed energy of the plants can nourish the child. In New Guinea, future generations are called 'our children who are still in the soil' and when I was in West Papua, the western half of the island, I was told that in the Dani language the expression for digging potatoes is the same as that for giving birth to a child. Women say they can sometimes hear the unearthed potatoes, which are always handled gently, calling out to them, the land singing things into being to be mothered into the world.

"Legends of childhood across the world suggest whole landscapes lit with incipience. Everywhere is potential, beginningness. It may be the inheld energy of an acorn or the liquid and endless possibilities of water; it may be the fattening of a potato in the secret earth or the leaping of a salmon that is the child Taliesin -- in whatever form it takes, the land itself is kindling children.

The Once and Future King

Worm Ouroboros

Narnia

"In indigenous Australian culture," Griffiths continues, "there is a common idea that the land is a mentor, teacher, and parent to a child. People talk of being 'grown up by' their land; their country as kin. So do English-speakers -- without quite realizing it. A child may be looked after by its 'kith and kin,' we say, as if both terms meant family or relations. Not so. 'Kith' is from the Old English cydd, which can mean kinship but which in this phrase means native country -- one's home outside the house -- but no one I have ever met has known that meaning. This sense of belonging has nothing whatsoever to do with a nation state or political homeland, but rather with one's immediate locale, one's square mile, the first landscape that we know as children. W.H. Auden wrote of this as 'Amor Loci,' the love of his childhood landscape. Kith kindles the kinship which children so easily feel for the natural world and without that kinship, nature also loses out, bereft of the children who grow up to protect it."

The Lord of the Rings

Novelist Alan Garner's "kith" is in Cheshire in north-west England, where Garners have lived for centuries. As a descendant of rural craftsmen, he was the first of his family to attend a private grammar school and then go on to Oxford University. "My family," he writes (in The Voice That Thunders), "was, in the abstract, delighted that I was going to 'get an education,' just as I might have been going to get a car. For them it was a concrete object. None of us was prepared for its effect. That deep but narrow culture from which I came could not share my excitement over the wonders of the deponent verb. To them, it was an attack on their values, an attempt to make them feel inferior. A shocking alienation resulted, which we could not resolve."

At the end of his education, Garner sits on a stump by an old stone wall (built by his great-great-grandfather, Robert Garner) and ponders his future. His education has made it impossible for him to live as his father and grandfather lived, but the strength of his kith-ties makes the life of an Oxford don, living far from the soil of Cheshire, impossible too. What is the answer?

Moon of Gomrath

"It was staring me in the face. It was Robert's wall. On it was carved his banker mark, the rune Tyr, the boldest of the gods. When the Aesir went to bind Fenriswolf with the rope Gleipnir, which was made of the sound of a cat's footsteps, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the longings of a bear, the voices of fishes and Nordic rune marksthe spittle of birds, Fenris would not allow himself to be bound unless one of the Aesir put his right hand in  Fenris' mouth as a token of goodwill. Only Tyr was willing to do so. And when Fenris was bound, and helpless, he bit Tyr's hand off at the wrist, which is still called the wolf's joint. But had Robert known this? Was it a part of the Craft and Mystery of his trade? Or was it simply that an arrow is easy to carve? Yet he had got the proportions of it right; and we are all left-handed.

"I loved Oxford, but it was not the wall. The wall was mine. Oxford was not mine. The rune was mine. It claimed me. Whatever it was that I was going to do with my life, it would have to be done here. This was my unique place. I owned it, and it owned me. There is no word in English to express the relationship. In Russian, the word is rodina; in German, Heimat. And there, on the tree stump, by my great-great-grandfather's rune and wall, I saw my rodina, my Heimat. This is what I must serve, as no one else could. This is the integration of my divided selves....So, after a period of reflection, at three minutes past four o'clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, 4 September, 1956, I began to write a novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and I have been writing ever since."

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

Pyrdain

The Kingkiller Chronicle

For writers like Garner, with a deep sense of belonging to an ancestral landscape, the creation of art rooted in and expressive of that landscape can be an almost sacred calling...but what about the rest of us in this fast-paced, foot-loose, transient world: immigrants, exiles, travelers, nomads, incomers of one form or another?

Tove Jansson's Moomin ValleyKatherine Paterson addressed this question in her essay "Where is Terabithia?":

"Flannery O'Connor, whose words about writing have meant a great deal to me, has said that writing is incarnational. By incarnational we mean that somehow the word or the idea has taken on flesh, has become physical, actual, real. We mean that the abstract idea can be percieved by the way of the senses. This immediately makes fiction different from other kinds of stories. The fairy tale begins, 'Once upon a time,' thus clearly signaling its intent to escape the actual and the everyday, but a novel takes its life from the petty details of its geography, history, and culture.

"This is one of the reasons that writers like Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty and William Faulkner move us so powerfully. Their roots are planted very deep in a particular soil, and they grow up and reach out from that place with a strength unknown to most writers. It is also the reason why a writer like Pasternak would refuse the Nobel Prize rather than leave Russia. For Russia, despite her terror and oppression, was the soil from which his genius sprang, and he feared that if he left her, he would leave behind his ability to write.

The Eight Realms

The Magicians

"What happens, then," asks Paterson, "to a writer without roots -- who is not grounded in a particular place? When I was four years old, we left 'home,' and I've never been back since. Indeed, I couldn't go back if I wanted to because the house in which we lived was torn down so that a bus station could be built on the site. Since I was four, I've lived in three different countries and seven states at about thirty different addresses. I was once asked as part of an imaginative exercise to remember in detail the house I had grown up in. I nearly had a mental breakdown on the spot. But the fact that I have no one place to call home does not make me feel that place in fiction is unimportant. On the contrary, it convinces me that I must work harder than any almost any writer I know to create or re-create the world in which a story is set and grows if I want to make a reader believe it."

Tamora Pierce's Tortall & Garth Nix's Old Kingdom

Earthsea

Islandia

Many of us today have no kith, no rodina, no alia (to use the Islandian term), no ancestral place. Or we had one once, but lost it long ago. Or we've been transplanted into new soil, our roots still shallow, our claim still tenuous. Or we are homesick for a home we never actually had; for the idea of home, and of truly belonging.

VandareiThat's how it was for me for many years, until I crossed the ocean to Devon and, to my eternal surprise, its rain-drenched hills whispered in my ears: Welcome home. You've come at last. We've been waiting and waiting, and now you're here. Until then, I'd found my home in the world only in the pages of certain books, and in the earth-colored tones of certain works of art: in Earthsea and Islandia, Rhyhope Wood and the farmyards of Hed, among Burne-Jones' briar roses and Arthur Rackham trees with goblins stirring at their roots. Those imaginary lands are as precious to me now as they were in my kithless, unmoored youth, and they formed me as much as any "real" place. They are real places. Or rather, I should say that they are true places, which is even better; and which, of course, is precisely why I able to take shelter inside them. Some kiths exist in the physical world, and some only in the imagination. But all of them are real. All of them matter. All of them place us, nourish us, and give us the stories we most need.

Now, as a writer and artist myself, my aim is to fashion, as Anais Nin once put it, "a world in which one can live"... out of words and paint, out of myth and life, out of rain, wind, earth and flame. I want to tell stories born of my love for Devon, but also for the Arizona desert and the lands I wandered during the homeless years: Narnia, Gramarye, Dorimare, Eldwold, Prydain, Dalemark, the Earthsea Archipelago, Vandarei, Tredana, the Old Kingdom, Dorn Island, and so many others. Most of all I, too, want to create landscapes and storyscapes so real, so vivid, so true that they might whisper in a weary traveler's ear:

Welcome home.  You've come at last. We've been waiting and waiting, and now you're here.

Hed & Dalemark

Sherwood Smith's Sartorias-deles

Philip Pullman's Alternate Oxford

Delia Sherman's New York Between

Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple's Shifting LandsMap titles are in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) A related post: "More thoughts about home.