Mapping the Invisible

For the past two years I have been haunted by the memory of my first viewing of an unusual map, its PowerPoint image shining from the wall of a lecture room.

In the fall of 2015, I had the great privilege of participating in a month-long writing residency with fourteen other writers from around the world, sponsored by Sun Yat-sen University in China. During the residency I attended a talk by one of my fellow invitees, the Wiradjuri aboriginal writer and scholar Jeanine Leane. On the wall behind her, she’d projected a map of Australia that looked both familiar and unfamiliar. It almost appeared to be a map showing geographical features— there were lots of color-coded areas, their internal borders quite fluid in shape—but that wasn’t quite right.

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What Leane displayed was a map depicting the many Aboriginal homelands on the continent we know of as Australia, homelands that are rendered invisible on the standard westernized map.

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This was a map that insisted on a viewer seeing what is usually suppressed, thereby in turn rendering invisible the six territories of the modern Australian state that are normally depicted carving up the continent.

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This map of Australia that I was more familiar with displays a grid of the six states or territories (seven if you include the island of Tasmania), most of them employing straight lines, a little like the state lines in the mid-and far west of the US. The sort of map you’d find in an atlas, or on a globe, outlining the country’s modern administrative provinces.

Each map is the other’s dark matter.

The gravitational pull of these two maps doesn’t include a third type of map, one that shows the historic clash between cultures, the colonizers against the colonized. In her New Yorker article, “The Mapping of Massacres,” the excellent Australian Writer Ceridwen Dovey (author of Only the Animals) tells us of a third map that is still in the process of being developed, an interactive map that reveals where these two different cultures have met, and clashed, in history. Unfortunately it’s a story of one massacre after another, mostly European settlers slaughtering indigenous peoples.

Dovey tells of Judy Watson, an aboriginal artist of the Waanyi people, and the historian Lyndall Ryan, who are, with painstaking research, putting together separate interactive maps of these massacres, the memories of which have been largely forgotten by one side, and kept alive by the other. It all adds up to 500 attacks against indigenous people, and less than ten against European settlers. On these maps, one can press a geographical point, and the hidden story rises as a digital tab. Which, with Watson’s map, you can do by clicking here.


There is a secret to the overlay of these three maps of Australia that contradict and strangely complement each other, because together they create a fourth map that only exists in the mind, a map that cannot exist without the gravitational pull of its three parts.

Here is another map I keep returning to, one of the African continent that immediately alters one’s perceptions because the map is “upside-down.” Northern Africa is now where we expect South Africa to be. “North” and “south” are of course cartographic conventions, and a map may be oriented any way one likes.

But that’s not the end of the challenge of this map. Like Jeanine Leane’s map of the continent we know of as Australia, this map too asserts a different reality: here we see well-established empires, sultanates, and countries across the African continent that were disrupted or destroyed by the arrival of Western colonization and the slave trade.

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No country is a quiet place, though individual maps seem to urge that interpretation. Perhaps maps should never be published singly, but in conjunction with a family of related maps, an unruly collection of contradictory landscapes. Maps need other maps that are partners, rivals, skeptics, whistle-blowers, maps that improve by filling in each others’ blanks, maps of weather patterns, of population distribution, of political voting records, of economic activity, road maps, topographical maps, maps revealing the distribution of diseases, or the seasonal flight patterns of birds, or the historical expansion and contraction of borders.

A single map will never give you the whole story.

The grouping of those maps of Australia is a stark example of recovered history, and their combination allows the dead, the forgotten, and the unseen to rise from their hidden graves and the cultural invisibility that has been imposed upon them. But there’s another truth these maps point to, a more personal, inner truth: they are not unlike the maps that we make within ourselves, of ourselves, of the formal face we present to the world, and the myriad unruly energies that simmer beneath that, and the points where hidden and public fight for primacy. To make a truly accurate map of all these aspects of the self is an impossible task, and we are always on the verge of being lost.

The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa created a series of “maps” within him: he created (primarily) four other poets of his imagination–Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Bernardo Soares (labeled by Pessoa as his “heteronyms”)–who each wrote a different style of poetry. They were invented poets who together became his private literary salon. He didn’t believe in the “self,” only “selves.”


Here, in a poem attributed to Pessoa himself, untitled except for the notation that it was written on the 5th of June 1917, he asks,

What destiny in me keeps on marching in the darkness?
What part of me that I don’t know is my guide?

And later in the poem, he poses this question:

What soul besides mine inhabits my soul?

Peter Turchi, the author of the marvelous book Maps of the Imagination—which finds countless parallels between the writing of literature and map making—observes, “All writing imposes order, eventually, in the same way that we impose order on our thoughts every day so as to get things done and to hold conversations . . . In the course of daily interactions we constantly edit, revise, suppress. We make sense.”

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We create and cross internal borders constantly. In my novel-in-progress, Invisible Country, I recount the interweaving afterlives of ten ghosts in one small American city; one of them, Carmen Sanchez-Schwartz, has a lot to say about borders:

“Where was the border I passed when I listened to a Mozart sonata, when I ate an eggroll, drank Italian wine, wore a dress with an African print, or when I read a book written by a man? Was there an exact crossing point, a speed bump, or a tollbooth that announced: You’re someplace else now, you’re no longer where you were?

“Where is the line across my heart that binds my father and mother together? How do you divide my Latina from my Jewish genes? Where are the ethnic borders inside every one of my cells, and how do you separate the English from the Spanish words that make up my thoughts? Where is the Solomon in this or any world who could solve such a conundrum?

“Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I married a musician, so I could listen to Carl’s two hands travel from key to key and create a single breathing thing.”

Every private, personal border suggests not only where to go, but also where we may have been, and one’s evolving inner border crossings can explore territory that otherwise might have been ignored or avoided, and rearrange it, revise it, contract or expand it, translate the past for the present, or translate one hidden self to another..

Into English, a recently published anthology of translations, does a very smart thing: one poem in the original language (by poets such as Sappho, Rilke, and Transtromer) is chosen, and then not one but three different translations of that poem are offered, followed by a short essay written by a fourth translator about the various hits and misses of each translation. One of the anthology’s editors, Martha Collins, writes, “you can experience a lot of pleasure by making your own comparisons among the translations of any given poem: the more you look and read, the more you’re apt to discover. Whether you are a reader or writer or translator, we welcome you to experience what George Kalogeris, quoting Virgil, describes as a process of “song replying to song replying to song.”

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Just as three or more maps can be used to give a fuller understanding of a geographic space, Into English does this for the translation of poetry. There is no single perfect translation. To give an example, here are the first two lines, in the original Spanish, of a poem by Frederico García Lorca: Gracela de la terrible presencia.

Yo Quiero que el agua quede sin cauce.
Yo quiero que el viento se quede sin valles.

The anthology’s commentator for this poem, Rebecca Seiferle, notes that these two lines of Lorca’s poem say, literally:

I want the water left without a channel.
I want the wind left without valleys.

As translated by W.S. Merwin, this becomes:

I want the water reft from its bed,
I want the wind left without valleys.

And as translated by Catherine Brown:

I want there to be no channel for the water.
I want there to be no valleys for the wind.

And here is Michael Smith’s version:

I want the stream to lose its banks.
I want no slopes to cradle the wind.

Commentator Seiferle notes, “Each of these translators adds to the poem at the beginning, striking certain notes that bring in associations, emotional nuances, shifts away from Lorca’s original. Because those notes are struck in the opening lines, they are like a tuning key for the choices that follow.”

The rich language of poetry creates possibilities upon possibilities, and what is implied in one language can’t necessarily be captured in another, at least not completely. Oddly enough, the pull of three side-by-side translations of the same poem, each one imperfect, seems, at least to me, to give a fuller sense of the always elusive original.

The novelist Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “The author must know his [or her] countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his [her] hand.” Yet even with a layering of translations, or a raft of related maps, or the construction of a self into several different poets, or a declaration at seemingly infinite internal border crossings, how can any “countryside” ever be fully known?


Translation of the Fernando Pessoa poem is by Richard Zenith, from A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems.

Excerpt from the Invisible Country chapter, “My Miracle,” was first published in Western Humanities Review.

The interactive map of massacres of Australian aboriginal peoples, by historian Lyndall Ryan, can be accessed by clicking here.

For a larger, closer look at the maps of Australia and Africa displayed above in this craft post, simply click on them.

Illustration of Fernando Pessoa by Catarina Inácio.

For those who may be further interested in reading multiple translations of a single poem, run, don’t walk, to Eliot Weinberger’s masterly 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.


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