Maps, borders, geography, and identity


Ever since I was little, I’ve loved maps, especially following highlighted AAA Triptiks as we drove from one state to another during family trips. I’d memorize names of strange places like Fishkill and Poughkeepsie and compare the pocket-sized maps to the large foldout ones that filled the entire backseat.

The first time I rode in a car with a GPS was as a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab. We nearly didn’t make it to our destination because we kept taking alternate routes to see how long it would take the GPS to remap our path based on our new position. (Moral: never travel with a group of hackers if punctuality matters.) Even now, I love to walk around with my iPhone’s GPS open and watch an airplane’s flight tracker to see exactly where we are. The body suggests, “I am here,” and the map confirms, “Yes. You Are Here.”

Today was a good day for maps.

First, I saw this video (via Jason Kottke) that shows how European nations and borders changed from 1000 – 2005 CE.

Then I read a fascinating piece on German and Italian exclaves in Switzerland. I love reading about history, and maps imply journeys and stories — connections and separations; identities; self. I knew the main arc of Switzerland’s history, from France’s invasion and annexation of the region, making it a country for the first time, to the Congress of Vienna’s acceptance of Switzerland’s neutrality to the actual unification of the country. I also knew that language ties Switzerland to its neighbors via cantons that predominantly speak French, German, or Italian. However, I had no idea that little pieces of Germany and Italy actually exist within Switzerland’s borders, islands from other nations, separated by geography but secured by contracts.

I became instantly obsessed with the notion of enclaves and exclaves, like China Miéville’s The City & The City except here we have a country within a country.

I continued to follow links and ended up at the article’s author’s blog, Strange Maps, where I saw another map that made me pause and rethink the concepts of state and geography:

US States Renamed For Countries With Similar GDPs by Frank Jacobs

What strange juxtapositions — Texas as Canada; Peru bordering Finland; New Hampshire as Bangladesh. I was reminded of Tim Maly‘s Border Town project and Andrew’s contribution, his Border Patrol essay on censorship and creative borders.

And of course, this brings me back to world-building. Where do your characters go? Do they avoid any areas in their world? Do their maps contain enclaves or exclaves, and do the borders and landscapes change over the course of the story? Do they create pockets of home when they feel most alienated? Do they burst free of their boundaries?

© 2016 Anindita Basu Sempere. 
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