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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

Literature, A Living Map

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

In The Unvanquished by William Faulkner, the first sentence captures the essence of all literature:

“Behind the smokehouse that summer, Ringo and I had a living map.”

Bayard, a twelve-year-old boy, creates an imaginary battlefield in the American Civil War. He turns wood and water into soldiers and rivers. He wants to feel the glory of fighting like his father. He wants to understand the events he didn’t experience himself. Faulkner heard stories from his family and then created a novel, a living map, from those stories. We read novels for the same reason that we learn geography, we need something to provide us with the complete reality of a place.

Writers link the story of a country to the story of an individual. In The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini creates a living map of Afghanistan and California. All of the references to the history and place of Afghanistan correspond to Amir’s psyche. They give the context of his experiences meaning:

In the summer of 1988, about six months before the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, I finished my first novel, a father-son story set in Kabul, written mostly with the typewriter the general had given me … That was the year that the cold war ended, the year the Berlin Wall came down. It was the year of Tiananmen Square. In the midst of it all, Afghanistan was forgotten. (183-184)

Just as Afghanistan fades away politically, Amir’s memories fade into oblivion. Once he migrates to America, Amir tries to link the place with his new identity:

Almost two years had passed since we had arrived in the U.S., and I was still marveling at the size of this country, its vastness … Kabul had become a city of ghosts for me … America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. I could wade into this river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the waters carry me someplace far. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories, and no sins. (136)

When he hears about the Taliban from his father’s friend Rahim Khan, we see what has happened to his unconscious mind during all the years in America when he tries to forget his guilt. When the Taliban moves into his childhood home, it represents his lost sense of identity and his lost childhood. What happens to his country happens to him, even though he’s not there. His past destroys his psyche.

Before he leaves Afghanistan, Amir’s father Baba “picked up a handful of dirt from the middle of the unpaved road”(121). The places of our childhood travel with us wherever we go. Just like Baba, we carry the history of our country in our pocket.

Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. New York, Penguin Group, 2003.

Scott Cameron

Teacher's Workshop, LLC

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online professional development for high school English teachers

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