It is a strange thing to move freely in a world where others cannot. I was not always aware of this dichotomy, but I was aware of borders from a young age. My mum moved us to Scotland when I was three, first to Kelso, a town near the border between Scotland and England, and later to Dumfries and Galloway. I always knew that it meant something to cross a border, even if I could not conceptualise it at the time. I also knew that where you were from impacted upon who people thought you were; that your accent and birth country would follow you wherever you went. Each country you live adds a new layer to who you are and how you are perceived.
History has also been important to me from a young age. My mum was an archaeologist when I was a child. I grew up on archaeological digs in Scotland, surrounded by Viking bones and mud. I sought solace in the quiet of crypts. My dad was also an historian and in summers when I visited him, my sister and I would amble around castles while he worked or wander through warehouses in which history was stacked and labelled to be saved for later. Preserved until we were ready to accept its lessons.
I wanted to know what all this meant, how it all connected, and I think I still write in order to understand the world better, or at least to try. The Exile and the Mapmaker is a result of this exploration; a small story of migrations, revolutions and the maps that have brought us together and torn us apart. It is mainly based in France and Algeria but draws lines between many other countries and histories. It tries to bring the past and present together to expose the relationship between where we are and where we were. It asks questions: How can love survive across borders? Who drew the maps and set down these borders that divide us? How are colonial histories visible in present day migration stories? History does not just disappear because it becomes uncomfortable. Nobody leaves home without reason. No reason is simple.
I first met people trapped in Calais in 2009. The ferry I could take so easily was not an option for them yet a lot of them came from countries that Europeans could travel to with relative ease. This didn’t stop them from giving us a spot around the fire and sharing their tea. But this imbalance in our abilities to move and cross borders has been naturalised to the point where it is seldom questioned. The countries where these people were from had also largely been colonised by Europeans, a process in which one side became wealthy, while the other became poor. The wealthier you are, the easier it is to travel, not just because you can buy the ticket, but because you are legally allowed to cross the border. This is not an accident. Companies from Europe and the USA continue to make money from natural resources and cheap labour in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, in countries that it can be very difficult to leave legally if you are not well off.
This is what I wanted to look at when writing this book, how friendships and loving relationships remain possible across borders, not just geographical ones but those of privilege in all its many guises. And also the moments where connection is missing, when one person fails to see or cannot understand the weight another human is carrying because they have never been forced to live through the process of illegalised border crossing, because they were born to a different fate, in a different country.
The novel was also inspired by (though this is not exactly the right word…) the Home Office policy, exposed in 2010, of telling LGBTQI+ people who had received negative asylum decisions to hide their sexuality in their home countries or tolerate the conditions. For some people returning home, including the book’s character Nebay, failing to keep their sexuality secret would leave them exposed to imprisonment, torture or even execution. The callousness of this astounded me and made me to think about the many reasons why somebody may not feel comfortable fully engaging in the asylum process to begin with. At the time 98% of LGBTQI+ people had their asylum claims rejected. Would you tell the most intimate details of your life and reveal traumatic experiences you had survived to a stranger who was unlikely to believe you? I wouldn’t.
But there are so many different moments that go into the writing of a novel, so many strands of thought and brief seconds of inspiration that it is difficult to pinpoint them all afterwards. At the end of my stay in Calais all those years ago one young man asked me if I could tell the UK government what it was like for people living in the Jungle. He believed that if the Government knew then they would act and make things better. I cannot now remember what I said in reply. I do know I felt awkward. I didn’t want to just say, ‘they know and they don’t care,’ even though this was true. This young person had such faith and such hope and in some ways this novel is also an answer to him, wherever he is now, that some people do care and that he and his struggle have not been forgotten.
(c) Emma Musty
About The Exile and the Mapmaker:
An important novel that is as compassionate as it is eye-opening, The Exile and the Mapmaker is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit.
Theo, an aging Parisian cartographer, is desperately searching for the woman he once loved before Alzheimer’s takes his memories of her.
Elise, his estranged daughter, moves in to take care of him. She still blames him for the tragic loss of her mother and is struggling with this new forced intimacy.
Nebay, an Eritrean refugee, becomes Theo’s carer and friend. Unbeknownst to Elise, Nebay does not have a visa for France and is working illegally in order to support his sister.
Each one is living a life of questions and secrets in a world where Nebay’s very presence in the France of Theo’s maps is steeped in uncertainty.
‘A beautifully written and moving story of human connections, the many ways our lives can fracture and the courage needed for repair.’ Katherine Stansfield
‘Here the camps, refugees and political struggles we know from the papers come together in a story no paper can ever tell us. It’s a story of memory, loss, redemption, and of love in all its many guises… A very moving book.’ Matthew Francis
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