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  • Cartographic Refrains and Postcolonial Terrains: Mariama Bâ’s Scarlet Song
  • Eleanor F. Shevlin (bio)

“Is that the same map?” Jincey asked. She pointed to the large map of the world that hung, rolled up for the summer, above the blackboard behind Miss Dove. “Is China still orange?” “It is a new map,” Miss Dove said. “China is purple.” “I like the old map,” Jincey said. “I like the old world.” “Cartography is a fluid art,” said Miss Dove.

Frances Gray Patton, Good Morning, Miss Dove

Delineating a space for postcolonial fiction within the map of literary studies is fraught with difficulties engendered, in part, by shifting definitions of the very term “postcolonial.” Debates surrounding the use of such labels as “Third World literature(s),” “minority fiction,” or the literature of the “postcolonized,” as distinguished from that of the “postcolonizing,” are joined and complicated by “territorial disputes” 1 over whether postcolonial texts and theories reside within, exist alongside, or straddle the boundaries of postmodernism. 2 Nor do factors such as race, gender, or class supply a smooth means of linking specific geographic and cultural points at which such texts emerge. Rather these components converge as competing lines that frustrate and/or disrupt the positing of any neatly enclosed area on which a contested [End Page 933] postcolonial label could be affixed. Indeed, after surveying the often circuitous, sometimes conflicting theoretical routes that chart the contours of postcolonial literatures, one might readily concur with a caption from an old Brewers’ Society Maps advertisement: “I don’t believe in maps because it never looks like it says on the maps when you get there” (qtd. in Board 671).

Despite the problems encountered in plotting a postcolonial space in literature, I do “believe in maps” and their usefulness in examining postcolonial literature. As Graham Huggan’s article, “Decolonizing the Map,” corroborates, cartography holds a certain usefulness for exploring postcolonial fiction. 3 For one, preoccupations with fixing identity characterize the postcolonial situation, and thus a theoretical approach that embraces maps and mapping should foster self-conscious attention to matters of fixing identity. 4 Moreover, a cartographic approach emerges as a particularly serviceable tool, as we shall see, in examining Mariama Bâ’s Scarlet Song. For Bâ’s work not only exposes and addresses many of the difficulties that hamper the demarcation of a postcolonial space, but her novel’s explicit and implicit employment of various cartographic practices illustrates the continually shifting boundaries of postcolonial significance.

As much as I may believe in maps, however, I do take seriously the skepticism expressed in the Brewers’ Society ad toward such diagrams. The history of cartography reveals that a mistrust of maps is not totally unwarranted. Thus, before turning to Scarlet Song, I wish to examine maps and mapmaking as concepts, and cartography’s interrelationship with postcolonial texts and literary studies. Such a preface will ground my specific investigation of Scarlet Song and explain my penchant for cartography as an interpretative approach to Bâ’s text. To begin, I return to the map advertisement.

The quotation from the Brewers’ Society ad serves as an epigraph to Christopher Board’s geographic study, “Maps as Models,” which opens with a comment on the ad quip’s possible meaning: “One suspects that the young ladies on the advertisement, who said they did not trust maps, were complaining more about the ability of their male companions to make something of the ‘wiggly lines on the map.’ Of course, no map can perfectly depict reality, but in not doing so it is all the more useful” (671). When Board glosses the women’s distrust in the Brewers’ Society ad as symptomatic of a different complaint—that [End Page 934] is, their dissatisfaction with the ability of their male counterparts to interpret the road map—he simultaneously creates a division, apparently based on gender, between those doing the interpreting and those outside the interpretative process. His use of the decidedly nontechnical phrase “wiggly lines” augments this split by alluding to a certain competence required or expected of map readers. Of equal interest is that neither the map itself nor the perceptions of the mapmaker are doubted. 5 Instead the disparity between the representation of...

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