July 28, 2018

The Map of Salt and Stars

What is mapmaking but the telling of stories of the lands where we have travelled and the places that have shaped us?

This is what I think about constantly as I read Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars, a story of adventure embedded into a story of loss and escape. The main narrative, a tale of refugees forced to leave Syria when their home is destroyed, is bleak but powerfully poignant today, as populism demonizes those coming to our borders seeking refuge. The tale within the tale, of a grand mapmaking adventure, is magically mystical—but it does more than mirror the main narrative. It reminds us that we are defined by the places where we travel, where we seek shelter. Mapmaking is but a way to articulate how we have been shaped by these spaces.

One of the most powerful sentences, one that made me pause and breathe deeply, in Joukhadar’s novel is only four words long:

I smell burnt cumin.”

How much of our memories of tragedy, of loss, of heartbreak, are hidden in these small, passing, visceral, sensory reminders? It is remarkable how a scent, word, a sound, a frisson of touch, can take us back to a time gone by. It is profound that sometimes our only way to process tragedy is through these sensory markers: they are a map to our pasts, drawn across our bodies.

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