I think myth is an overused and misunderstood word. A message that cannot be fully explained. A belief, a story, a legend, a folktale, a poem. A door that blows open, the leaves that fly in. A mess. Something untrue, something to roll your eyes at.
We talk about them all the time.
Through my academic training and prodding away at various texts, I have come to realize this: scholars of symbolic culture have a hard time agreeing about things. Ask a folklorist or cultural anthropologist what exactly it is that they do – what their discipline is about – and you might confuse yourself more than you intend to. But you want to, and you will, absorb something potent about humans studying humans. There is no single nature. We are all doing our own thing the best way we know how – making up definitions, forming arguments – all abandoned, all scattered (Brand 2001: 211).
For my own learning and interactions with Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, for my wayfaring and desire to locate the self in the story, I propose that mythologizing can be concerned with narratives of origin.
Something we see ourselves in.
On a visit home at the end of the summer, my dad and I are able to share a few hours together alone at sea. It is a chance to bond, to show each other that there are sparks, a deep love that exists between us. Most of all, this is an opportunity for the both of us to showcase how many exclusive facts about history, culture, and the environment we can throw out in the open. We have always played these games of knowing.
That evening we see whales, drink cans of Coors Light. I visit the place where my ancestors settled after departing England. They settled on the islands because the best fishing grounds were located there. That’s how they survived.
As far as I know, the story of my place-based patrilineality, and my affinity to this island, begins here:
Thomas Jefferies moved to Exploits/Burnt Island from Crewkerne in Somerset, England in the late 1870s. I wonder what his daughters Jemima and Anna-Bella looked like, how they created meaning on a tiny sheltered enclave surrounded by water.
My dad shows me the house they grew up in – now renovated since the island has become a place for doctors and others to keep summer cabins.
My self-mythologizing involves this place. I travel here before I know anything about it. Maybe it wasn’t travel at all, I just ended up here. “Ghosts try to step into life,” writes Brand (111). They wanted to show me something. I wanted my dad to take me here. And then after hearing about them I wanted photos of the houses – I didn’t realize the history revealed to me would poke me like a tattoo that I wasn’t ready for.
I am marked, now carrying symbolic history of my family on my skin. “Then there’s the ones we don’t know about. It’s better if we just leave them alone,” my dad says. If I don’t dig down into that forgotten oldness, how will I know what’s waiting for me there? I want to tell my dad that he can’t just bring me to a place and tell me to not search for too much. In this corporeal form, experience is the earth of my autobiographical development. The quest to come into contact with/touch/notice parts of my lineal lore – my inside story – induces me and sets me up to come up short eventually. A game of knowing is never just a game, it is an obligation, and “I can feel a never-going-to-be-sated hunger there” (108).
When we tell a myth about ourselves, we have the flexibility to play with it. A Map to the Door of No Return is a work of self-mythologizing in various ways. Blurring the lines of autoethnography, personal experience narrative, fiction, and theory, Brand takes on the challenge of writing and representing her life through carefully corrugated memories and meditations. However, she argues that “myth is of course seductive, but it needs material power to enforce it” (129). Can’t material power be the human voice? What about something written? If I narrate it, chances are I mean it. Is that not powerful enough?
As much as I learn about maps, I feel like I am traveling through the text with no direction in sight. Can I read it backwards? What about in fragments? Playing with the headings. What am I supposed to know now that I have turned the pages in strange patterns and chapters inside out, now that I have seen where October ends and Finding a Compass begins. My thoughts are supposed to be scattered. Pain of pasts written into present. In the Diaspora, memories of blackness and home disperse across geography and temporality. Brand’s traveling across distance and time incites my own symbolic movement through the text. As she travels, she tells a story about herself. One of great change and searching, of flight. She is constantly moving places.
I choose window seats when I am in air, in transit from place to place. Between bursts of white, I see where the land meets the ocean. Somehow I scrounge up the money to travel or I am offered a vacation. Mythology is also about evolvement – how I got up here from down there. One must think about this horizontally. In my life, the origin of opportunity is intricately connected to grounds of orientation, isopleths of privilege. It’s about ability, access, the site at which I am located. My learning, understanding that “we accumulate information over our lives which bring various things into solidity, into view” (141). It’s about Burnt Island and that white house.
I wish to know more about movement:
The dispersal of my ancestors like capelin in the water. Nobody caught us in a net or picked us up off the beach rocks in the spring, cooked us, ripped our heads off with their teeth. We were able to lay our eggs and get away – the lucky ones – making something of ourselves. Of course almost all capelin die after spawning on the beaches – I am just playing around. In my self-mythologizing, I very well could be a fish. Why can’t it be true? To imagine parts of myself in another, to imagine myself as another.
Transmogrification and transmutability can be principal portions of the way we narrate place, identity, and experience in our lives. Brand’s writing transmogrifies time and place – channeling me through her imagination, memory, and longing of/for oldness and mis/direction. She theorizes a map as “a set of impossibilities, a set of changing locations” (224). As my bearings shift, so do I. My stories too – we have no choice. Self-mythologizing is a game of knowing how well one can narrate the underpinnings of personal experience – how well one is equipped to and for change.
Did my ancestors know where they were going when they ended up here? What tensions did they have about journeying on to new terrain? Did they understand how 146 years of transmutation would make a good story? How far would their spawn swim into the future?
Brand, Dionne. 2001. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging. Vintage Canada.