Knots in a Thread: Setting and Memory in a Writer’s World
A part of the series 'City and Space' Written by Shreeparna Chatterjee
"We walk, we remember. We let our minds take us to places our feet have never touched. We walk into memories that only the nose can recall. We walk, we remember. We walk, we remember. We let our feet do the talking of unspoken reminiscing. We isolate our minds away from each other in the automatic patterns of the next step after the other. We walk, we remember." - Shreeparna Chatterjee
It’s easy to spot movement when it’s in something as tangible as a place. Buildings grow taller than trees, highways, and flyovers form networks of tar and concrete over our heads, while we search for skies with hints of blue in the overwhelming greys of city life. It may be impossible to slow down the wheels of urban growth but it is necessary to develop a relationship with our spaces. We need to understand this process of movement so that we are neither left behind in a state of restorative nostalgia nor get caught up in the speed of life.
I am obsessed with memories. Creating them, recreating them, interpreting them, daydreaming about them. Ironically, I don’t remember details and incidents very well most of the time, but the ones I do, they etch themselves into my mind like a burn mark. And I keep peeling the skin back, exposing it to newer ointments of story-telling.
I find that the spaces we walk in, make our memories in, have the most interesting triggers in terms of what it can make you remember. Particularly, the spaces we are familiar with, outside our houses.
I started my Master’s in Creative Writing and began writing and researching Memory. One of the ways in which I sought to look into how memories play into a story-line is through Setting. Setting or spaces in fiction can be used to contextualize, act as a character on its own, and even reveal hints to secrets in the plot instead of portraying through the character’s actions or dialogues. The device of Setting, for me, allows offsetting some of the overwhelmingness of a protagonist’s voice and can develop a deep visual and imaginative relationship in the reader’s mind.
Let us consider the story of “The Yellow Wallpaper” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
The entire short story revolves around a woman’s inside dialogue with herself and the people around her who come and go, set in the premise of her summer home in the countryside, and more specifically her room. Within this room, she, the protagonist, starts writing in order to fully convey her thoughts and feelings which she’s unable to do with other people in her life. The reason I mention this is because while reading this story, I could see firsthand, the effect of writing about your setting. Writing about setting helps develop a relationship with your surroundings, beyond just existing in it. And to be conscious and aware of this relationship and its dynamics with the people in it is a venture worth investing your time and consciousness in.
One of the chief reasons to think and write about space being this possible conceptual blur for concrete ideas of belonging or alienation is to ultimately show that something as physically solid and present as space, being tangible and yet experienced in a million different ways is to put a character through that destabilization and also, make the reader aware of the spaces they reside in. In a way, I’m calling attention to the fact that one should be attentive to the spaces they are present in and observe the possibilities it can have, imaginatively, affectively, or physically. To allow this relationship between being and spaces as more than just a physical one of existing in a space, and letting ourselves think of what history, politics, and emotions space occupy. Part of my research was to deeply inquire about the space, the actual geographical area I was writing from, its history, its people, and its current inhabitants.
In that research, there were a lot of oral accounts of older residents and shop owners in particular who have stayed within a singular space or worked in it for an extended period of time. That space then became a child-like figure for them, almost like they saw the space “grow up” in front of their eyes.
The written-down research for the settlement that I chose to write about did not have too many narratives around it that were written from any kind of personal, socio-political, critical, or even philosophical perspective and it was dense with population and migration statistics, and dates. While the latter is just as important in describing a space, narrativizing a local space allows not only a better understanding of this area but also what people have and will remember of it.
Lastly, when thinking about space, I was wondering how one can historicize a space without the presence of materials/objects to tell its tale? How can we visualize histories without having minarets, statues or pillars to do so and use space, characters, and narratives to convey perhaps a history of migration and then settling into a new land, birthing its own customs and practices which are neither of the lands they came from nor from the lands they came into? To come from a writer’s perspective and be interested in the setting, is an opportunity to talk about how much investment can be put into curating our spaces for the next generation to come and be able to look back at it.
In writing, we’re taught to write from our context, write what we can confidently express, with enough research and familiarization. This lesson in writing, I find, applies in the curiosity of documenting spaces as well, particularly with a multi-disciplinary approach. It is important that we allow for diverse interpretations of our spaces to interact with each other and see how every account adds something meaningful to the mix.
To conclude, how we write and remember a place does a lot for the imagination of it beyond just statistical reports and factual data. Engaging with nooks and corners that are close to us, we end up creating a memory of those spaces which are uniquely our own, and which brings a narrative that is revealing of the interactions between people and places.
Shreeparna Chatterjee is an ex-student of psychology, a current student of creative writing with a long-lasting curiosity for new ideas and opportunities to explore the world and herself in it.