UCR professor maps over 700 books based on geographical location

Straight, right, and Jaime-Becerra, left.                                                                                        Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

UCR Creative Writing professor Susan Straight collaborated with Esri, an international supplier of geographic information system software, to map the settings of 737 books according to American geographical location. The map, which was published on July 3, 2017, indicates the locations of novels that were all selected based on the way it represented a specific geographical region in America.

Straight began working on the map the day after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. In an interview with The Highlander, Straight stated that she created the map because “Every time I looked at CNN or Fox News, they had a big map of the United States and these channels were just obsessed with whether a state was red or blue. This reduces everything in America to just politics.” Straight claimed that this is problematic because, “They don’t take into account all of the nuances that might exist in a particular county that they were labeling red or blue. I wanted to take America away from pure politics.”

Through literature, Straight wished to prove how America is very regional instead of being merely red or blue states. Straight stated, “I thought literature would be a great way to remind people about how diverse we are.” Straight believes that this map is a great teaching tool because it teaches people around the world about American literature and how literature differs based on region.

Instead, Straight believes that “the true America is in the details of where people grew up.” Michael Jaime-Becerra, an associate professor in the UCR Department of Creative Writing,  whose novel, “Every Night is Ladies’ Night,” is featured in Straight’s map, stated, “There’s a sense of pride that people take from where they are from and something as simple as labeling a region red or blue does not account for that pride. Looking at states as blue or red denies people from their identity and their pride.”

Straight claimed that she would dedicate about one hour every night over the course of three months to look through novels and find their specific geographical location. Straight stated that the novels had to have a specific geographical location mentioned in the text that Esri could locate. This task was difficult for Straight because, despite the fact that she wished to include some novels that she loved into the map, she could not because a specific geographical location was not specified. Because a specific location could not be found, more well-known novels by authors were not featured in the map. Instead, the map tends to be comprised of lesser-known novels that specifically focus on place.

In an essay published by Granta, a literary magazine based in the United Kingdom, Straight wrote, “Some of these authors wrote one book, and some wrote hundreds; some wrote books set in many locations, and some writers among my favorites wrote collections with no particular geographic heart, or their best-known books were road trip novels or stories set in so many places that one could not be chosen as the soul.”

Straight claimed that many of the books included in the map were geocoded by Esri to indicate exact streets or even buildings where the novels took place. “I think that this level of particularity in a story is what allows readers to relate,” stated Jaime-Becerra. That connection is what is so magical about the map.”

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