Introduction to The Map Tracer by Denise Milstein


About a year and a half ago, a writer friend challenged me thus: “I want to see every day for seven consecutive days a one thousand word stand-alone piece of fiction. Don’t show me, just tell me that you’ve done it.” I wrote for seven days and then continued on for months with a stubbornness that grew into habit. I wrote out of regard for my friend, which deepened and expanded into love for the writing itself and the characters that materialized through it. Over the course of that sleepless marathon, I saw the outlines of my novel emerge: a series of events linked into stories, the intersecting trajectories of three lives.
The pieces I wrote built on moments of my life in New York, in Paris, and in Montevideo, Uruguay. The deeply personal experiences of people close to me with the political repression of the 1970s and 1980s also broke in. I found my voice as interlocutor and honed my perspective on the encounters and clashes of two generations: the socially radical yet culturally traditional avant-garde of my parents’ generation and the experience of my peers, particularly that of queer youth coming of age in the 1990s. Both witnessed authoritarianism, its end, and the complex transition to democracy that followed. Both struggled with the memory of political trauma, including long-term imprisonment, disappearances and torture. Both watched and participated in the mostly failed efforts at reconciliation. Within a rapidly globalizing society, these concerns lodged themselves in a universal framework for addressing human rights violations, while also remaining grounded in individuals’ experiences of displacement, their searches for self, for love, and their struggles to understand how to live.
By the time I stopped writing my one thousand word segments, I was living in an artists’ collective in Osaka, Japan, incredibly far from the setting of my novel. In my quiet room, I spread printed out fragments over the expanse of four tatami mats. On an enormous piece of construction paper, I built a map of my novel. I began with events, a constellation of nodes loosely scattered from left to right along a rough time line, and alternating between continents, which I had depicted by using different colored backgrounds. The lives of my characters traced over the map like veins; they wrapped around certain moments, intersected with each other, and then continued on in different directions. The result was a multicolored network of lives and events woven together into stories. Since then, the process of writing has continually transformed that initial map. I have seen the characters come into their own and assert themselves, sometimes refusing to follow the paths that I initially drew for them.
The experiences, relations and ideas that unfurl at the crossroads of my present life and the political events that shaped it incited me to write this novel. Once inside it, I realized it had a power of its own, enough to take me by the hand through to its own denouement. In the process, I have seen how stories engage with the past and future, transforming both in often unpredictable ways. And I have learned that the past is not entirely robust, that events are unstable and restless, that memory continually re-configures itself and the world that surrounds it. This then is my re-imagining of three overlapping lives and the relationships among them, embedded in the flow of history, its regimes, and its movements.




Denise Milstein is a writer and a sociologist. In both capacities, she chases after stories to write them down, then lets them go unharmed. She teaches at Columbia University, where she guides students through qualitative research projects, and lives in Harlem with her son.