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Whose land is it anyway?

In my debut, The Girl of Ink & Stars, protagonist Isabella has spent her life worshipping her father, a cartographer, and hating the Governor, who invaded their island of Joya before she was born. She spends the first thirteen years of her life understanding that they live under occupation: that what is theirs has been unjustly taken from them.


It is not until she ventures into Joya’s mysterious Forgotten Territories and encounters the Banished, the original inhabitants of their home, now driven to its dangerous edges, that she realises the island was never ‘hers’, and that any notion of owning it is absurd. Finally, she draws a line between what her father does, and what the Governor has done:


It was cartographers like Da who liked to parcel it up on paper and name it, to make it easier for explorers and traders to mark it as their territory. Just as the Governor had marked Joya.


I love maps, but I know their limitations, know their lies, know the sanitised terror of what it cost to draw those neat lines. There have been few truly undiscovered places in the world, but we treat them as if they only came to exist when we could draw them, put our names to them, have stood with our own two feet on their beaches, planted our flags in the ground and our language in any mouths that were there first. It is a heinous quirk of our western society that freedom of movement is seen as a right for us, and a travesty if the ‘others’ attempt it.

Even in clear cut cases, such as the First Peoples in America, or the Palestinians of the West Bank, that they have lived there for thousands of years is irrelevant to us when we decide the land is ours. But when anyone tries to make a better life for themselves in one of ‘our’ countries, it is invasion. We cannot cope. We do not have the resources. There is not space enough them all, even if they are children, even if they are good people – for being mere people is not enough – even if, as Warsan Shire says, their ‘home is the mouth of a shark’. And yet, were we in that position, wouldn’t we expect kindness? Shouldn’t we?

In The Island at the End of Everything, it is Ami’s turn to be displaced. Her island home is to be segregated, and people with leprosy kept apart from people without. For Ami, the cost is severe: her mother is ill and she is not. She is taken from her and placed in an orphanage over the sea. For the greater good, families are ripped apart, people turned to patients and left to merely exist until they die out. It is based on the story of the real leper colony of Culion in the Philippines, and was far from unique: the segregation of those different and perceived a threat has always existed, from recent ghettos and institutions such as Yarls Wood, to islands for sick people to die on.

Recently I was on Curiouse Island, in the Seychelles, where there was a leper colony throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The original inhabitants weren’t sent there: they were abandoned. Slavers dumped sick slaves and left them to die, but they flourished. And then, when the slavers and traders realised the islands were covetable, the lepers were moved on, moved elsewhere, though they had made their homes there.

Freedom of movement is more than a right: to deny it is a hypocrisy that I cannot stand. Islands in the Indian Ocean are sinking below rising seas warmed by our consumption. Wars are fought with British guns sold by the millions. And still we dig in our heels and say, this is our land. We were here first. As if that is the truth, and, even if it were, as though it counts for anything in a world where maps are redrawn every day, regardless of whose lives they cut through. I live on a flood plain in Oxford. One day, in a hundred years perhaps, this house, this city will be underwater, and where will we go? Whose land will we claim, whose mouth will we force our language into? Or will it be our turn, to be turned away?


Kiran Millwood Hargrave is playing a large part in the Lush Studio Soho’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, on April 12th - part premiere, part book launch, part exhibition, and wholly unique, this exclusive event brings together film, painting, poetry and scents for a one-off event you will not want to miss. Tickets are available here.

“Freedom of movement is more than a right: to deny it is a hypocrisy that I cannot stand.”

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