National Writing Project

The Literary Map of Santo Domingo: Mapping Cultural Change

By: Meg Petersen
Date: October 30, 2009

Summary: With the aid of a Google map, the author leads her Dominican students to write about urban places often dismissed by Dominican writers as being too close to home to be interesting. In the process, they learn how to be writers.

 

The Dominican Republic is known for baseball. Dominican children aspire to become baseball players because of the success of Dominicans in the major leagues, and are encouraged to play as soon as they are old enough to hold a bat. Every major league team has a training camp on the island, and every child with an inkling of athletic talent is encouraged to excel in the sport at home, at school, and in the community.

Unfortunately, this isn't the case with writing.

In fact, Santo Domingo, a city of more than one million people, has less than ten bookstores. Studies indicate that more than a third of Dominicans report that they do not read at all. Even fewer write.

This was the challenge I faced in the 2008-2009 school year, when I took a sabbatical from my position in the English department at Plymouth State University and as the director of the Plymouth Writing Project in New Hampshire. I was able to work in the Dominican Republic on a Fulbright scholarship helping to promote the teaching of writing.

The Literary Map of Santo Domingo, a literacy project designed as a tool to create cultural change, was one of the projects I participated in.

The Tradition—or Nontradition—of Writing

In some respects, the Dominican Republic would seem to have a strong tradition of literate culture. The two central political figures of the late twentieth century, Joaquin Balaguer and Juan Bosch, were both renowned authors known as "poet presidents." Instead of encouraging Dominicans to pursue writing, however, this has contributed to a mythology that only very special and important people can be writers.

Even more of a contributing factor in the lack of a literate community is the fact that there is nowhere in the country for aspiring writers to learn to write. Writing is not emphasized in the schools, and is mainly evaluated only on its grammatical correctness. Only the state university offers a major in the study of literature, and no schools offer programs in creative writing.

They were encouraged to adopt ‘foreigner’s eyes’ in order to see things they might otherwise take for granted.

Farah Hallal, one of the project participants, noted, "What I have always wanted most in my life is to study creative writing, but it is not offered in my country, not even literature is offered. The state university is so disorganized that it can take 20 years to graduate. My lack of preparation in writing makes me feel less secure about having my own vision in the writing I do."

As Hallal implies, one consequence of this is that most writers, being self-taught, look outside of the country for models, setting their stories in such places as Paris or Las Vegas rather than trusting what is around them as inspiration. There is a strong sense that what comes from outside is better, and a discounting of the immediate environment as inspiration for literary work.

Frank Baez, winner of the Dominican Republic's 2009 National Poetry Prize and editor of the online literary magazine Ping Pong , laments the difficulty of finding writing about the Dominican experience. "Sadly, most Dominican writers, trying to show their sophistication, don't show their own Dominican roots and experiences in their work."

The success of Junot Diaz's novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and its translation into Spanish, has created an opening for the development of a literate culture. The release of the Dominican edition of his book sold out in a country where most authors struggle to find an audience and most work is self-published, effectively limiting publication to the middle and upper classes.

Yet this work also comes from outside, and there is a tendency in Dominican fiction written by authors outside the country to focus on the dictatorship of Trujillo and to exoticize the culture.

Another consequence of the lack of opportunities for writers in the country is a lack of exposure to the idea of writing as a process, and few opportunities for writers to share and receive response to their work. Erika Martinez, a Dominican American writer in the process of preparing an anthology of Dominican women's writing, notes that it was harder to find pieces in Spanish for her anthology, and many of the submissions had not undergone a process of revision and lacked structure.

The Literary Map and the Writing Process

The Literary Map of Santo Domingo

As an answer to these concerns, Frank Baez, Erika Martinez, and I developed a course focusing on place-based writing of the type described in the National Writing Project publication Rural Voices: Place-Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing (Brooke 2003). We adapted this work to our urban context through the idea of a "Literary Map of Santo Domingo"—a way to write about Santo Domingo by using Google Maps as a publishing tool to explore the city's many sides.

We hoped all of this would be a way to effect cultural change, and that writing about the Dominican context could be a starting point for writers to begin to appreciate and value the richness of their reality. We also hoped to provide preparation for writers, introduce them to the creative potential of revision, generate interest in reading, and create a community of dedicated writers.

In our first meeting we presented a theoretical background about the myths surrounding writing, such as the idea that writing is easy for some people, that writing can't be taught, that the writer is a special kind of individual with special gifts, and that great writers never need to revise.

Then we explained our project. We had compiled a list of places in the city, including some with historical significance in the traditional sense, as well as shopping malls, Chinatown, and even the subway system. Participants each chose one place that interested them. Their assignment was to go out to the place and take notes about everything they could see, hear, and smell, whether it was dialogues they overheard or things they witnessed.

They were encouraged to visit more than once and to note the date and time of each visit. They were encouraged to adopt "foreigner's eyes" in order to see things they might otherwise take for granted.

The following week, they brought their notes to class and we talked about the experience of observing one's own environment. Each of the instructors gave a workshop: one on poetry, another on fiction, and the third on essay writing, which the participants rotated through in small groups. In each of the exercises, they used their material to begin crafting a piece of writing. Their assignment for the following week was to bring a rough draft of a piece in whatever genre they chose.

The next class focused on revision. We introduced theory related to revision, performed radical revision exercises of the type described by Juanita Willingham (2004), and used our guidelines for response groups to teach participants about how to respond to each other's writing.

The following week they brought back second drafts and we worked on editing and proofreading. They had a week to complete their drafts and send them to us by email.

We used Google maps to create the Literary Map of Santo Domingo , connecting pieces of writing with points on the map. Those that were too long to fit on the map could be linked to an accompanying blog , where we also posted news about upcoming programs. The map, as well as the writing, was in Spanish, but the idea is not dependent on the language.

In our second offering of the course we integrated more research, asking participants to include historical background related to the place in their writing. They could use newspaper archives, bibliographic sources, or personal interviews to gather information. We then taught them how to integrate that information into a piece of creative writing. We also lengthened the course to allow for fuller treatment of poetry, fiction, and essay writing.

The results of this second course will be added to the map. Eventually, we would like to expand the project, and the map, to other areas of the country.

The map received over 76,000 hits in its first two months on the Web. As one of the participants noted, "I never knew that there was such richness in Santo Domingo, or that you could write about these places so deeply and so well."

All quotes from participants were in Spanish. The translations are mine.

Works Cited:
Brooke, Robert E. 2003. Rural Voices: Place Conscious Education and the Teaching of Writing. New York: Teachers College Press, and Berkeley: National Writing Project.

Willingham, Juanita. 2004. "Radical Revision: My Road from Fairy Tale to Catharsis." The Quarterly of the National Writing Project 28 (2).

Yancy, Kathleen Blake. 2009. Writing in the 21st Century: A Report From the National Council of Teachers of English. Urbana, IL:NCTE. Available at http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Press/Yancey_final.pdf

About the Author Meg Petersen is a professor of English at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, and director of the Plymouth Writing Project. For the 2008-2009 school year, she lived and worked in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on a Fulbright grant. Her project involved working with teachers on the teaching of writing.

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