Many years ago, when I was working on my first novel, I kept a map of Lima, Peru pegged to the wall in front of my desk. My book was not set in Lima, but in an imaginary urban center much like it, a louder, more chaotic, darker, and more dangerous version of that city I loved, that city where I was born. I spent many hours wandering the streets of this made-up place, and I found it very comforting to have the map in front of me, so I (and the characters) could navigate the various neighborhoods, and not lose our way. I used a black marker to draw new borders to the districts, and rename them: San Isidro became La Julieta, La Victoria became Asylum Downs, Independencia became The Cantonment. Much of the novel’s action took place in San Juan de Lurigancho, or my imagined version of that district, which I renamed Tamoé. I don’t know if this was useful or not, if it served my work, I only know that I felt some measure of calm having the map in front of me, to refer to from time to time. It created the illusion of order on the otherwise disorderly process of writing a novel.
My life at the time could have used a little more order as well. I must have moved at least seven or eight times while writing that book—a couple of apartments in Iowa, a few in Tucson, three or four in Oakland—and somewhere along the way I lost that map. (I understand there is something ironic about losing a map.) By the time the book was published I had no idea what had become of it, and when I was asked about the writing of the novel, I often mentioned it, publicly mourning its loss. From time to time I’d set about searching for it among my files, my stacks of old printed manuscripts, but I never had any luck.
Until a couple of days ago, that is, when, in the midst of another move, I found it—tucked inside an unopened box in a dusty corner of a storage closet. Finding it was a shock: I spent many minutes with the map, sitting on the floor of my now empty apartment, re-visiting this imagined city. It was like stumbling upon a photograph of a trip taken long ago. Faced with an artifact like this, you inevitably ask yourself certain questions: What made that trip special? Who was I back then? How have I changed since? How has the city changed? And perhaps most important: can I, should I, go back?