During her Spring 2023 residency at Quay Words on the theme of ‘Threads’, Davina Quinlivan wrote this long prose piece, The Map Makers’ Daughters, and three poems which you can read here. Taking inspiration from Davina’s work, letterpress printer Jeremy Speck produced a set of special prints which are on display at Exeter Custom House in early 2024.

The Map Makers’ Daughters

In the late 1800s, my two great grandfathers leave Ireland and Scotland with the East India Company. Then, two sons marry two Burmese daughters. These daughters are here with me now. They are holding maps in their hands, which they cannot read. Places they no longer recognise. They pass their language on to me, which I can only try to translate. I am repeating the words back to them, over the folds in time, in my Devon home. I’m trying to search for a word. It sounds like a broken geology inside of me, where Burmese rubies meet the red Devon soil, or perhaps it is just the word ‘broken’. I’m trying hard not to think it is that word. It sounds like the church bells from Stoke Canon tolling over the flat fields, and the cry of a tired child dragging a school bag near the front door. Sonorous chattering of wrappers from Chinese preserved plums and my mother’s hand’s draining rice over the sink. A glass of water on the edge of the table, a liquid syllable caught in my throat.

I open my mouth and cherry blossom spills out of it. It fills the avenue where my aunt lived in Ealing. She is standing behind the frosted glass of her porch in W13. I don’t need her voice, but I know she is always there, too. When I’m frightened, I see her moving towards me and that image seems to still my thoughts. She has the kettle on and she’s switching on the lights, one by one, in the hallway. Another and then another. Ghost rhythms.

I pass one word back at a time. My great grandmothers are patient. They tell me they will love me even though we have never met, they are sure of that. They have all of the parts of myself and I theirs, but we are not the same. They are the first women in my family to take on colonial surnames, and I was born as the last.

The first word is hope though I worry belief is not a gift I have often received. I try to go on, stubbornly, because my dad’s ghost is holding a roll up and watching me behind his wide-rimmed glasses, while I walk with my mum all over Exeter. My mum describes her voyage to England as we pass the wisteria near St. Nicholas’ Priory. The solemn spirits of 13th century pilgrims sit on a bench and watch me put away the key to my mum’s flat.  What is the Burmese word for key?

Sot သော့

She squeezes my arm tightly, so tightly, as we push the buggy up Fore Street with my youngest son. She can never make it up to the House That Moved, or the roundabout we have to cross to get to the quayside. She is a dying Burmese teak tree whose roots are almost completely uplifted from the ground, that is, all except the one that represents me. She’s all ‘stone the crows’ and ‘cobblers to that’, when she says she’s fine and gives a little wave to Charlie in Bookbag and the girl with the pink hair in the second hand kids shop. Sometimes, I have to give her my words, because she has forgotten her own. At the same time, my youngest child is learning to talk. Navigating these translations, I surrender my own voice and thoughts so that they can speak to each other. I become a blank space between them. Some might call that the territory of the exile, but I have only myself to blame because I move sideways so that they can move closer together. This is not only a verbal necessity, but a physical one because if I let go, both of them will fall. I parcel up my words in a golden purse. I close the clasp shut. Click.

The second word is time because the bus leaves every 30 minutes and it is seven minutes from here to there, Bartholomew Street West to Paris Street, or twelve minutes from the High Street to the Imperial. Five minutes to eat a slice of cake in The Exploding Bakery where my thoughts are suspended behind the big glass windows like an Edward Hopper painting. Four years in Exeter.

The third word is tender, because that’s how I feel about the lights on the trees that shine permanently outside Make Tank. Grateful for the smiling ladies who help with my mum’s shopping in Sainsbury’s, the friendly shelter of Exeter library and the walk from Queen Street to Wilko where there is a community board with messages like: come visit ‘Exeter’s LGBTQ Friendly Football and Social’, ‘Knitty Knitters and Happy Hookers, this Friday, all welcome’. Semi-retired, my dad stacked the shelves in a Wilko in Hayes. He’s enjoying it back there, standing in the gardening section. Perhaps, he spies a bargain.

The last word is still not written. It is the place I am making, with the few pictures I have left. It looks like all the folded bus tickets in my bag, all the creases on my shoes where I have walked, the First Great Western train travelling between St. David’s and Paddington where my uncle sits in a flat with pictures of us gazing back at him in his armchair and prints of Modern British art on the walls.

Six deer out in the fields in Netherexe, crossing a hedgerow at dusk. A breath between words.

A golden purse opens and closes. Between that movement, there’s a stream of words that escape into the air. Now the words are inscribing themselves on to my body, because they have nowhere else to fall. I have become the map.