I recently went to see ‘The Third Space’, an exhibition of work by six artists of Iranian origin at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. The term ‘The Third Space’ was used in this case to describe a symbolic and impermanent mental space for integration of experiences, healing and cultural transference.
Being on my leisurely way to Toronto Island to enjoy the pleasant summer day, I was in a contemplative mood. As I left the exhibition, I started thinking about the spaces we each inhabit inside our own heads; the worlds that we carry around and that only we know.
A writer of fiction inhabits a particular sort of space when working. The writer is absorbed in the world he or she is creating, whether that world is based on a real place and, perhaps, real people, or is a newly-minted realm, with characters that spring from the mind of the writer. The writer is also thinking about how to communicate that world, and is driven to construct, through writing, a mental space that can be shared with others. If the construction is successful then the reader can become as involved in the fictional world as the writer was. And almost magically the created world can live on beyond its creator.
As a reader within the shared space, we enter into the lives of the writer’s characters, and see what they see. Think of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s evocation of the desperation of families forced from America’s Dust Bowl. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee presented a setting that may have been familiar to many of her readers, but her created world let them see its pervasive racial bigotry through a child’s clear eyes.
Living in Toronto, it was enthralling for me to be taken by Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion to the Bloor Viaduct during its construction, nearly 100 years ago. I have not been to Newfoundland yet, but in the company of Annie Proulx in The Shipping News I partied on its windswept coast. I have not been to Nunavut either, but led by Rudy Weibe I struggled up the Coppermine River with Franklin and his Tetsot’ine companions in A Discovery of Strangers – a story, incidentally, of cultural exchange, communication, and the creation of a third space.