Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

Margin's Contributors Reflect

from Joe Benevento, 2001

"To me the two most important magical realists are García Márquez and Borges. I would also have to say they are my two favorite Latin American writers overall. Each man, in a very distinct way, carries us to the same conclusion: that reality, as most people think they know it, is not nearly as interesting, nor as important, as fiction. As someone who both writes and teaches fiction writing, I feel particularly supported by their thesis. But that thesis applies to all of us, whether we write or read much fiction or not. I’ve heard and read that back in García Márquez’s hometown, people are less interested in seeing artifacts or other evidence of the life he actually led there then they are wanting to see and touch things that belonged to the Buendías and the other fictive inhabitants of the fictive town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And that’s as it should be, since his creation of that fictional book is by far and away the most important fact of his life. But García Márquez did more than just create a compelling place that feels more real to people than the actual Colombia he came from. The magically real world he created in that greatest of twentieth century novels (and how anyone can tout Joyce or Faulkner or any of the other candidates as having written a more important and human book than One Hundred Years of Solitude is still, to me, beyond belief) puts into doubt forever the legitimacy of the so called “real” world. He created a new mythology, a new way of seeing our world, and a way of redefining what story can do.

All of García Márquez’s accomplishments, and those of the other major magical realists, would have been a lot more difficult to accomplish without Borges. In his “The Garden of Forking Paths,” he lays out a blueprint for why journalistic reality is merely incidental, literally incidental, while all the other fictive possibilities (which in that story aren’t happening right now, but, in some sense, are happening and always happen,) are what make life worth living, make life complex and poetic and, ironically, real. Great writing often does that—Don Quixote is the first great western magically real novel because it also makes its fiction more compelling, more transforming than the dull realities Cervantes’ Spain actually thought to offer him. Writing that insists on the primacy of creativity, of making something real out of the imagination, is the kind of writing that magic realism always supports and underpins. Writing that is merely realistic or merely fantastic, just like the limited thinker Dupin talks about in Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” is no match for writing that combines both elements for a thinker, as in the Poe story, who is both poet and logician at once."

from Wyatt Bonikowski, Consulting Editor since 2001
[a travel commentary]
"Alyssa and I were in Colombia for Christmas, right smack in the heart of García Márquez country. My brother-in-law works at a university in Barranquilla teaching English and we went to visit him for ten days. We spent some time in Barranquilla, but most of our time was spent on the coast in Cartagena and in the National Park, Parque Tayrona, where we were camping and swimming in the Caribbean. I took along García Márquez's autobiography and enjoyed reading about some of the places we were while we were there (but at a distance of some 50 years, I guess), especially Cartagena (though it turns out he spent a lot of time in Barranquilla, too). It was a fabulous vacation; Colombia is really beautiful."
from Louis E. Bourgeois, Periphery contributor, 2004
[a definition]
"I would say Literary Magical Realism is when nature is caught at its limits of logic. Not unlike those imaginary creatures that really exist, but which only come out when human consciousness has left the room. Then, the true nature of existence begins to unravel. One of them uncorks a jug and the strangest insects begin to emerge—animals whose shapes are not even of the known world, yet are somehow vaguely familiar, as if antediluvian forms were coming back to pay a visit, to remember what they were…

In other words, Literary Magical Realism probably has something to do with the mountain ridge that is about to uproot itself out of boredom or just awakening from a long sleep—or, the ground beneath your feet that is about to explode because it's tired of being cold—or, that tree that is about to rally a revolt because it's weary of the constant threat that it might be cut to pieces by the most advanced chainsaw just on the market.

All of this is just to say that it must be understood that Aristotelian logic is just one logic among many, and really, a rather recent logic at that."

from John Branseum, Periphery contributor 2004; Margin, 2005
"I love traditional Chinese landscape paintings: the tiny people marching, ant-like, up gigantic cloud-shrouded mountains, the sky large and looming, the bright pink of cherry blossoms, the clumps of winter snow perched on tree limbs like tiny birds, a herd of horses becoming one mysterious scribble with their race across a plain. While not a great fan of exoticizing, or the ever popular East/West binaries (we're logical, they're intuitive; we do the polka; they do the Szechuan wang-wang), most of the Western landscapes I've seen strive for fidelity to material realism. While this is all fine and good for a whole host of reasons, such paintings tell me nothing about my experience of the land, what it is to walk as a man who will die one day in the silence of a winter valley, pondering the fierceness of time and the terror of love. It is here that traditional Chinese landscapes excel. The artists don't just paint a landscape to capture how it materially appears. Rather, they're interest lies more in capturing how landscapes psychologically (even spiritually) feel. The immensity of the sky. The tinyness of the figures. I too have felt this small. I too have felt this awe.

I am three. I'm walking with my parents from our trailer to my grandparents' trailer. It's pitch black and I can see nothing in front of me but shadows. Suddenly, we come upon the long hill that ends at my grandparents'.

"Watch out," says my father. "It's steep."

This is a new word to me. I've never heard it before. But I immediately know that steep is a kind of terrible monster, the kind that can throw you down so hard that you break. I grasp my father's hand tighter.

For the same reason I'm drawn to traditional Chinese landscape paintings, I'm also drawn to magical realism.

Similar to the figurative languages of poetry, dream, and religion, magical realism strives to articulate inner landscapes. When the Chinese writer, Can Xue, writes in 'The Child Who Raised Poisonous Snakes' about a boy with snakes in his belly, I think to myself, I know these snakes. I know what it is to have snakes in my belly: their bitterness, their waiting, their weight.

I recognize, too, the scene in which the protagonist mistakes a jumble of seemingly innocuous roses for snake heads. As all lovers know, roses are forever on the verge of such transformations.

And when the inimitable Robert Aickman writes in 'The Swords' of young men lined up to pay money to plunge swords into a young girl (miraculously without killing her), the scenario is hauntingly familiar, especially when one of the men later pays extra to spend time alone with the girl and manages to rip her arm loose, exposing an empty socket from which sawdust pours. Reading this passage, I remember how thin the boundary lines are between violence and sex, voyeurism and homage, the desire to transcend and the will to dominate.

The events that Aickman and Xue describe aren't, of course, literally true. But they are magically true. We know this because in reading such stories we experience a familiar awe. We know this because we experience a familiar shame.

My mother has a few stories she tells of her childhood. One is of a house that she would glimpse in the distance sometimes when she was walking in the fields of her childhood home in White Chapel, Kentucky. "Cabin-like," she called it. "But not a cabin."

This house did not properly exist. She could never get close to it. She only saw it sometimes. Yet, she knew in her heart of hearts that a witch lived in this house, a witch she should be careful to never get too close to. She learned that witches live at the very outer limits of one's vision, that they hover over horizons the way crows hover over corn.

In Beyond the Postmodern Mind, Huston Smith writes that God is not simply a metaphor for something else. He is true. Yet, Smith adds, he is not the final truth. I would advance something very similar about magical realism. It is significant that Jesus chose to speak in parables instead of elaborate theological treatises; that the most common recognition of Plato is through his parable of the cave; that during the Song dynasty, when they found themselves disheartened with their students' reliance on scholarly expositions on various sutras, the Zen masters gave their students riddles and challenged them with absurd pronouncements ("Buddha is a no-dog pissing himself").

Since the beginning of the Word, human beings have known that signs are not coequal with the signified, that words are inadequate vehicles for the contradictory traffic in our hearts and the strange sentient meat in our heads. Magical realism speaks to the fact that often the things we most want to communicate are precisely those things that expose the inadequacy of language. It tells lies in order to tell truths; it deforms in order to show the grace of the line; it offers fever dreams and Boschian imagery to utter that which would be inutterable through attempted statements of fact.

As a teenager, I once obsessively recorded my dreams for a year during which time I paid especially close attention to the people I met. Being eighteen, I dreamed about women… a lot. One of these dreams occurred repeatedly. This dream's star was a woman, yes. But she was not a girl from college or my favorite bar. She was an eighty-year-old woman—bent, withered, and thoroughly gray—who spoke to me of the horror of time, of how in her heart she remained eighteen, of how, please, couldn't I see, couldn't I see that she was more than her body, and please couldn't I love this more?

In my dream, I did fall in love. I took Abby in my arms and I kissed her and the kiss was a room whose source of light was her sweetness, her honesty, and her spirit. This was only a dream, of course. But only? Why only? The truth is that this mere dream helped me, horny as I was, realize something about love and mortality, about the sometimes disparity between rind and center.

American literature shows a strong affinity for magical realist tales from its beginning via such writers as Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne. With our strong religious history, Gothicism and supernaturalism are practically a second language. Of course, realism in the twentieth century challenged this tendency. It did so for good reasons. The world was in the process of literally taking a giant progressivist leap forward from a legacy of slavery, misogyny, and classism. Why write, many authors asked, about things that don't exist when there is very real human suffering in a very real world to attend to?

But now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, our hard scientists and psychologists tell us that our world, our reality, is not at all what we thought it was and, in a sense, everything is a metaphor or a single limited vantage point. While we perceive unity, a central ego, we are in fact walking leviathans composed of millions of teeming cells with distinct agendas that somehow magically cohere into an operational self-conscious whole. If we go a level lower, we find ourselves to be a swarm of atoms flickering in empty space, lower still and we are quanta blinking in and out of existence, from matter to energy, running willy nilly and free of the laws of physics as we've known them. In the face of such bizarre complexity, even the staunchest materialists finds themselves turning to figurative language in an attempt to describe our real world.

Realism adheres to a principle of mimesis, the thought that one can perfectly represent reality. Magical realism adheres to diesis—the idea that we can only point to what is real, which ultimately is not only beyond our words but our concepts.

An old Zen saying warns that one should not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. This saying elucidates how it is that magical realism is real.

My older sister, Shirley Jean, is schizophrenic. When she was three, a Baptist minister in Big Flat, Arkansas tried to exorcise her, reasoning, like many others in many other cultures have, that evil spirits are the cause of schizophrenia. Ridiculous, stupid, unthinkable, I later thought in college. Yet, when I was ten I saw a dark shadow rise from her bed one night while she remained in it. And she herself reported voices telling her that she was ugly, that she was stupid, that she was worthless.

Freud spoke of a house divided between superego, ego, and id. Jung did him one better by suggesting an entire cosmic pantheon played deep games in our heads. Some hospitals have yielded research studies that show exorcism is as effective as psychotropic medication for relieving the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Do I think my sister is actually demon possessed? Does it matter? The purpose of the medications she now takes is to alleviate symptoms, to make the voices stop, not solve whatever (still unknown) chemical, organic, or viral agent is at the root of her condition. Spiritual possession, an infiltration of an otherwise lovely girl by a spirit which makes her weep and slash her wrists, doesn't seem like a completely erroneous way to speak of her reality. She tells me that prayer helps the voices stop.

Everything is connected, fully and mysteriously. I learned this when at the age of three I began to crumble a cigar my father had put in the ashtray. Near the bottom of it, I found a piece of gum clotted with flakes of moist tobacco. My father of course had used the cigar as a convenient parking place for his gum. But this didn't occur to me at the time. What I thought instead, with a terrific sense of excitement and discovery, was "Wow! That's how gum is made!" In my child-mind, I imagined a factory somewhere where a thousand people were sitting on a thousand brown couches, smoking and making gum. I realized then that people and gum and tobacco are all connected in some deep way and there is not one thing without the other. I still believe this."
from Margarita Engle, Periphery contributor, 2004; Margin, 2005
"As a botanist, I think of magical realism as a suitable name for stories that are completely true. Nature and history are filled with amazing facts, but modern scholars, in an effort to appear cynically all-knowing, have a tendency to excise the universal spirit of wonder and place it in a category for children.

If I told strange true stories in another country, or in medieval times, everyone would believe me. In modern times, in the fact-besieged United States, readers and editors categorize my real experiences as fantasy. As a result, I have ended up disguising true stories as fiction, simply to be able to get published. For instance, one story I wrote that was inspired by a historical event ended up winning a fantasy award.

Nevertheless, I can pick up any history book or science textbook, or any respectable (not tabloid) newspaper in any country, and confirm the coexistence of wondrous true occurrences.

For instance, last year I read a brief newspaper account of a ten-year-old child who bit into an apple he'd picked on his grandparents' farm in the Midwest. Inside the apple, he found a gold ring. His grandmother remembered that one of the migrant farmworkers had lost a wedding ring during the spring, when the trees were in bloom, and that everyone had searched for it without success. Word of the ring inside an apple spread from farmer to farmer over hearty coffee shop breakfasts of biscuits and gravy. Before long, reporters and botanists were flocking to the apple orchard to document the unlikely event. After meticulous testing, the scientists concluded that the ring had fallen onto a flower. The flower was pollinated by a bee. The ovary of the flower ripened into a fruit. Inside the fruit, the wedding ring remained trapped. When the boy bit into the fruit, he released the golden ring.

Clearly, this story, while factual, and completely plausible to a botanist, reverberates with echoes from ancient myths and fairy tales. Suddenly, other tales also seem plausible. Sleeping Beauty can be explained by a newspaper article about a woman in New Mexico who awakened after sixteen years in a coma. Her children were grown, and her husband had remarried. Snow White was pale because she followed the fashion of the day, consuming tiny amounts of arsenic in the belief that it would make her skin bluish and beautiful.

The young men who went off to seek their fortunes were fourth sons. They became the troubadours, itinerant vendors, storytellers and explorers, simply because first sons in Spain inherited the family's wealth, second sons went into the military, third sons were given to the church, and fourth sons were sent out into the forests, or across the sea, to places like Cuba…"

from artist and writer Maria Lemus, 2004

Painting: "Past Life"

"It was evident that I must quickly find a solution to the paper problem. It had never occurred to me that the imagination could founder on anything so stupid as a lack of paper."
—Alejo Carpentier, THE LOST STEPS

from Lianne Mercer, 2001
"I have never trusted dishes. They seem always to be gossiping behind cupboard doors. A sassy lot, they practice oneupmanship, reminding me that the pile always changes. I would not put it past them to change faces without changing places. Atoms at home with chaos. The possibility always exists that what I see isn’t real. Dishes so serene on the table, so rebellious out of sight. I’ve learned their lesson well. I try to comfort myself with the same plate each evening; I live alone, wash the dishes by hand, so there is little opportunity to change the order of things, to take the top spot without a few days of drying egg or congealing macaroni and cheese, necessitating going four or five deep into the pile. I hear their sighs. Their nascent plans to present me with dazzling mathematical puzzles about the probabilities of changing relationships. I have caught their fever and put it into words. The wonderful, radiant presence of magical realism that spills from my fingers into surprising stories on the page. I could not say this to just anyone, but once I heard my dishes screaming in the near-boiling temperature of the dishwasher and tried to rescue them. I burned my feet and legs, but we all healed—bowls, small cappuccino cups, and me. I’ve learned to seek out the strange, brooding presence of inanimate objects—faces in my hedge, leaf babies on the lawn, birds singing secrets. And I listen to my cat and answer the phone when no one is there. I never know when one of these magical stories will trust me to tell it."
from Ozzie Nogg, 2002
[letter to the editor]
"When the time came to assign the ISBN number to [Joseph's Bones], the form required a publisher's name. Since the book was self-published, I had to make something up.

Because my real, legal name is Ozna, I decided to call the publishing house OZNAS BOOKS.

No big deal, right?

A logical choice, right?

Only after some time had passed did I realize how logical a choice it really was—yet how totally out of my awareness.

You see, I have five grandchildren. And what are their names?

Olivia, Zachary, Natalie, Alexandra, Seth
I promise you, when those kids were given their names (and not in that birth order), no one saw a pattern emerging.

Talk about magical …"

from Garrett Rowlan, 2001, 2004, 2005
"In 1967, the year One Hundred Years of Solitude was published, I went away to college, driving eight miles three mornings a week to a community college on the East side of Los Angeles. It was a time of discovery. On my days off school I would drive—the license new, the car old—and explore a section of Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena now called Old Town, a howling misnomer for an upscale stretch of name-brand outlets, trendy eateries, and solicitors for social causes. (The Parsons Building, which serves as the locale for my story, Nemesis is located a mile north of this place.)

At that time, however, the street did retain a veneer of old money and old buildings. I remember, most of all, Broughton's bookstore, a labyrinth of shadows, dust, lights and sprawling books—tomes that looked like leftovers from the age of Dickens.

It was in one of those crannies that I came across a New Directions paperback of Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. I knew, at a glance, it was unlike the "fantastic" literature I had previously been exposed to, be it the science fiction of Ray Bradbury or Joyce's Ulysses that I carried around with me in order to look hip.

Only later would I read and appreciate it.

Set and setting, as we used to say in another context: in that forgotten space I read Borges and took my first halting steps toward magic realism."

from Jan Steckel, 2004
"My favorite magical realist writers are, of course, Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Rulfo, but also, weirdly, Thomas Pynchon and JT Leroy. Pynchon's latest postmodern novel, Mason & Dixon, meticulously describes historical settings where characters accept occasional supernatural manifestations, such as talking dogs and ghostly wives. Pynchon's 'injuns' appear to believe in a Native American brand of Feng Shui. The book delineates the origins of postcolonial North American literature and history: the fusion of rational elements with less linear indigenous patterns of thought in several different colonial settings.

Leroy has been accused of gritty realism, but I love the way his Southern gothic style stretches seamlessly into the fantastic, with boy-prostitutes wearing raccoon penis bones as talismans and folks worshipping jackalopes."

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Rev'd 2005/01/26