Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

c o l u m n
a s k    t h e    p r o f e s s o r


~ Featured Educator ~

Professor of English and comparative literature
University of Texas at Arlington


JUST BY looking at her picture, the one on the back of her latest book, Ordinary Enchantments, one might not imagine Wendy Faris as the brave and prodigal activist for one of the more controversial forms of contemporary world literature. Nor would I expect her to agree with this assessment of her. But she looks rather like Eleanor Roosevelt or a trim Julia Child—hardly the image of the intellectual that I'd expected, but then, it makes sense that the woman who has made magical realism the exploration of her lifetime should be, herself, a package of surprises.

We're proud to introduce Wendy B. Faris, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Texas at Arlington, in this first in a series of columns entitled Magical Realism 101: Ask the Professor. This column's mission is to commend the efforts of accomplished magical realist educators everywhere.

"I'd credit my mother's genuine interest in things that were not ordinary, and in other cultures," Faris says when asked what elements of her young life most inspired her later career as a scholar, especially of magical realism. "She was from Australia and felt a bit out of place in [the US]."

Faris describes her childhood as one filled more with artwork than with reading (another surprise), though she does cite Winnie-The-Pooh and Doctor Doolittle as the likely fantastical influences of her early life. Later, she studied at Stanford, but also traveled to Argentina and France on fellowships and grants, and did additional educational stints elsewhere before finally landing at the University of Texas at Arlington in 1988. She has remained there since, taking only a short leave in the mid-90s to chair independent studies at the University of Northern Colorado. She's fluent in Spanish and French and has published numerous translations as well as written extensively on the subject of magical realism for a mostly scholarly audience.

Her major at Stanford was Spanish literature, though, upon reflection, she's not sure why she chose that course of study, except that she'd always been attracted to "things foreign."

"I see it as something of a mistake, actually. I love things French rather more. I tried to get out of it at one point and be an English major, but by that time I'd taken all the modern courses I would need and would have been stuck fulfilling requirements in the older periods, which at that point in my life didn't interest me. Now I am interested, but it's too late!"

The first book Faris wrote, while acquiring tenure, was to become part of a series of books on individual writers, including Carpentier. The publisher argued against that choice, suggesting that Faris take on Carlos Fuentes instead.

"So I agreed, and turned out to have a really good experience writing the book," she says of the project, Carlos Fuentes. "In the course of doing that, I had one of the most exciting personal literary experiences of my life, which was to interview Fuentes about his novel Distant Relations. We had such an interesting and informative conversation about that novel that it helped me a lot with writing about it in my book. Since I ended up knowing a lot about Fuentes, I sometimes get asked to write reviews of his books, which is fun. Again, as a result of knowing his texts well, I get ideas about them from time to time and so I have written a few more articles about him."

And thus she launched a career of more than twenty years negotiating—indeed, mastering—the complicated landscape of literary magical realism.

It's not a far stretch to assume that career scholars like Faris might not be viewed by students as courting the interests of the Everyperson. And certainly Wendy Faris has designs on high culture. She loves to listen to classical music, and her passion for literature runs deep. Her favorite authors include Proust, Woolf and Henry James, as well as Rilke, Yeats, Gide, Faulkner—"like everybody else!" she confesses—Nabokov, Conrad, Bowen, Isherwood, Tanizaki, Kundera.

But she's also invested some time in popular culture. What red-blooded American wouldn't? Yes, Faris she watches TV, she goes out to see major motion pictures, she tries to folk dance when she can and she enjoys the culinary arts. She's hardly the intimdating highbrow that students might perceive her as being, if one were to judge her solely by her scholarly background.

Faris is also a fan of what she calls "blissing out." By this she means that she loves to walk in nature (however hard that is to accomplish, she confesses, in the "metroplex" of Arlington, where she lives and works).

Perhaps Faris experiences another aspect of that "blissing out" through the serigraphs, ribbonpaintings and batiks she is quietly known for creating in her personal time. Her work has been shown on exhibit. The covers of her latest books brandish her fluid, blue-intensive imagery.

Art seems to come naturally for Faris, even though she ultimately chose literature over art as her path of study. An article in the UTA Shorthorn described Faris as a "closet artist." She admits that her decision to choose literature over art was "kind of sad, in a way. . . . One reason I got a Ph.D. in literature was that I felt that I could do that less well by myself than artwork, and since I assumed I'd get a Ph.D. (both my parents had them!), I might as well learn a lot from those more talented for that than I was.

"Since it was so difficult to survive in the academic world during my career (and it still is for people starting out, I'm sorry to say), I had to suppress the artist side, simply because there wasn't enough time to pursue it (though I always did quite a bit on the side), and so as not to seem unacademic and frivolous in front of my academic colleagues and evaluators."

So like many artists, educated or otherwise, she picked up that familiar double life of working and making art separately but simultaneously. It has always been a compulsion for her "to make beautiful things." She explains, "I feel very strongly that the world needs to be more beautiful." She cites the Bloomsbury art critic Clive Bell as arriving at a theory about beauty which she cleaves to, that "there are all kinds of emotions connected with life events, like anger, happiness, pity, etc., so there is an aesthetic emotion that is triggered by the perception of beauty."

She recounts the recent experience of a friend as supportive evidence of this theory: "On entering an art gallery with paintings she liked (entirely abstract paintings, I might add), she burst into tears because they were so beautiful. That they were abstract paintings means that she wasn't responding to a scene that triggered a particular emotion connected to events in her or others' lives, but to the aesthetic beauty of the paintings."

Faris knows that feeling well. "When I discover a painter whose work I really love, I feel very moved and joyful inside," she admits.

Growing up with a mother who valued art, but who was not confident in her own ability, gave Faris and her brother, a painter, many creative possibilities.

"We were praised a lot for it as children and encouraged. And there were a lot of visually interesting things around our house, which probably increased our sensibilities in that area. If one wants to be more mystical about it, I do mostly abstract works, and some critics feel that many abstract expressionists (by whom I am strongly influenced) are expressing sacred emotions through their abstract art. That may be a factor for me too, though it's hard to say. I find that art is my preferred way of interacting with people. I'm much happier making a spirithouse ribbonpainting for someone than discussing an intellectual question. "

She concedes that this quiet, second life as an artist is oppositional to her work as a literary scholar.

"I do feel as if I do my literary writing in a very rational, trained way and my artwork in a very idiotic, mysterious and much freer way. So in some senses those two enterprises are opposite and complementary."

But when it comes to thinking in terms of discussing literary magical realism, "I think that when I do artwork I get into a happy introverted state that can be quite mystical, and that may be the spirit that attracts me to magical realism as well. I find quite a few images in magical realist writing that inspire me to want to do artwork with them as an idea in my head to begin with. "

So why did she choose to focus so intensely, as a scholar, on magical realism? The obvious answer would be that she was influenced by her studies in Spanish Literature. But Faris confesses an even more personal reason. "I think that the reason it appeals to me (and to a lot of people) is that it remains a kind of mysterious entity in a scientifically-oriented world," Faris says. "I don't like fantasy literature, but just a bit of magic within realism is appealing because it implicitly says that we're not so smart after all and we don't have everything all figured out." For someone extraordinarily intelligent, these words reveal a more humble, student-of-life facet to her personality.

Faris doesn't claim to be an "expert" as one might assume about someone who teaches the subject. She admits to struggling to find the secret to teaching it well and does not feel she has a strong gift in this way. Her writing on the subject, however, is fascinating, impeccably researched, ardent and well-humored, and her efforts as the co-editor of Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community (with Lois Parkinson Zamora) and the author of Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative stand as two of the best study guides to magical realism available in the world.

Naturally, the task of teaching magical realism has to be daunting and evasive. When you teach a subject that academics largely can't agree to define in any standardized way, it means that some classes will be minefields of controversy, and others fogbanks of complexity. What's more, teaching magical realism through a strategy of identifying and classifying literary works is perhaps, as Faris describes, "not the best way to interest students."

But she bravely enters the discourse with the right tools in hand: a broad reading list, an understanding of mystical expression through various media (art, music, literature, television and film), and most of all, a passion for her subject matter that goes back to her own days at the university. She arms herself with a quick informal definition: "Magical realism is realistic fiction with a touch of magic." It's simple, but it gets the dialog moving.

Eventually, she introduces discussion about the "neighboring genres" in her class: of fantasy writing, ghost stories, science fiction, tall tales and parables. This sets her apart from some contemporaries, who can be more loyal to classic and literary work at the expsense of recognizing successful popular forms. But this survey approach keeps Faris's teaching flexible. When she and her students find a work that is very difficult to classify, she opts for inclusiveness because it allows her some freedom to explore a considerably larger pool of texts than a more exclusive definiton might allow.

"What I like is not the process of classification and articulating categories," something she insists she is not good at, "but analyzing the works themselves, which present endless intriguing complexities."

She does find distinctions that other critics make (citing, for instance, Jeanne Delbaere-Garant's essay on three types of magical realism— psychic, mythic, and grotesque as being tremendously useful in considering the diverse applications of the magical realism narrative.

The only fundamental problem Faris identifies among students reading magical realism is that, in some cases, they take the stories literally, "as if it's real life." Even then, because she promotes the notion, from the very beginning, that magical realism is supposed to invite the nagging doubts of readers, her students usually don't fall into arguments about whether something in a magical realism story could have actually occurred. This is a considerable skill for a teacher, being able to move a class beyond that first debate.

Her students are generally "intrigued from the outset" when they opt to take her magical realism courses. They may find some of the texts difficult, but overall, she thinks that most students "get" magical realism and are quite receptive to it.

Still, challenges exist. For instance, she finds One Hundred Years of Solitude is difficult, despite its being "a wonderful book."

"The last time I taught the course to undergraduates, several students said in their course evaluations 'take One Hundred years of Solitude off the reading list.' " She postulates that the novel is probably too long for undergraduate students, but she fully intends to keep it on her list, all the same.

Faris has been teaching magical realism courses, among a bevy of other graduate and undergraduate literature courses, for more than twenty years. Have student perceptions and awareness about magical realism changed much over the years? Perhaps. "Students are more aware of the term now, and since there is quite a lot of fantasy writing right now, they are more aware of the non-realistic genres than they once were," Faris points out. "But they always were fairly receptive to it, as I recall."

When asked how she might respond to comments describing magical realism as "highbrow fantasy," she's quite frank. "Since magical realism is quite a popular genre, with movies and even T.V. series coming out and reaching relatively wide audiences, and popular books (from which movies are made) like Thinner and Field of Dreams also, I don't think one can call it so highbrow."

Magical realism has always been popular with the masses, she points out. "Carlos Fuentes said years ago how everyone, from him to his maid, was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude when it came out." Faris also points out that the Oprah Winfrey online book club opened with the same book just this last January as its feature title.

She believes that, generally, people understand the basic differences between magical realism and fantasy writing. "I think most people would agree that the difference between magical realism and fantasy is that in fantasy there's more magic, and we escape more often into what feels like another world, whereas in magical realism, it remains realism, with smaller intrusions of fantasy."

She is also careful to address magical realism's signatory political edge, while at the same time refusing to justify hard and fast distinctions. "I feel as if the boundaries between these two genres are very fluid. So, in some senses the person who would say this [that magical realism is "highbrow fantasy"] is to some extent right!"

Does she predict that perceptions about magical realism may further change once it becomes more familiar territory for readers? "The element of surprise, when a magical element pops up amidst the realism, may diminish," she suggests, as readers come to expect such conventions; but, "on the other hand, in a book whose narrative conventions are realistic, a magical element may always have surprise value."

For all her humility regarding her teaching abilities, Faris does offer useful advice for those teachers attempting to take on magical realist literature as a curriculum.

"One thing I would suggest is to have students play around with finding the irreducible element of magic in texts and then try to explain what purpose it serves." The irreducible element, which she discusses in depth in chapter one of Ordinary Enchantments, is "something that we cannot explain according to the laws of the universe as they have been formulated in Western empirically based discourse, that is, according to logic, familiar knowledge or received belief, as David Young and Keith Hollaman describe it.

"In addition, I think I myself need to do more research into the cultural context of the individual texts and present that to the students; they usually find that interesting." For someone who's established herself in the field, Faris surprises again by being relentless about knowing more.

The text she seems to have had the best success in teaching is "Aura" by Carlos Fuentes. "It's great and students are drawn into it and seem to enjoy discussing its mysteries and puzzles." [Editor's note: Independent students can find "Aura" and other solid works of magical realism from all over the world in the book Magical Realist Fiction, edited by the aforementioned Young and Hollaman.]

On the challenge of choosing favorite magical realist authors, Faris clarifies that she tends "to have favorite books rather than authors." As she correctly points out, "Most writers, interestingly enough, do not write magical realism exclusively."

For those of the vanguard whose works she admires most, it's not surprising that García Márquez and Fuentes top the list. Alejo Carpentier, Ben Okri, Wilson Harris and Toni Morrison are other favorites. "I also like The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas quite a lot," she says.

She does wonder whether Carpentier's groundbreaking The Kingdom of this World has suffered from life in the shadow of Gabo. And she likes to pitch for the lesser-known works of some of the big-time magical realists, such as Fuentes's "Joycean novel" Christopher Unborn. "For years and years everyone was trying to write the Latin American Ulysses; I think that in this novel Fuentes finally succeeded, but no one has seemed to notice!"

She also considers Wilson Harris's novel, Palace of the Peacock, a "gorgeous book" that "very few people seem to know of or have read." Faris also thinks that, in the US, Ben Okri should be more widely read. She describes his work as "visionary" and "lusciously entrancing" while also being well-equipped with "hard-hitting imagery." She finds Okri's work inspiring visually and may someday compose a series of paintings based upon his masterpiece, The Famished Road.

Her love for the form extends beyond literature. "I think my favorite magical realist film is Truly, Madly, Deeply, about a woman's dead husband haunting her. . . . And Like Water for Chocolate is also good. ... I think the magical realist movies made from books are all quite good: The Tin Drum, The Milagro Beanfield War, The Witches of Eastwick, Thinner, Field of Dreams, Ironweed and perhaps Chocolat (which seems kind of like a spinoff from Like Water for Chocolate, as does the charming, if a bit superficial, Woman on Top). " She also claims a penchant for the magical realist elements in television series such as Northern Exposure and Allie McBeal.

Faris's latest book, Ordinary Enchantments, is an excellent boiling down of discussions about magical realism.

Boiled down, but not dumbed down. Not by a longshot. It also captures some of the personal passion she has invested in magical realism over the years. From her preface, "Permissible Savag'ry," she writes:

"This book probably has its distant origins in the Fijian cannibal fork with which my mother livened up her performance during the 'show and tell' period at her girls' school in Australia. The fork, given to my grandfather by the native Fijians, so the story goes, had been used to eat an earlier missionary. That the story may be apocryphal makes it all the more intriguing, of course, especially in the context of magical realism and narrative invention. Even if the Fijians had invented that other, that eaten missionary in order to cement more closely their friendship with, or alternately, to terrorize and thus to colonize the current one (my grandfather), the story was passed down and believed by my mother, her sisters, their schoolroom audiences and me. That attraction, of the postcolonial English schoolgirls for the permissible savag'ry of the Fijian cannibal and, more generally, our overcivilized century's attraction to the 'primitive' arts is the starting point for substantial parts of this critical narrative, and also for much—though not all—of the magical realist fiction I consider here. To be deployed fruitfully, this attraction must be understood to contain not only projections of selves but also genuine appreciation of others."

She admits to a "zany little theory" that any mystical component from her grandfather's attraction to religion likely skipped a generation and became her inheritance. "And if my theory, that the attraction of magical realism is its encoding of mystery in the discourses of realism, is correct, then that's why I'm attracted" to magical realism, she says. "It's my mystical side finally coming out. "

She started writing this book 20 years ago. "The main reason why this took so long is that I am not good at organization. It takes me ages and ages and criticism from lots of people to get a book into a shape that is acceptable to rational academic readers. At this point in my life it feels like I'm a mystic trapped in an academic's life." It's not the only book-length project that has challenged her. "The book that eventually came out of my dissertation, on the labyrinth in modern literature, also took a long time for the same reason."

But the challenge in completing Ordinary Enchantments might also have been about refining the difficult ideas which inspired the project in the first place. "My basic and, perhaps, my only original idea in this book is that many contemporary sensibilities crave a sense of the sacred without its usual attendant doctrine, and magical realism satisfies that craving. This has been a difficult idea to support rationally and to elucidate carefully through a number of texts and critical concepts."

She gives most of the credit for her insights to the many scholars she acknowledges in the back pages. This book has a few new ideas, but it also builds a lot on the research that others have done before me. So, my definition is the result of quite a bit of reading and thinking with others," including Gloria Anzaldúa, Wayne Ude, Robert Antoni, Stacy Alaino, Michael Taussig and Wilson Harris.

Other challenging angles for discussion in Ordinary Enchantments include an entire chapter addressing the question of "Who can write what?" She acknowledges that it's "a huge question, especially in the politically sensitive (not to say politically correct!) critical climate today."

She tries to balance viewpoints as a way to address this issue; one, that a writer has a right to deal with any material he chooses, irregardless of its originating culture, and two, writers may sometimes overstep boundaries in the act of speaking about a culture to which they are outsiders, which can result in a commodification and trivialization of the problems within that culture. She admits being unsure of her success in mediating this discussion, though overall, she finds herself aligned with the first viewpoint.

"As a comparatist, I don't believe that a member of one culture is the only one who can understand and write about that culture. The same holds true for using a critical term like magical realism to apply over the entire world."

This is at the heart of many critics' arguments against her broad worldview about magical realism, but such criticism has yet to derail her efforts. "I don't believe a fear of such homogenization should obscure the sense of genuine cultural community, which may in the end help us to get beyond imperialisms of all kinds."

She knows that people will view her as "pollyanna-ish" and "privileged." She places her faith in what she considers a "fair exchange" between writers who, through a persisent borrowing of cultural artifacts, have succeeded in producing "a whole range of wonderful postcolonial fictions."

To put it more personally: "To me it's a bit like me wearing a huipil with my jeans and someone in Guatemala wearing Adidas-brand sneakers with her huipil. The trouble comes in the economic disparity between her standard of life and mine. And that's a serious economic problem related to my buying that huipil comfortably in a Houston boutique and her struggle to keep herself and her family alive in today's globalized economy. And there's no good solution to that problem yet. I don't, however, think that the cultural exchange in magical realism is preventing its solution."

Faris wonders whether her book might still fall between two modes of thinking: one, that it is a book "of mystical intuition dressed up in too much academic prose-" or two, that it is "academic discourse damaged by too much of a mystical attitude."

What's to be admired in all this is Faris's resolve to write the book anyway. It may have cost her a lot of extra time in its production, but the result is a thoughtful, eyes-wide-open guide that, while perhaps a bit academic in tone, remains a practical guide for writers, students and teachers of magical realism.

One of her biggest challenges was finding an audience who would accept her discussions about shamanism as part of the dialog. Were they too New Age? Who knows. The readers from Vanderbilt University Press (who eventually published her book) weren't fond of that thread in the book, but Michael Ames, head of the press, fortunately gave her manuscript the time and faith necessary to "de-shamanize" it. (Interestingly, the shamanistic aspects of her discussion were not completely erased from the text—they instead represent a compelling argument for magical realism as a form of community healing, something which has been practiced through oral tradition for a long time. So it's clear that some of her contentions about shamanism were not so "zany" after all.)

Another more recent exploration for Faris has been in the world of feminine writing. Her final chapter in Ordinary Enchantments, "Women and Women and Women," uncovers some interesting thinking regarding the psychic and cultural colonizing of women and how that may have affected a wave of writers who use magical realism as a narrative form, such as Isabel Allende, Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, Louise Erdrich and Maxine Hong Kingston. This, too, was a challenging aspect for Faris, writing about women as a marginalized culture.

"I am a very late comer to feminist criticism and don't consider myself an expert at all." She credits her colleague at UTA, Stacy Alaimo, "for reading this chapter and pointing me towards some feminist criticism that helped me a lot. "

Another community of writers whose marginalized voices have moved toward magical realism as an appropriate narrative are gay and lesbian authors. While she hasn't considered the rumblings of such a movement in queer literature, Faris does point out that, should magical realism continue to grow in popularity, its function in preserving marginalized voices may take on less significance, " because it won't seem radical enough to be a harbinger of social change. "

She describes the process as akin to the trajectory of the writers of El Boom. "It seems that cultures and voices often use [magical realism] to decolonize themselves, but then outgrow that stage and wish to move beyond it—or back before it—to more realistic forms of discourse."

Faris explains how this weakens the argument for expanding upon marginalized voices in literature: "It is rather similar for each group one is referring to. Already I felt as if I was repeating what I had said about colonized cultures when I was writing about the colony of women within a heretofore male-dominated society. So, if one starts talking about the marginalized voice of gay and lesbian writers and then other marginalized groups who begin to speak through magical realism, it's the same argument, that magic allows them to speak, and so it's a less interesting argument because it's already been formulated."

How has Ordinary Enchantments been received by her peers in academia? "It's too early to tell, but I expect quite a lot of criticism from those people who think I have too positive an attitude toward magical realism's often progressive political tone, since Lois Zamora and I were accused of that in our anthology."

However critics might characterize Faris's efforts, they are hardly made in vain. Her work with Zamora on Magical Realism: Theory, History and Community was not only groundbreaking but necessary at a time when students were beginning to take a more firmly rooted critical interest in literary magical realism. She still has her work cut out for her, but there's no doubt that her drive, to continue blazing these new trails through magical realism, does not function at the mercy of critics and theorists, but rather at her own intellectual tenacity and desire to learn.

Wendy B. Faris is the consummate lifelong student, in that respect. And what makes for a better educator? Her humility, her constant questioning, her passion for the subject and her fearless ability to keep her scholarship fresh and challenging are what continue to define her not only as an excellent mentor, but perhaps also as the perfect ambassador for the magical realist narrative.

Tamara Kaye Sellman is founding editor and publisher of Margin.
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