Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

F E A T U R E
ROB JOHNSON AND THE HAUNTED VALLEY OF FANTASMAS
b y   t a m a r a   k a y e   s e l l m a n   ~   m a r g i n

III. BUT IS IT MAGICAL REALISM?
ALCALÁ, IN her introduction to Fantasmas, was careful to clarify the difference between the cuento de fantasma and standard magical realist writing. She says that defining cuentos as border literature "implies the ability to dip into both cultures and step back and forth across the border. This area was a place of cultural convergence long before the Spanish or Americans showed up. By its very nature, the Southwest has always encouraged the cross-pollination of cultures."

Johnson, not one to claim an expertise in magical realism, deferred to Alcalá for a definition for the cuento which would distinguish it from magical realism.

"She was hesitant, too, but I pushed her a little by telling her, Look, this is your chance to define something and make it stick. I hope she doesn't regret it, because it's always risky to generalize."

But Alcalá, when pushed, offered a clarifying list of characteristics for the cuento, including:

a basis in oral tradition

influences from folk religion

use of vernacular forms

influence of life and culture from the U.S. side of the border

These are distinctions worth making. The book is being marketed to a mainstream audience which historically tends to associate Latino writing with magical realism. It's a common misperception, one which has plagued and continues to plague Latino writers. Wishing to break out of such market-driven categorization, many such writers have developed a collective attitude of protest and backlash, not against magical realism, but against what seems to be American publishing's perpetual literary stereotyping.

Yet the distinction between the cuento de fantasma and magical realism, as carefully as Alcalá tends to it in her introduction, might remain a bit elusive, if only because mainstream readers may be unfamiliar with the more global parameters of magical realism -- after all, magical realism has never been the exclusive domain of Latino world literature, and it really isn't a genre like the cuento, but a literary movement, like Realism.

Also, American mainstream readers may not be able to distinguish fantastic "border" stories (relating the charmed sense of place arising out of the Rio Grande Valley, a region made peculiar by its history and geography) from other famous magical realist stories originating in points further south, despite tremendous cultural differences between Mexico and most Central and South American countries.

To belabor the distinction, cuentos de fantasmas and stories of magical realism aren't mutually exclusive -- a cuento could also be a story of magical realism simultaneously, and the magical realist worldview can be just as much the domain of the border as anywhere else in the world.

Readers may, in fact, be left wondering, "what's the difference?" between the cuento de fantasma and magical realism, and it's not likely that many will take on the task of answering that literary inquiry independently. This isn't Alcalá's fault, though, but a problem largely arising from the fact that mainstream Americans are only now getting to know their neighbor to the south, Mexico, thanks to exposure to and influences from a booming Mexican American citizenship.

If Johnson's Fantasmas, then, can be credited with anything, it might be for its ability to give mainstream Americans a more accurate snapshot of the unique community which culturally straddles both sides of the Rio Grande River.

In truth, the cuento -- with its culturally understood balance between what is fantastic and what is grounded in reality -- makes tidy packaging of magical realism. The parallels are impossible to ignore, with common elements that include:

an organic and understood coexistence between material and supernatural worlds and their dichotomies

political undercurrents consistent with expressions of exile, oppression or colonization, often cloaked by distancing devices and writing techniques by the writer to metaphorize truth while protecting the truthteller

narrators and/or protagonists who are "outsiders" or who come from so-called marginalized groups

the notion that "believing" is enough

It's natural that Johnson should wish to hammer home this last point. His editorial vision is admittedly colored by admiration for the work of Flannery O'Connor who -- though not a magical realist -- has been noted for her discussions about the defining effect a belief system has on the way a writer perceives reality, that what one believes ultimately is. This parallels magical realism's alternative "way of seeing the world that involves belief in the supernatural," Johnson says. "Magical realism is primarily characterized by a very natural overlapping of the natural and supernatural -- what Kathleen Alcalá calls the spirits of the ordinary."

Johnson refers to his book's opening story, "Tía," by Carmen Tafolla, as one of the best examples of magical realism in Fantasmas.

"Tía" is about, among other things, a woman who comes to live in a house where previously, a beloved aunt had passed on. The woman comes to notice a peculiar rhythm to the space, like a constant breathing, and then her life gradually takes on its own new rhythm, not the one she had planned, but one inspired by the life force in the house. Finally, the woman's life quietly undergoes a transformation, from one world to another:

By the time she met the niece's aunt, there was no surprise inside her.
"That last part is the key for me: no surprise," Johnson says. "It's as natural as breathing, and that story itself seems to breathe. You should hear Carmen read it."

Other stories in the collection with magical realist underpinnings include Elva Treviño Hart's haunted romance, "Beyond Eternity" (in which the narrator speaks of a daily presence of spirits in this way: "My friends in the United States would never believe me, but I feel I live in a world half magical, half real"), Torie Olson's "Tear Out My Heart" (where brushes with the animal world are not only physical) and Luna Calderón's "Day Ah Dallas Mare Toes" (the child narrator confesses such a casual acquaintanceship with the dead that she feels it unnecessary to write to them in her best handwriting: "Dead people know everything anyways," she says).

Johnson also gives a nod to two classic anthologies of fantastical writing (which provide excellent starting points for the study of magical realism) as seminal in providing a model for his collection: The Book of Fantasy (Antología de la literatura fantástica), a literary classic edited by Jorge Luis Borges, A. Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo; and Alberto Manguel's more recent, but no less classic, series of anthologies of global fantastic literature published under the title Black Water.

But Johnson is quick to point out that "cuentos de fantasmas as they are illustrated in [Fantasmas] take on too many different forms to generalize them all as magical realism."

Fair enough. Some of the stories are truly works of supernatural horror, hauntings or strictly within the boundaries of urban legend (though none directly captures the evil-doings of the notorious chupacabra, with the possible exceptions of Alcalá's "Altar," in which a man seeks surgical reconstruction that will "shape-change" him into a jaguar, or Torie Olson's stalking wildcat cuento, "Tear Out My Heart").

The cuento de fantasma and the magical realist story also share a population of writers who tend to approach their work "seriously and non-seriously at the same time," Johnson adds. There's a great sense of the macabre in Guadalupe García Montaño's "Maldición," for instance. This could have been nothing more than a horror story about a young woman swallowed up by the earth, but instead, it retains a darkly comic Tales From The Crypt quality. When I read that story, I almost envisioned it in storyboards for a comic book, complete with the grimacing faces of the story's grotesque characters; jagged line art overprinted with bright magenta, cyan and amber under heavy newsprint screening; and double-bold exclamation points in the dialog balloons of every frame.

It's worth mentioning that cuentos de fantasmas serve their writers in much the same way that magical realism has served its own canon of authors, in that they allow them to write about topics Realism and Naturalism have historically struggled to address.

For instance, Carmen Tafolla's story might be, ostensibly, a ghost story. But it's also a story about the disintegration of family (or of a culture), hand in hand with the underlying message that in the afterlife, there might still be a way to recuperate such loss, a way to restore that last breath, suggesting a new birth even, a beginning. Dual images of pain and hope are treated delicately in this beautiful story, and necessarily so. To come out and say the same thing in a more straightforward method would doubtless lose the sympathy and respect of readers who don't need bald reminders of society's cruel imbalances. For that, they only need look out the window.

Compare this to a story of magical realism written in 1892, "The Yellow Wallpaper," by New England author Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This story was previously perceived as the record of a woman's fall into madness. But what madness? Contemporary readers will likely recognize a second layer to the story, in which a woman in pre-Suffragette society is envisioning a wild, free life for herself unencumbered by male oppression. The story itself was written long before magical realism was even discussed as a literary movement, and long before women in the United States were afforded any rights -- indeed, women were still considered a form of property then -- so an indirect, crafty, imaginative approach to the underlying message in the story was likely Gilman's only safe method for criticizing the state of oppression without getting into trouble for it. The story exudes a breathless, transformative beauty that can only come from someone who ultimately hoped for a better future.

Political undertones often work their way into fantastic writing for this reason. Writers who envision multiple outcomes and situations develop a comfortable relationship with fantasy writing because it enables them to explore what if? beyond the usual boundaries. The result? A devotion to forms of writing that essentially permit truthtellers to do their thing. Johnson understands well this phenomenon, for his writers of contemporary cuentos de fantasmas succeed in revealing old truths through this modern form.

Such politicized elements run throughout Fantasmas. An excellent example can be made from Stephen D. Gutiérrez's story, "Cantinflas," in which a celebrated puppet comes to life when the little boy starts ordering him around "with a thick American accent." Later, the Cantinflas puppet forces him to "throw darts at Uncle Sam."


NOT THAT Rob Johnson hasn't dodged a few darts himself for bringing Fantasmas into the world. It might be debated whether Johnson is the right editor for a book like Fantasmas, in a literary climate steeped in issues of cultural identity and appropriation and endless conflicts over race and stereotypes in literature.

How can he help but fall dead center into the controversy, as the inescapably White (what he terms "Rednexican") editor of a collection of decidedly nonWhite stories? It's questions like these which have been putting the literati on edge ever since multiculturalism entered the scene in the latter part of the 20th century.

While Johnson is no stranger to such ongoing debates in academic America regarding cultural propriety, it still surprised him to find certain reviewers angry about the concept behind Fantasmas and his role in its development.

"Perhaps the reaction would have been the same had the book been edited by a Mexican American. I don't know," he says. "I assumed my name on the project was a warning. And I was going in a direction that probably only an outsider would go. I really was ignorant about many cultural issues."

Still, he believed in the project because he liked the stories, and when his involvement in Fantasmas caused controversy, he did "what Gerald Graff would do: I made the controversy the center of the discussion; I didn't avoid it."

Though, damned if you do, damned if you don't: "One Anglo writer rather gently complained that her work should have been included since she was a border writer, even if she was not Mexican American. In retrospect, I agree with her," he admits.

But Johnson perseveres, hardly a stranger to controversy or conspiracy. He's not likely to fall back on conventional means if the going gets tough. Johnson is, by nature, a master of the unconventional.

Here is a man who worships William S. Burroughs, Lech Walensa, Louisa Mae Alcott, Jackie Chan and Iggy Pop all at once; a man who, after experiencing childhood as a NASA brat -- and indeed, marrying another NASA brat -- has developed a fondness for radio's leading conspiracy theorist, Art Bell; and a man who happily coexists with the wild Mexican hatflowers that occupy the space on his property where neighbors might argue a normal suburban lawn probably ought to grow.


AS AN educator, Johnson eagerly pushes the envelope of convention, specializing in literature classes "with an emphasis on canon formation -- getting the students to question the list of books we are reading and why they are supposedly the best," he says. "No one has ever told most of these students to question what they are being taught. How did your professor come up with the reading list? is a question that ought to be at the core of all college courses," he says. "I like teaching the lower division literature classes for that reason, because I think I really open their eyes to underlying ideologies that exist in the classroom, and I catch them early enough in their career for that knowledge to make a difference in their lives."

This means Johnson risks being something of a maverick, and the effect has, indeed, ruffled a few feathers. He once found himself in hot water once while teaching in a department he describes as "a bunch of White guys with degrees from Southern universities."

His particular offense? "Teaching too many works by women and minority writers in the lower division reading courses," he says.

Johnson describes how they tried to scare him "straight" at one point, and he was sent to the Dean for chastising.

"However, the Dean was a man who had caused trouble in his day by teaching Mexican American history as American history (imagine!), and when he saw that what I was doing was basically in line with revisionist history and multiculturalism, he told me he would fire me if I stopped teaching what I was teaching," Johnson says.

His fascination with the life and times of controversial author William S. Burroughs (famous for penning Naked Lunch) has been a source of irritation among contemporaries as well. Johnson has paired up with James Grauerholz, the executor of the Burroughs estate, to research the biography of the author and, perhaps, to dredge up any lost manuscripts. There is a local, little known connection, in that Burroughs spent a few seasons in the mid- to late 1940s working as a cotton farmer in The Valley.

One day, Johnson had been giving a lecture on Burroughs' novel, Junky, at the Hidalgo County Historical Museum. "When I advertised the event by putting up signs in the hallways of my department, someone defaced them and called my research Junk," he says.

That hasn't stopped Johnson's research any more than criticism kept him from compiling and publishing Fantasmas. "In the course of recreating The Valley in the post-war period, I have learned a lot about this place and met some of its finest people. When I drive around The Valley now, I can see its past and the connection between the past and the present." But, like his story about The Dean Who Loved Revisionist History (perhaps an appropriate title for a future cuento?), Johnson was able to enjoy a similar happy ending to the Junky controversy:

"Rob Johnson and James Grauerholz stood in the ruins of an old Mexican bar one evening in May looking for William S. Burroughs,"
Pamela Colloff wrote in a major feature spotlighting Johnson's research, in the October 2001 edition of Texas Monthly. The article glamorized, celebrated and -- perhaps most importantly -- validated Johnson's controversial research project.

"Now a film crew is making a documentary on Burroughs in South Texas," Johnson eagerly points out.

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