Modern Magical 


SARA PARETSKY: A Magical Realist,
Accidentally on Purpose

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

The challenge in defining magical realism often means citing specific examples. One might point to the work of Isabel Allende, for instance, or Gabriel García Márquez, to clarify. Others might choose authors whose work more closely mirrors their own worldview—say, the work of Franz Kafka or Bruno Schulz or Salman Rushdie.

However, citing entire œuvres is often a mistake when making cases for magical realist writing. And while references to single works as magical realist might be accurate, such references can confuse a discussion that's ostensibly about categories.

Sometimes some writers slip into magical realist writing without being aware of it, and in work that is otherwise classifiable: mystery, romance, mainstream. However, Sara Paretsky, the widely celebrated author of the VI Warshawski mystery series, entered the magical realist sphere fully aware she was writing something beyond "the usual" when she began work on her novel, Ghost Country.

The book, released in 1998, collects many of the key rudiments of magical realist fiction:

  • A sighting of the Virgin Mary
  • The resurrection of a sleeping goddess
  • An inversion of light and dark entities
  • The performance of miracles
  • All of this underlined by the sociopolitical relevance of homelessness, the injustices of managed care, perpetual misogyny and the continuing mistreatment of the mentally unwell.

    Would Paretsky characterize Ghost Country as magical realism?

    "Accidentally, on purpose," she chuckled in an interview. While she meant to write a story invoking the magic of a goddess's reawakening, she doesn't believe in magic.

    Ghost Country doesn't require a faith in miracles or a belief in mythology from its readers in order to succeed as a work of magical realism. In fact, this is a key distinction between fantasy and magical realism. Readers of fantasy assume they are entering an imaginative place with fantastic elements. Readers of magical realism expect The Real World. Ghost Country ends up being so grounded in the real, the here, and the now, that it can't possibly be fantasy or even straightforward magic. It exists instead as a convincing work of contemporary North American magical realism.

    Paretsky was originally inspired to write Ghost Country after a night at the opera. She watched as the Queen of the Night is punished for not submitting to male authority in Mozart's The Magic Flute. As part of that punishment, the Queen's daughter is taken away and turned against her. From that staged tragedy, Paretsky was left feeling desperate about the idea that "generations of parents" might be "training their daughters to abandon a sense of self."

    The writing of Ghost Country spawned from this observation; Paretsky began experimenting with a fictive reawakening of the goddess Ishtar in the present day from her 3000-year-old sleep in a buffalo wallow near Peoria. The novel went through a metamorphosis over eight years as she worked out structural hurdles. For one thing, she recreated the Ishtar character as a more ambiguous and contemporary goddess figure, one that she could work as both a magical entity and as an inexplicable person.

    It wasn't easy piecing together the story, Paretsky admits. Aside from the challenge of remaking mythos into reality, her publishers were not excited by her departure from the mystery genre. Taking on something more fantastic was not what they had in mind, and they resisted her efforts at every stage. But Paretsky persisted, evolving her characters and setting into the socially-conscious rendering of life in homeless Chicago that Ghost Country finally became.

    Her faithful readers, fortunately, supported her effort.

    "Most people who found the book really responded to it," she said. Her fan base, once they determined that Ghost Country was just a one-time departure and not the end of their beloved heroine Warshawski, enjoyed the book, recognizing Paretsky's conscious effort to write tough, smart, likeable female characters. The women who people Ghost Country, though desperate and down and out, meet the same standards from which Paretsky first birthed her famous lady detective.

    Ghost Country, told in multiple perspectives, is about a homeless elderly woman who sees the Virgin Mary in a rusted stain on a concrete wall near an underground hotel parking garage. She builds an altar to the vision, and her friends join her. Enter the compassionate and rebellious young intern Hector, whose style of caring for the mentally ill does not include locking up homeless people in hospitals. He may not believe the vision exists, but he knows that the homeless women that are drawn to the sighting need a safe place and health care. They exist.

    The men who run the nearby garage take up efforts to remove the woman, for her altar has attracted "riff raff," including an alcoholic has-been opera singer living on the streets. Their presence makes the businesspeople who collect at the nearby bus stop and the hotel's upscale guests uncomfortable. These women are not supposed to exist. Violence erupts, people are hurt, the police and the hotel's lawyers become involved. At one point, a scaffolding is erected to keep people away from the site of the vision. (Interestingly, six months after Paretsky's book was released, the city of Chicago, in real life, put up scaffolding in an effort to keep the homeless out of a particular area in town. Coincidental?)

    Naturally, this makes the news. With the secret of the (possible) miracle out, hordes of believers come to visit the site of the vision in search of healing.

    The story, on its face, becomes a legal battle over public property, civil rights and free speech. But an even deeper battle brews. The high-end lawyer who takes on the hotel's complaint happens to be the half-sister of the young girl who takes up the cause for the homeless woman. The younger sister has become homeless herself in her search for the truth about her own questionable roots, tossed out of the house by the father the two women share, who is a prominent figure in Chicago's medical community.

    It's the younger daughter's invocation of a goddess through chanting which yields the appearance of the character Starr (Paretsky's Ishtar). Starr is an otherworldly woman of earthy and inexplicable qualities who possesses healing abilities. Her strange charisma and terrible beauty send the storyline on a course rife with both miracles and disasters.

    Paretsky characterizes her story as "the sacred and the dispossessed, meeting on the streets." She doesn't have qualms with other characterizations of the book, as fairy tale, Christian parable or mystical morality tale. Nor does she flinch at the idea that her work fits into an area that some seem to think of as a trend; that is, the "homeless mystery," which focuses on homelessness, street violence and the anonymity with which the indigent pass their lives. Readers of mysteries will, doubtless, find this aspect to Ghost Country appealing; after all, they read mysteries to dig up the truth beneath the surfaces of people's lives. What could be more mysterious than the death of a homeless person, someone who is already treated as invisible to begin with? By digging into these core questions, the reader is shown an insider's truth about an underrepresented portion of our population.

    In Ghost Country (a title Paretsky chose because "it seemed the world of the homeless is a world of ghosts to the rest of us"), she acknowledges "an obligation to speak for those who can't," while being careful not to exploit or cannibalize the experiences of women living on the streets. She credits several Chicago-area organizations, which serve the needs of homeless women, and in particular, the mentally ill homeless, with giving her the perspective and reality check she needed. "I wanted to see big transformations" in the novel, she admits; the research within the community showed her that, "for the homeless, even the small transformations are a big deal." This essential realism helped ground her novel in important ways. When the introduction of miracles takes place later in the story, the reader is convinced that Ghost Country is not just a treatise about social issues, but the revelation of an unspoken truth.

    Paretsky joins Janet Frame and Marge Piercy in taking on these important revelations. Both Frame and Piercy were adamant about setting the record straight on the way the mentally ill have been oppressed, misdiagnosed and mistreated. Paretsky does her part by taking American managed care to task for failing to give real care and legitimacy to the mentally ill homeless community.

    As feminist authors, all three women join a growing outcry of voices seeking to give their response to the question: "Who gets to tell the story?" Paretsky, in Ghost Country, has effectively written a contemporary "herstory" by following her heart, gut and mind into the landscape of truthtelling which is at the core of magical realism.



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    Rev'd 2005/01/26