Exploring Modern Magical Realism

n a r r a t i v e    s t r a t e g i e s

Voices of the Dead

ONE COMMON component of magical realist writing involves the commerce between worlds of both the living and the dead. The use of ghosts in literary magical realism suggests a functioning and tangible parallel between the two. Voices and sounds, physical animations, conversations in dreams and visions are part of the perpetual dialog that remains between people, regardless our status in the living world. In magical realism, our lost loved ones may not be so lost, after all.

These are not the ghosts of the gothic past, exactly. Ghosts in a magical realist story are not likely to be sinister or malevolent like poltergeists, with no purpose other than to frighten or play malicious tricks. Including a ghost in a story can be a useful metaphor for signaling an incomplete journey, unburying an important truth or fulfilling a moral agenda for those yet still alive.

That's not to say that ghosts in magical realism can't sometimes go off on tantrums. The ghost, Beloved, in the book of the same name, is a malicious spirit, but she's more than that. She's complicated. Her actions are not without explanation, but rather a manifestation of the anger and powerlessness of a child left behind (other interpretations of her behavior reflect a broader worldview regarding slavery). While her actions may be mean-spirited, they are also completely human in the fragile way that we are all human. She may be ghost-like, but she is also a child.

These so-called undead, in a discussion about magical realism, do not really take on the aspects of the "living dead" as portrayed in popular horror films, though they may appear and even feel like real people. (There are few more palpable "ghosts" than Beloved.) With the possible exception of zombies (which are defined as much by the postcolonial crime of cultural appropriation as much as they are defined by "witch doctors" or strange, trance-like phenomena), the undead in magical realism are more or less functional. They move through the days and nights as if nothing has changed (such as the thirsty ghost for whom Úrsula supplies crocks of water in One Hundred Years of Solitude). Or, if change is critical to their condition, they might be hanging out with the living in order to set that change into motion.

The people of the world have always held a fascination with the stories of the dead. And why not? Death is the mysterious "next stage" in human life. People who don't have a strong spiritual sense of what happens "after" are left to ponder the possibilities. These possibilities come out as the legends, myths and other cultural fodder that collectively shape the identity of any given community. Even those with a religious background find within their own belief systems a collection of mysterious possibilities that can only be described as "otherworldly."

Mexican communities easily blend their religious practices with the supernatural in their annual "magical realist" holiday, Día de los muertos. Otherwise known as The Day of the Dead, this celebration at the end of October is thrown specifically to honor the deceased. Over the course of several days, folks lay out offerings at an altar, or ofrenda, for deceased loved ones according to specific rules; the act is understood to symbolize the loving dialogue between the dead and the living. These offerings typically consist of food, yellow marigolds, water, candles, incense or cherished worldly possessions such as sugar skulls, liquor, photographs, or santos.

From an outsider's point of view, the effort must come across as purely symbolic. Those who actively participate in the ritual, however, see it as something quite literal.

In the past, working out the mysteries of the afterlife meant relying upon cultural and oral traditions to spread and preserve these explanations for why some of us continue to walk in this world when we belong in the next. Today, while storytelling continues to function in this role, the use of media in the developed world has taken these stories to the page and the screen. One could never hope to compile a complete list of all the movies produced, for instance, which animate the commerce between the living and the dead. But consider:

The Dybbuk (1937, Poland) -- Separated soulmates become the ghost and the possessed.

The Death Train (1978, Australia) -- A dead man, having been struck by a train in his backyard (where a train used to run) is given a voice through a séance, during which he reveals his anger and disappointment regarding his boyfriend's posthumous actions.

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1978, Brazil) -- A woman, newly returned to the dating scene, is visited by the ghost of her late husband.

Demon Pond (1979, Japan) -- A storyteller is cursed to become the audience for a mythical parade of spirits living in a pond.

Don Juan, My Love (1990, Spain) -- The ghost of Don Juan wanders every Day of the Dead.

Deadly Advice (1993, UK) -- Daughters of a tyrannical mother get advice from the ghosts of famous murderers on how to get rid of their problem.

Dying to Go Home (1996, Portugal) -- A Portuguese man, who dies in Amsterdam, visits his sister in her dreams to ask that she find a way to return his body to Portugal.

Esprit D'Amour (2001, China) -- Three love stories where the living are romancing ghosts.

Dragonfly (2002, USA) -- A doctor learns about his wife's ghost through conversations about near-death experiences with children.

And how many books can you name that incorporate the conventions of ghosts, not as tools for fear, but for understanding? Start with The House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude and go from there. . .you'll find hundreds.

Sometimes, the ghosts we leave behind aren't apparitions of ourselves. Sometimes our lingering wishes, secrets and truths are what remain.

In the US, with its particular focus on television media, the popularity of programs like CSI and our concurrent fascination with true crime, homicide labs and forensics suggests our increasing need to complete the stories of the lives of the dead. It's as if we are afraid to leave this world without our neighbors knowing why. We want to leave a memorable story behind us as we journey onward.

What we leave behind us can act very much like a magical realist ghost—it can serve as a vehicle for revealing the truth we need to share, the truth the world needs to know to complete its understanding of our lifes. With DNA technology and other advances, the story of one's own death can now be deciphered scientifically. This legitimized restructuring of the last few hours of one's life gives many a sense of relief, that the meaning of their own lives might not be lost in an inexplicable shroud of random violence or crime. In a Westernized culture where oral tradition no longer takes on this task, these new ways of understanding our passage into death can serve a comforting, if chilling, purpose.

But sometimes the dead don't give up that easily. Sometimes they remain poised behind the veil that separates the world of the dead from the living. There, they either shadowbox with themselves until they (or others) solve their personal riddles, or they find a way to coax the living into finding the needle of their truth inside the complicated haystack of who they once were.

Ultimately that is the job of the "ghost" in magical realist writing. To shed light on the truth.

As a magical realist writer, your goal in incorporating voices from the dead is to make use of its special purpose. It's not that writing a gothic, sinister spirit character is not an equally intriguing possibility. But if you wish to capture the Other Side or the In-Between in magical-realist fashion, there are some questions you need to ask yourself.

Q: Who are the ghosts or the living dead in my magical realist story?

A: Since magical realism's signature focus rests on community identity, it's important that these characters are portrayed not only as individuals, but as representatives. They stand for something. In Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, the narrator occupies two "ghosted" landscapes, that of the China of legends and that of an American world full of its own ritual ghosts. Kingston describes ghosts as "shadowy figures from the past or unanswered questions about unexplained actions." Where do your ghosts come from? What do they stand for?

Q: What makes the living dead in my magical realist story different from the living dead in a gothic romance or horror story?

A: It's a matter of distinction. Ghosts in gothic and horror pieces are always spooky, always malevolent (if equally tragic) and always on a mission to harm. Death itself is fearful, a morality play incorporating the supernatural. Ghosts in magical realism possess human frailties, can be equal parts friendly and unfriendly and serve a purpose that reveals something about life. These ghosts usually appear in novels where perceptions about death are not wrought with fear; death in these communities is sad, perhaps, and unfortunate, but it is also natural, a part of life.

A good example: In Sheri Reynolds' A Gracious Plenty, the protagonist, who was severely burned in a household accident at a young age, learns as an adult that she can hear the voices of the dead. Eventually, she strikes up conversations with them and finds herself tending the small cemetery in town.

What about your ghost? Is he or she (or it) humanized at all? What are your ghost's motivations?

Q: Where can ghosts "live" in my magical realist landscape?

A: They can "haunt" spaces like houses, certainly, but they are also found in those individual places which intersect the living with the dead, such as the site of a murder (or a massacre).

What about the landscape surrounding Macondo? Ghosts can be found everywhere, and they aren't just re-animations of human beings. Think of the ship run aground in the jungle beyond Macondo as a kind of ghost, a remnant. Ghosts can also exist in a more widespread fashion; a land populated with ghosts might be argued as an integral part of the magical realist landscape of Salman Rushdie's novels. If you think about it, we all live on land that's made up of the bones of the dead that have gone before us. Nature and war have never kept tidy cemeteries.

Ghosts can also take up residence in objects (Virginia Woolf is good at doing this) or even within people (and not only as demonic possessions).

What kind of space would your ghosts logically choose to inhabit? What kind of space might your ghost be stuck inhabiting?

Q: When is it critical to incorporate the voices of the dead in my magical realist story?

A: Ghosts and their stories are appropriate devices to use when revealing alternate or buried history, when unlocking cultural memory (both malignant and benign—sometimes it's the good memories that have been buried), as well as when preserving the language, the voice, the cultural "anthem" of a community. One of the most effective ways to destroy a culture is through its language, after all. Make sure your ghost or undead character sounds off at moments of revelation or preservation, for best effect. Their efforts should be purposeful.

Q: For whom do my living dead speak?

A: The ghosts in a magical realist story often work as activists for truth. They represent the exiled, the voices of those who have been rendered powerless. These ghosts may represent individuals, but often they are also manifestations of entire lost or fractured communities. The goal in giving them a voice? Reclamation: of culture, memory, and identity.

Yours could be a project of ventriloquism as vastly postcolonial as Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco, where the ghosts are really the voices of French Martinique's past carrying on history through the timeless perspective of the book's Scheherazade-like narrator; or as down-home as William Goyen's The House of Breath, which invokes the ghosts of a Texas family's past to reveal its secret history to the narrator, newly returned to the abandoned family home after a prolonged absence.

Q: How do I give a voice to my magical realist ghost?

A: First you have to understand the purpose of the ghost. A spooky, haunting character with no "political ambition" is not going to make for a satisfying magical realist ghost. There is a distinct political and/or historical purpose for giving voices to the dead.

From a more practical standpoint, creating ghost characters is not so much different than writing other characters into existence, or animating a landscape, for that matter. Imbue your ghosts with willful action, emotional motivation and sensory details. Steer clear of unnecessary "markings." What do I mean by that? Don't make them too obviously ghost-like, don't draw so much attention to their ghostliness. Be subtle. If you make too much of their plight, they won't come across as believable. They are both magic and real, remember?

In that vein, it's important to also make sure the other characters in your story view the ghost not as a ghost, but as another part of their lives. That isn't to say they won't notice anything different about the ghost, and one's ghost must be differentiated somehow from the living (even if subtly) to be effective, but ultimately, the ghost must be a regular and accepted part of the realities of the rest of the characters in your story. Did you read Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella? There's nothing more "real" that playing catch with one's dead father, now, is there?

Ghosts that don't take on human form can express themselves through objects (those who've read Toni Morrison recall many flying objects in her work), or exist merely as voices, echoes or physical visitations such as spiritual possessions. Nalo Hopkinson's novel, The Salt Roads, uses a kind of passing of ghosts between worlds and through others' souls as a way to capture time and to introduce the possibility of the supernatural supporting both form and function in her story.

Q: Can my magical realist ghosts be spooky or supernatural?

A: Just as real life can be spooky or supernatural, so can magical realism. Horrifying elements are almost always a part of the storyline. It's just that they don't aim for the spine-tingling effect, the visceral scare or the gory thrill. Horror is about fear; magical realism, while commenting on the politics and nuances of fear, is about consciousness and truth.

Some of Stephen King's work can be described as both horrifying and magical realist. His Kingdom Hospital mini-series is a good example of the living and the dead cohabiting a space. The converse is true, as well. Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo is a haunted tale that possesses none of the traditionally gothic elements at all.

Q: What do ghosts have to say that's worth incorporating into a storyline?

A: Plenty! The dead have a lot to tell us. Ghosts like to announce passages between worlds. They like to talk philosophy and metaphysics. They communicate our unfinished business. They tell the untold stories. They lecture on history and help us to extend our collective memory. They offer us perspective when we're in need. They warn us of the mysterious future. They give advice. They take issue with unfairness and inequality. They say what we are forbidden by society to say. They fill the silence that comes with absence. They debate the limitations of order and reason. They simply explain what we cannot.

For further reading, look no further than the many stories at Margin which capture the voices of the dead. For these writers, magical realism has proved an excellent vehicle for communicating between worlds.

The Mapmaker by Brandi Bauer

We Missed You by Wyatt Bonikowski

Lupe Varga, Deceased by Brian Evenson

Ceremony by Sandra Maddux-Creech

The Blood Cake Vendor by J.L. Navarro

Without Wings by Lia Scott Price

The Christening of Alonso by Jan Steckel

The Haunting of Thomas Longbull by Wayne Ude

Tierra y Libertad by Carol Zapata-Whelan

Tamara Kaye Sellman is founding editor and publisher of Margin.
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