F R O M T H E E D I T O R
Tentacles Poking From An Overnight Bag
j a n u a r y 3 1 , 2 0 0 1
BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, WA --"It's all around us!"
So I sound paranoid to you? Or maybe a tad bit overzealous? As editor of the perpetual anthology, Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism, it's my job to recognize literary magical realism. And by gum, it is -- it really is! -- all around us.
How do I begin to explain? I begin with our recommended reading list. We get dozens of suggestions every month, and most of the time we can follow up on them, to make sure they aren't bogus (it's the fact-checker in me), to make sure they fit inside their assigned categories, or to ensure that we aren't unwittingly listing works that really aren't, even marginally magical realist.
(I admit, it's a subjective business, but I just don't think Philip K. Dick is a dyed-in-the-wool magical realist, though I'd listen to a good argument for including his classics in our list. I can't say that I've read much, if any, of Philip K. Dick's work, but he is popularly known, after all, as a science fiction writer.)
So many titles have been shared that I am overwhelmed by what I had forgotten: Nikolai Gogol's short story, "The Nose;" Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, work from Michael Ondaatje, Alan Lightman, Oscar Wilde. Yes, yes, yes! It is all around us, old and new, famous and obscure, popular and special-interest, complex and accessible.
The experience of editing and maintaining the reading list has been one of the great rewards of editing Margin. But this first year of my engagement with magical realism has stretched my limits of perception beyond this singular task in ways I had never imagined.
Take movies, for instance. I can't see them all, and rarely do I see them first run or even in a theater (the side effect of having small children). But I see enough. I have a dish. They are everywhere, these magical realist stories, everywhere, I say! Barton Fink, Being John Malkovich, Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, Beloved, Chocolat, How to Get Ahead In Advertising, The Green Mile, Brazil.
And since we're discussing the very act of watching film on television, how about that miniseries last spring, The Arabian Nights? Missed it? Well, it's released on VHS. Nab yourself a copy.
So amused am I by the treasure trove of magical realist film out there that we've added a new film review section as part of the launch of our new nonfiction wing, The Menagerie. But forget about form for a moment. We're really not about film at Margin as much as we are about story. Movies like Chocolat and Beloved were born from books. The Arabian Nights predates print, having evolved through the oral traditions of lesser known Scheherazades.
In the end what we value in magical realism boils down to story: oral, written, produced. I have spent the last year learning the lesson over and over again.
Originally, I thought of magical realism as an inclusive category, not wishing to baldly call it "genre," because it did not seem to be a genre, but something else entirely. Popular these days is the notion of genre-bending, stories which borrow from or blur the lines of genre, and in this view, I can see how magical realism finds a comfortable fit. Marge Piercy's Woman On The Edge Of Time is science fiction, but it is also something else. Is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," a visionary feminist tract borrowing from magical realist technique, or simply a tale of madness? Is Chocolat only a romance?
My eyes have been opened to possibilities beyond genre-bending as well.
I took a Saturday class, for instance, from Seattle-area publishing maven Ariele Huff, the workshop appropriately entitled "Of Monsters, Aliens, Princesses & More." I knew from a meeting with Ariele in October that she had written a magical realist novella, The Queen of Mean, and the class concept intrigued me. From the class overview came the suggestion that magical realism was one option for "creating believable entities and worlds," "authentic altered realities and unique twists on genuine situations." I hoped from this tasty broth to render a stronger definition for magical realism than the one I currently schlep around like an overstuffed overnight bag:
"Magical Realism: A story weaving the magical with the mundane."
Yeah, so what does that mean? Reading it here, the definition seems horribly lame.
Ariele promised a better definition.
She has a theory. It is this: That basically, all of the "weird" fiction out there (weird being my designation here) -- sci fi, fantasy, horror, speculative, supernatural -- generally fits inside magical realism. Oh, maybe not entirely. She drew vast Venn diagrams across the green board illustrating subsets of genres which fell wholly inside the broad womb of magical realism (i.e.: fantasy, science fiction and magical realism as its own distinct category ), and then there were those subsets (myth, fairy tale, humor, ghost stories, the supernatural, gothic horror, folk tales) which only shared in part of the magical realist corpus.
It shook me up a bit. I had never thought of magical realism as being bigger than a genre.
And maybe it isn't. It's only a theory. But what a theory! The idea that literary reality is a rainbow-colored plastic tradeshow slinky-toy easily bent to suit every story purpose imaginable. It gave me lots of hope. For all this time, as I pored over dozens of reading list recommendations to decipher which really fit into our list... for all this time, as I surfed the web on the lookout for links that would help to substantiate a collective and focused view of magical realism in the name of establishing ourselves as a clearinghouse... Ariele's theory gave me serious pause.
So did her definition of magical realism: "The impossible brought into material reality."
Now that is sweet.
Philip K. Dick, you may make the list yet.
At about the same time, and through a chain of events not unlike those magical degrees of separation we've all heard about, I got my hands on a copy of the only print anthology of magical realist fiction out there (that I've been able to find). It's called, appropriately: Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology. Edited by David Young and Keith Hollaman, it gave me the kick in the butt I needed to understand that narrowing the definition of magical realism is of absolutely NO USEFUL PURPOSE.
In fact, my old standby, "A story weaving the magical with the mundane" began to grow on me again (though I still like Ariele's definition better), now that I've read the anthology, the wonderful introduction (not to be missed!) and the story briefs that do a remarkable job of teaching the reader how magical realism, like reality itself, finds its way to us through the sucker-tipped tentacles of our larger human story.
The impact was gradual but consuming, even emotional. I'd read so many of these stories! Franz Kafka's "The Bucket Rider," William Faulkner's "The Old People," Robert Escarpit's "The Cloud Maker." And I was familiar with as many more of the anthology's celebrated authors: Thomas Mann, D.H. Lawrence, Eudora Welty, Jorge Luis Borges, John Cheever, Clarise Lispector.
Even more dramatic for me was this sudden reminder of influences from my college years: Shawn Shiflett's fiction classes in Columbia College's Story Workshop program, where we struggled to write parodies and tall tales, where we read a wealth of Kafka, Gogol, Morrison -- all of them magical realists, at least some of the time.
That alone provided me with some relief. You see, I had for the longest time suffered a schism, of needing to shape an unequivocally official category of magical realism while realizing concurrently that many authors could write magical realism -- had indeed written magical realism -- without ever once being referred to as magical realists! Oh, the liberty of being a part-timer, I thought, to fling one's writing from one corner to the next, as the need warrants!
I was reminded, too, of Carolyn Hulse, my journalism adviser at Columbia, who gave me one of only a handful of ideas from college that I still tote around with me like magic beads: The idea that we must always question assumed values.
That's what magical realism is, if you think about it. Look at a garden from far away and it may appear to be green and erect, full of blossom and life. Step up to the edge and see the thistles, the dead straps of tulips fallen to rain, the slugs underfoot. Magical realism. Get a microscope and think again -- paramecia teem with life underneath it all, living off the dead which has created an alternative heaven over their heads. It's not the form we assume life must take, this heaven of rot and decay -- in fact, it does somewhat up-end our concept of the divine -- but it is life nonetheless, from an irregular angle.
I have often wondered over the years whether my choice to study journalism (rather than literature) was a mistake. I should have studied creative writing has been the mantra for so many years as I worked at my own fiction. But think of the many magical realists who are also journalists, Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, for starters. I've found enough magical realist stories told as reportage, those distant tellings of the previously unbelievable, to know now that sometimes we simply arrive at our destinations using other ways and means. What was previously unbelievable is often only what's on the underside the leaf, after all. Who am I to decide? Instead, I vote for serendipity, resolving to be glad for J-school.
And so my vision has been sufficiently clarified.
But while I've become more open to different manifestations of magical realism, I still do look for its markers: an isolated setting, occurrences not explained by law or logic, a comfortable connection with the Other Side, alternative perceptions of what is real, diametrical oppositions between worlds -- of people, ideas, values. And magic, always a sense of magic, whether captured by the enchanting style of the author, the tone or mood of the story, its inventive structure, or the wealth of coveted details that, when judiciously revealed, lend any story a true sense of marvel.
So now you know the answer to the second part of the question, "Where have you been?" (with apologies to Ms. Oates for the reversal). Now you ask, "Where are you going?"
Far and wide. High and low. I'm an adventurous sort, and this first year of fruit has fueled this Bedouin. We're launching The Menagerie, a gallery of nonfiction, where we can house reviews, creative nonfiction, articles, commentary, anything relevant to the inquiry, "What is magical realism?" This wing will serve as Margin's "house of dialog." Naturally, we have made magical realism the (sometimes shifting) nucleus of such discourse. We entreat you to enter with an open mind. Inside you will find many avenues for discussion.
For the last few months my staff and I have been reading poetry in search of hidden gems of magical realism. Once we have a nice repertoire, you'll be invited to the gala opening of our Poetry Department -- stay tuned!
Finally, you may have noticed that Margin has a new bone structure. The reinvention of our design came after a year of learning experiences (shall we say?), of comments and suggestions from friends, visitors. I am no mistress of HTML, but I do know that simplicity works, and I do hope you'll find the website more navigable and attractive than ever. Do let me know if you discover any ghosts in our machine.
May this official First Year Of The Millennium bring you as much joy and worth as working for Margin has brought to me! Please visit often -- subscribing is even better -- and send us your thoughts, comments, suggestions, ideas. I'm perfectly happy with the idea that it's out there, everywhere, this thing called Magical Realism.
Tell you what -- you show me yours, I'll show you mine. -- TKS, Editor
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