Exploring Modern Magical Realism

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Understanding the Other

MUCH OF what we understand in literature from regions where magical realism has a significant foothold relies upon those writers' masteries of the literary Other.

What is the literary Other?

I'm not sure there is a single definition for the "literary" Other, but the WordNet Dictionary defines Other as "the quality of being not alike; being distinct or different from that otherwise experienced or known. ... Synonyms: distinctness, separateness ... See Also: difference."

(It's probably worth clarifying that the Other, in the context of this discussion, primarily refers to "outsider" or "minority" perceptions held by the mainstream of North American society, particularly relating to race. It can also refer to those communities who have experienced some level of forced separation from the power center: namely, women, homosexuals, political or religious minorities and the poor.)

A very loose and simplistic interpretation might be that anyone who is unlike ourselves is the Other. After all, if it takes a lifetime to know one's self ... how is it ever possible to truly know the Other?

Except that we do. We think of the Other as all those things which we are not.

The Other is a hot topic for conversation in academia. Mary K. Miller of Vanderbilt University calls it "the postmodern fascination with the other." In the US, discussions about political correctness and multiculturalism have opened doors wide to the acceptance of the idea that the Other is a valid presence in American culture, perhaps for the first time at the mainstream level as the changing face of America reflects interest in and respect for ideas that were previously foreign to the mainstream. Creative writing students now work to clarify not only who or what the literary Other is, but how to write (or, how not to write) characters and ideas representative of the literary Other. Certain classics are now pointed out for past misappropriations of the Other: Joseph Conrad has been accused of one such writer's "sin"—representing, with authority, the plight of the Other while assuming his own worldview as the empirical one. Another interesting discussion can revolve around the portrayal of the Noble Savage in Daniel Dafoe's Robinson Crusoe, a text that works hard, in some ways, to make sense of Otherness in a time when colonialism ruled the prevailing worldview.

The university is perhaps the best place to elicit a discussion about Otherness, where it is (at least in theory) assumed that dialog about sensitive subjects like cultural identity can be robust and thoughtful, illuminated by a diversity of opinions. And universities, indeed, offer very specific classes on the subject, such as "ENG 472Y Representing the Other in Post-Colonial Literature," a course offered at the University of Toronto Caribbean Studies program, which is described as "a study of post-colonial writers who give expression to the voice of the other: the silenced, the subaltern and the marginalized."

Writers outside academia who seek training in the art of writing the Other can look to independent workshops as well, such as Nisi Shawl's "Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction, which is a feature workshop at Seattle's Black to the Future conference, held this year at the Seattle Center on June 12 and 13.

For those who are not already enrolled in such coursework but remain interested in independent reading on the subject, many fine textbooks exist. One of my favorites is Postethnic Narrative Criticism by Frederick Luis Aldama. Look, especially, in "Coda: Mapping the Postethnic Critical Method" for an excellent discussion about the challenges in capturing the Other for the purposes of writing magical realism.

It's not my design to launch a postgraduate discussion here about Otherness as part of the foundation for writing authentic magical realism, but I would still like to present this snapshot of Dr. Mary Klages's comparison between modernity and the postmodern (where magical realism resides) as food for thought (Klages is Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder):

"Modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos. The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function (the more rationally it will function). Because modernity is about the pursuit of ever-increasing levels of order, modern societies constantly are on guard against anything and everything labeled as disorder, which might disrupt order. Thus modern societies rely on continually establishing a binary opposition between order and disorder, so that they can assert the superiority of order. But to do this, they have to have things that represent disorder—modern societies thus continually have to create/construct disorder. In western culture, this disorder becomes the other—defined in relation to other binary oppositions. Thus anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc.) becomes part of disorder, and has to be eliminated from the ordered, rational modern society."

This presumes a sinister outcome that we can only wish were exaggerated. But the fact is, this larger worldview about order and disorder plays a major part in motivating otherwise good people to acts of political oppression.

Stay with me on this point. It's useful, as a magical realist writer, to intersect this observation about the Other with another regarding colonialism. In a program arranged for the World Archaeological Congress, Pedro Funari of Brazil and Chris Gosden and Richard Hingley of the United Kingdom organized a discussion entitled, "Colonialism And Identity: Origins And Otherness," which aimed to show how representations of the Other have such tremendous impact (negative and positive) on cultural identity:

"Peoples’ views of their identity are compounded of ideas about origins and ideas about Otherness: where people think they come from and how they differ from others contributes in large part to their feelings of identity. Colonialism has caused massive changes in thoughts about identity, partly through changing peoples’ thoughts about their origins and who constitutes the Other. European cultures are very much colonial products. In the eighteenth to the earlier twentieth centuries they often sought for civilized origins in Greece and Rome in a manner influenced by their contemporary imperial relationships. On the other hand they also sought primitive origins comparing their prehistory to the modern Stone Age peoples of Africa, New Guinea or the Americas. ... Effectively, Europeans tried to deny civilised origins to those who were not deemed civilised in the then present: the most notorious case being the amount of effort Rhodes and others spent on looking for a non-African origin for Great Zimbabwe, but is something which also happened with the mound builders of North America and a range of other cases. As well as considering European views about others, we want also to explore how other cultural forms have created notions of identity, otherness and origin through colonial experiences. Diasporic cultures have special interests in origins and identity shaped by their colonial experience, for instance. We also need to consider how far clichéd notions of origins and identity are current within archaeology and anthropology and what forms of critique we need to provide new forms of thought about identity."

Food for thought for magical realist writers? Absolutely.

Writing the Other from a mainstream North American perspective brings challenges that are bigger than any one writer's ability to craft a sentence, tighten a plot or cement an extended metaphor. Especially in the case of writers navigating the narrative shoals of magical realism, one has to be aware of the pitfalls of writing outside one's own reality.

Now this is not to say that writers should never write characters, settings or situations that may be foreign to their everyday reality. I'm firmly against the simplistic interpretation of the writer's rule, "Write what you know." Knowing is not limited to the contents within your cranium. Just ask a mother, any mother, what she knows, and she might explain a feeling in her bones—an ancestral, matriarchal knowledge that defies intellectualization. Knowledge comes from experience, physical and sensory memory, cultural identity, emotion, intuition, education, environment, instinct, relationships, the creative drive. Those writers who explore what they "know" through their writing, and who take into account all these different sources of "knowledge," are more likely to write accounts (fictive or not) of human experience that are authentic and rich in texture.

Though I must pause... Authenticity is a red-flag kind of word. What is authentic, especially in a conversation among people who cannot even decide upon a definition of magical realism or a singular notion of what is "real?" For writers attempting the magical realist narrative, it's about making sure that you are writing magical realism and/or the Other because the writing requires it.

This edition's Practical Magic column, smack dab in the middle of our special theme on Caribbean magical realism, necessarily focuses on the challenges that writers have incorporating Otherness into their writing. Here are some mistaken assumptions about writing the Other, in magical realism and elsewhere, that writers need to be aware of:

"It's my job as a writer to assume the role of interpreter for those who have no voice."
It's a valiant notion, taking on the job of speaking for those who cannot. And sometimes, writers can do this very well (with or without permission to do so). But is this the reason why you are writing a magical realist story? Because if it is, you might have to rethink why you're so motivated to speak for the voiceless.

Writing magical realism is not a way to save the world. Now, wanting for a better world is fine, but writing as "social work" contains an insidious measure of arrogance that can unintentionally feed political movements of cultural erasure. By co-opting these stories, there is always the risk of further alienating the Other. Is this how you want to save the world?

What writing magical realism can do, when done well, is bring to light uncommon realities before an attentive audience. Remember, writing magical realism is always about writing fiction, first and last. It's the story, not what you are "saying," that makes the difference. As long as you can effectively "take yourself out" of the narrative (through an awareness of personal biases and a willingness to define and master the perspective of the Other), you should be fine. Writing magical realism is not about you, but them.

Be aware, too, that your work could be viewed as co-opting someone else's culture for your own benefit. This is a slippery slope—after all, who owns culture? Especially in the US, where distinct cultures are the exception and not the norm? I'm not suggesting you not "go there" at all, but you should be aware that this is a common accusation. Folks who make up the communities of the Other have a right to be concerned: these are their stories, even if they might also be ours as well. My suggestion is to walk this ground carefully and question your motives every step along the way. Someone will eventually ask for the answers to those questions anyway. Your job? Do some interior homework. Your writing will be better for it.

"Since it's fiction, I have license to borrow and create as necessary to get across my message."
Fine. Borrow, create, steal if you must. Just be using fabulist devices, and imparting what you regard as the Truth of the Other, you run the risk of glossing over what is truly painful and oppressive for others. I don't think any writer really wants to trivialize things like poverty, physical oppression or political atrophy for the sake of telling a good story.

At any rate, does one need the cloak of magical realism to convey such a message? And why is the message important? Is it their message, or your message?

Be prepared to take it on the chin later, should you decide to, say, tell the tumultuous story of Haiti's history through the eyes of a slave girl using obeah and local patois to render it magical and palpable. If you aren't Haitian, if you don't believe in obeah, if you don't speak the language, your story, however colorful, heartfelt, researched, witty and articulate, will likely come off as a farce told by an outsider.

If you want to convey a message, might not it be better, in such a case, to simply tell it straight up? Or even better, to let the ancestor of a Haitian slave girl tell it for herself? Sometimes, "softening" the realities of the Other through the use of fabulism can make the Other seem less "real." Is that fair?

"I see all around me the oppression of women, of people of color, of gays. These people constitute my world. What's wrong with writing magical realism to uncover these corruptions?"
Nothing. Magical realism as a narrative form can be effectively used to stand in for the alternative point of view of many. But an underlying political agenda should not be the outspoken device at work in a magical realist story. Magical realism, though a kind of political narrative, is not a manifesto. It posits not what you think has happened, but what could happen. That is to say, if you're writing the story of Cuban refugees trying to fit into Miami society, and you want to introduce magical realist elements as a way of revealing a protracted life of exile, you work might be viewed as a treatise, rather than the saga or fable it should be. One tip: if you write realistic characters who can animate subversive possibilities in a way that is both organic to the story and marvelous in aesthetic, you'll have a better chance of pulling this off.

"I want to write magical realism as a way to show to readers that we are all human beings, that the uncanny, the inexplicable touches all of us."
Well, let's not justify a narrative strategy by stating the obvious. It might be worth asking yourself: Do I need to use magical realist elements to show that we are all human beings? Because if you do, then you might wish to mine your psyche for biases, to discover what your real motives are.

Think about it for a moment: What do you actually mean when you suggest that we are all the same? Acknowledging that we are all different is not being bigoted. Nor is it wrong to observe that the world is not borderless. We are not all the same. Our differences, whether cultural or physical or political, are what make us all human beings. These differences give us our individual, and collective, identities.

As a writer of magical realism, it's important to remember that you are not creating cultural artifacts when you write your stories. You are not an archeologist or an ethnographer. You are an artist—you deal in aesthetics, words and media. Your goal is to write fiction that connects the objective reality of your characters with extraordinary possibility.

A missive on the global village will not be effective if your goal is homogeneity, however. How might your audience respond if your message erases all that makes us distinct and unique? People outside the mainstream are already aware of their Otherness as it is viewed from that point of view. As well, they know their Otherness is equally something to treasure, as rich and lovely as any other distinct identity.

"Magical realism, when written well, holds tremendous influence over world literature. Just look at Salman Rushdie. His writing has really made a difference."
Next time Mr. Rushdie comes into town, I hope to ask him two questions: "Did you mean to write magical realism?" and "Was your first goal, as a writer, to change the political landscape of the world?" I'm banking that he'd say "no" to both questions.

Most magical realist writers don't write it consciously, nor do they have any more of an inkling than any other writer, obscure or otherwise, how the world will respond to what they create and write. Most of the time, they are just writing the Truth as they understand it. It's an honest motive, and perhaps the only one that does the narrative of the Other any real justice.

Writing magical realism which incorporates the Other is not about picking sides or doing social work, it's about acknowledging and respecting differences; understanding the context of past, present and future; and using aesthetics, not politics, as a vehicle for storytelling. Translator Gregory Rabassa once said, "The greatest defense and protection against solitude, loneliness, and barren isolation from our fellows: the re-creative force of art."

Re-creation builds bridges, inspires humility, demands honesty, welcomes learning, requires compassion and reaches beyond bias. As writers of magical realism, let us start with these goals as a means for honoring the realm of the Other.

Tamara Kaye Sellman is founding editor and publisher of MARGIN.
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