13 Dec Thoughts on Magic Realism
Thoughts on Magic Realism
Last night, the New York Public Library live streamed a conversation between Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz. I was spellbound by two of my favourite writers on stage together. They spoke about a lot of things; from Morrison’s time as an editor to such writers as Toni Cade Bambara, Mohammed Ali, Angela Davis to her characterizations of the “dangerously free”. There was so much to talk about, and I would have been content to sit at their feet and have their dialogue go on and on without end.
One theme that I got to thinking about was magic realism in literature. My friend and author, Farzana Doctor had asked me why I had chosen to write The Wondrous Woo as magic realism from the first time she read a draft, and she continued to ask right up to the book launch. I’ve never felt I had a very good answer even as I’ve thought a lot about it. Last night, as I watched the broadcast, the reasons for magic realism came in sharper focus for me because, of course, Diaz and Morrison are masters in the genre.
I started to think that magic realism allows the writer (and the reader) an inter-textual practice when some elements of the text are not material or are very slippery. For example, how can writers account for generations of felt trauma long after the occurrence of violent acts, especially when the violence continues under the surface as phantoms? How do we re-place displaced structures of feeling in the diaspora? How do we remember when memory is actively erased, and only your body is a trace? In other words, how do we write haunted narratives?
Ghosts haunt, and the greatest writers (in my estimation) have phantoms casting long shadows on our reading. Every writer have contours to their narratives. In the case of Diaz and Morrison and their ilk (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Jeannette Winterson are others), contours are the absences, absences more palpable and sentient than what is obviously present in the text. The contours are gender, race, class, sexuality, colonialism, capitalism, slavery, occupation, etc. – all things that often aren’t and/or can’t be named for a number of reasons. These are the ghosts that are thirsty. They won’t leave. They are the unseen blood on the page. Ghosts demonstrate the resilience of spirit. Morrison’s Beloved rose from the murkiness of a swamp to find a reckoning – caught between life and death but filled with rage and longing.
So, returning to magic realism – we can give this haunting more saliency, but the “trick” is to embed it in the real. Morrison said last night that in order to write the story of a ghost, you better make everything else 100% accurate. The reader will trust the authority of that 100% accurate, and in trade, they will suspend the rest and follow the ghosts as far as they can… perhaps even between the margins, to the footnotes (in Diaz’ case) and even off the page.
Thank you, Junot Diaz and Toni Morrison, for the gifts. Last night was a Master class.
For audio link to the event: http://www.nypl.org/audiovideo/toni-morrison-junot-d%C3%ADaz#.UqrphYdT918.twitter