Tag Archives: magical realism

Review: ‘Curva Peligrosa’ by Lily Iona MacKenzie

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Curva PeligrosaCurva Peligrosa by Lily Iona MacKenzie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mexican Curva Peligrosa follows America’s first “superhighway,” the Old North Trail that has seen many hooves, bare feet and moccasins traveling between Southern Mexico and Canada over the past 12,500 years, and after 20 years of dreams and exuberant experiences, she settles in the small town of Weed, Alberta.

Magic follows her, to hovers around her and her mysterious green house, her herbal cures, her skills as a midwife, her sharpshooting, her otherworldly dandelion wine, her lusty appreciation of sex, and her larger-than-life approach to living that astounds and intrigues the residents of her adopted town. They are scared of her but can’t stay away.

Time and reality blur in this well-written and carefully researched novel, in part because the chapters are–in a sense–a series of slices life and mini-stories that are not exactly presented in chronological order. Along the trail, Curva writes letters to her dead brother Xavier who will become a frequent visitor to her spread near Weed. The prostitute and fortune teller Suelita and Billie, the Blackfoot chief from the nearby reservation, are also frequent visitors. Everyone drinks the wine. Lots of it.

And then there’s the man named Shirley from Sweet Grass, Montana who wants to drill for oil throughout the region. Shirley thinks he can tame Curva’s strange ideas, alluring body, and potentially oil-rich land.

Kadeem, the leader of a traveling troupe of acrobats and other performers tells Curva, “Nothing is what it seems. Carpets fly. Plants give birth to animals. Characters escape from novels. All this is normal.” Such things occur as regularly as the rising and setting of the sun and moon throughout the inventive magical realism, addictive plot, and exotic character development of Lily Iona MacKenzie’s “Curva Peligrosa.”

Chances are good that Curva, Sabina (her daughter of unclear origins), Xavier (who dislikes being called dead, much less a corpse), Billie (who talks to old bones), Suelita (who longs for wings), and even Shirley (who thinks material riches are everything) will ultimately escape from from this novel. If so, they will visit you during storms, fog, and dreams. This is normal.

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The many worlds of fiction are calling you away

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“I know I walk in and out of several worlds each day.” – Joy Harjo

I won’t try to second guess what Harjo, winner of the 2017 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, meant exactly when she mentioned several worlds. If you’ve read her 1983 book She Had Some Horses, you might suspect–as I do–that her “several worlds” are more than figurative. The title poem, which I can never read often enough, says the horses are sand, are maps, contain ocean water, are the sky’s air, fur and teeth, breakable clay, and splintered from a cliff. Throughout the poem, those horses are everything else.

Nothing figurative there. I see it as real because when I’m there, reading, I’m in that world, and she did not say, like sand, like maps, like fur and teeth, etc. When you read and when you are where the words take you, you are no longer in your safe bed or your easy chair or at your desk. You are in a place where “She had horses with eyes of trains.”

NASA Photo

If you write, you are where the words have taken you, perhaps with Joy Harjo, in a place where “She had horses who licked razor blades.” The typewriter, yellow tablet, or PC slip away, and now you see the bright cold day where the clocks were striking thirteen, where the screaming comes across the sky, where there was a dark and stormy night where the rain was falling in torrents, where Mrs. Dalloway bought flowers for herself, or where stars are living and dying.

If you read and/or write, it is hard not to talk in and out of several worlds each day. The words conjure you there. Those words are your quantum entanglement, placing you simultaneously at one place and another place, and the place with the strongest attraction is where you attention is, often more within the book than your safe bed or easy chair. Perhaps the call of sleep, the ringing of a phone, another person entering the room, or a thunderstorm will draw you away from the horses “who whispered in the dark, who were afraid to speak.”

That sudden change of worlds can be like dying or being born. It’s often wrenching like being pulled suddenly out of weep water or stepping into a fire. Sometimes the worlds blur the way dreams and waking moments tangle together at dawn. Sometimes you’re sure you safe bad is made of sand, is a map, contains ocean water, is fur and teeth, breakable clay, and a splintered sliver from a red cliff. Worlds can tangle for readers, writers, dreamers, and anyone else with an free-ranging imagination.

You become a shaman when you read or write. To the logical observer, you appear to be a man or woman reading in bed or a man or woman writing a book at his or her computer. They can’t quite see that you are the sky’s air and the ocean’s water.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

Re-reading a classic: ‘The House of the Spirits’

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“One of the strongest impressions I took away from this book was that despite everything there is an optimism about the book’s ending. Throughout the book one has felt strongly the inevitability of events – that the blindness of the right-wing Esteban to the liberalism of his family, which one might argue is inherited from his wife’s parents, will lead to disaster, that Esteban’s casual abuse and rape of peasants will rebound on future generations of the family – and yet at the end Alba breaks the cycle of anger and hatred.” Zoe Brooks in Magical Realism

Books change each time we read them–unless we’re cursed with a photographic memory. Presumably, the words don’t re-arranged themselves on the pages, nor do heretofore unknown pages creep into the book with new characters and subplots from Central Casting.

The world is probably stranger than we know, so it’s safe to assume we change in between the readings. I’m not the same person I was when I first read The House of The Spirits in 1986 when my Bantam mass market paperback edition was published. Years have passed and governments and attitudes have come and gone since then.

Imagine the differences in first-reading perception of this 433-page saga between the rushed college student who has a few weeks to read it for a 400-level college course in order to compare and contrast it with the somewhat similar multi-generational magical realism sagas The Hummingbird’s Daughter and One Hundred Years of Solitude, and his/her twin reading the book on a rainy afternoon in a mountain cabin.

The first will be speed reading, taking notes, and writing in the margins. The second, (depending on whether the rain has interrupted planned outdoor activities or not) may be either relaxed or bored. They won’t see the same book. A third person who is reading the book leisurely in order to savor every line will come away with a very different memory of the story.

Like The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Mexican setting) and One Hundred Years of Solitude (South American setting), The House of Spirits (unspecified Latin American setting, but presumably Chile) includes peasant workers and their beliefs, strong patróns who control the people’s temporal destiny, harsh and potentially unstable governments, and leftist or other guerrillas seeking change.

To my mind, the magic in One Hundred Years of Solitude is more overt and widespread than the magic in the other two books, one with the young girl Teresita (in the very mystical “Hummingbird” based on  a real person) who can heal, the other with the family matriarch, Clara, who talks to spirits and moves objects without touching them. Before re-reading The House of the Spirits during the last several days, my memory of the book was that it contained a lot more magic than it does.  I remembered its gritty realism, but had blocked out the worst of it.

Had I taken a lie-detector test about the story in Allende’s debut novel several weeks ago, it would probably show (with no hint of fabrication) that my mind had mixed some of the characters and circumstances with those from her other books and that I recalled a much more ethereal tale than physically exists on the pages of my 31-year-old paperback. I don’t read books with the eye of a college English professor who also reads critical reviews and in-depth analyses of the books s/he teaches in class and/or writes papers about. So, if somebody asks me to tell them what the books I’ve read are about, my knowledge of the plots and characters will always be imperfect.

Somehow, books read by many an avid reader often run together over time unless the stories are constantly studied and compared with other books in the same genre. If there’s a blessing in a poor memory, it’s that in re-reading a book, the opportunity for fresh discoveries is all the greater for it. I suspect The House of the Spirits changed me more this time than it did in 1986, for now I am seeing more clearly a story that I had mythologized over the years. I am older, so I see the aging Clara with fresh but older eyes and, having come to terms to some extent with the amount of hatred and evil in the world, I see Alba’s hope at the end of her horrid torture as more authentic than when my anger–as a younger, more volatile man–at her treatment blinded me to her transformation.

Like absent old friends, old books usually aren’t the books we remember exactly. That’s the beauty of meeting up with them again and then going away all the wiser for it.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

 

Brief Review: ‘The Immortal Life of Piu Piu’

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The Immortal Life of Piu PiuThe Immortal Life of Piu Piu by Bianca Gubalke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books come very close to being holy writ, sacred in their reach, profound in their wisdom, delightful in their humor, well-anchored in the world as we know it, fueled by the worlds we yearn for. This is such a book, with wonderful storytelling as well. You’ll meet Pippa, the girl who loves nature and thirsts for knowledge. You’ll meet Piu Piu, the who takes the plunge into a brief flirtation with our temporal life and thirsts for freedom. Look closely: behind the magic, you’ll probably meet yourself.

Well developed and memorable characters, an inventive story, and an immersion into the well-researched and well-described flora and fauna of the setting. Highly recommended and magical.

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Writing magical realism: step-by-step suggestions

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When the magic within a story is accepted as usual within an otherwise realistic setting, you’re probably reading or writing magical realism. It requires a light touch: if the magic becomes too overt or too over-the-top in terms of Hollywood special effects, then you’re out of the magical realism genre realm into fantasy, occult or science fiction.

Here’s an example

gardenspellsIn her novel Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen tells a story about a woman named Claire Waverly living alone in the family’s old house in a small town. Her family has always been viewed by others as odd or unusual in some way. She runs a catering business that’s in high demand because she’s not only a great cook, but uses the products of her own garden to enhance her dishes in ways that seem to help those who need to be helped: their luck or their emotions improve, they feel better, find their lives improving. She doesn’t advertise this: if she did, it would sound like an unbelievable health food scam and would no longer be magical realism. Each member of the Waverly family has a special gift that causes others to see them as slightly odd and/or highly talented.

The novel works on many levels as magical realism because: (1) We’re not seeing Harry Potter magic, (2) The small town setting lends itself to local legends and gossip that create an eerie overlay of maybe and perhaps that’s never quite analyzed in the light of day, (3) The magic is low key, not the kind that in other novels would turn into a thriller, witchcraft hysteria, (4) Her characters do what they do without overly using “magical techniques” that require practice, meditations, or the stuff of either fantasy or dark arts novels.

If you  want to write magical realism, it helps if you’ve read a lot of it and have a feeling for the genre as well of being comfortable leaving a lot of things unsaid or hinted at rather than approaching the unusual in your story with a full-bore emphasis on “creepy stuff” as  Stephen King might approach similar material. Here are a few suggestions

Tips for Writing Magical Realism

  1. This magical realism book review site is a great place to learn tips about what works and what doesn't.

    This magical realism book review site is a great place to learn tips about what works and what doesn’t.

    Unlike fantasy, magical realism has strong plots and characters that would draw readers through the story if there were no magic at all. It’s hard to imagine the Harry Potter books without wizards and their magic. Garden Spells might work as a story in a small town even if the Waverly family didn’t have unusual talents.

  2. Choose a setting that lends itself to magic, unanswered questions and unusual events without attracting the attention of, say, the news media or the police or others who might shine a strong light on it. Small towns and rural settings both have legends and myths (whether you make them up or do a riff on those of the real place where you set your story).  Since a lot of people in today’s society get spooked by swamps, remote mountains, piney woods in the moonlight–along with the real or imagined creatures that might be there–going off the beaten track for your story gives you a lot of opportunities for implying that, say, the land is conscious or that birds and animals have unusual motives, or that keeping on the “right side” of folk beliefs is the healthy thing to do.
  3. The people who create the magic seldom talk about their magic; if they do, they don’t see what they do as any different from the way anyone else uses the tools of his/her trade to do or to create what most people cannot do or create. If you borrow from a real magical tradition such as Voodoo, witchcraft or hoodoo, research (or your own knowledge) will bring you a lot of ideas about ways of living a magical without turning the practitioner into a caricature.  As the author of a magical realism story, you never ever demean the myths, legends, beliefs, spells and practices of your magical characters or the enchanted landscape in which they live.
  4. If you use a real wilderness or other remote setting, your book will be more believable if you research the flora, fauna, weather and people who live there now–or lived there in the past.  For one thing, you need realism to play off against the magic. For another, it’s hard to show characters moving around in an area if you don’t know what it looks like. And finally, natural magic uses things from the land that witches and conjurers grow, harvest or find. Don’t make this up: it will kill your story. Find out what kind of leaves are used for the spell you want, research what the plants look like and whether they grow in the area where your story is set, and make that a natural part of your narrative.
  5. Refer to an area’s legends and myths. For real settings, you’ll find these from folklore societies, books with titles such as “The Ghosts of Quincy” or “Florida Legends” and “Creation Myths of the Sunshine State.” Your job is usually not to retell any of these stories, rather to refer to them the way people in a city might mention in passing the day the trolley car first came by the house or the fact that some accident happened years ago in a certain place. For example, in my novel in progress, one character tells another not to eat gopher tortoises because they were created by the devil. The legend about that is longer than this post, but in a magical realism book I can simply refer to that as a fact and move on. I always prefer to use nuggets out of the real myths and legends from a place rather than making them up from scratch. For one thing, they fit the place well. For another, they convey a folklore truth that many people living there have heard before and/or a bit of folklore I want to help keep alive.
  6. Certain events/feelings that are told as metaphors in a mainstream realism novel can be told as though they actually happened. Be careful with this, or it won’t seem believable within the story’s context and the character’s beliefs. For example, in realism, a character who needs to apolgize to another might say, “I felt as though I was so small, I could hide under the dining room chairs until my parents left for work.” In magical realism, you don’t include the words “as though” or “as if.” You state it like it’s temporarily the case. Interior monologue and/or lyrical propose are two ways you can do this so that a typically unrealistic event suddenly seems plausible within the magic of the moment. For example: “When my conjure woman is angry, she is taller she doesn’t look smaller when she walks down to the far end of the beach.”

amfolklore

There’s no recipe here. In a sense, you have to feel it and sense it before you can do it. Once you practice the genre a lot, you don’t have to consciously think about the components any more than a person with years of experience thinks about what s/he does to make a bicycle work. It also helps if you have an open mind and a sense of wonderment or even magic about people and the natural world.

At any rate, I toss off these suggestions as ideas that might work. Or might not.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

Jesus, a Sun Deck, a Kimono and Magical Realism

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“You can imagine then how distinctly I remember the day Jesus of Nazareth, in person, climbed the hill in our back yard to our house, then up the outside stairs to the sun deck where I was sitting. And how He stayed with me for awhile. You can surely understand how clear those details rest in my memory. ” – Gloria Sawai, “The Day I Sat With Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts” in ‘A Song for Nettie Johnson’ (2002)

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that this short story, first published in 1976 or 1980 (depending on which source you use), has been anthologized and discussed a great deal due to its unusual title.  I find magical realism flowing through the story while others think the author merely came up with a clever title and couldn’t do it justice. (You can read the short story in PDF form here.)

nettiejohnsonI like Morny Joy’s take on the short story in Voices and Echoes: Canadian Women’s Spirituality: “No ecstasies, stigmata, fasts undo death or masochistic indulgences for this visionary. No cloistered convent or perpetual vows of chastity in the name of a temperamental divine lover. No proclamations of salvation or indictments of this perfidious, lascivious world. Instead, a woman has a neighborly chat with Jesus on the deck of a house on the outskirts of Moose Jaw.” (You can read the rest of her commentary here.)

As Joy notes, this story “illustrates the extraordinary in the ordinary,” and that is what we expect when reading magical realism.

Within A Song for Nettie Johnson, the story is unique, for it is the only one where magic is overtly mixed with the days of the characters’ lives. Some reviewers think the story doesn’t fit and should have been left out. I see their point, but I don’t agree. This story presents another viewpoint in a collection that Cocteau Books says “examines the heartbreaking lives of people on the margins.”

Consider the book’s descriptionA group of young school students prepares a memorial for the town’s deceased doctor, at the inadvertent risk of deeply offending his widow. A young girl learns important things about herself – some of them extremely unpleasant – on a storm-ravaged Mother’s Day weekend. A woman on a road trip in search of her erstwhile husband finds instead the one thing she never expected to see again in her lifetime. A woman sitting on the deck outside her Moose Jaw home receives an unusual and unexpected gentleman caller. And, in the title story, an outcast and misunderstood woman and her disgraced lover struggle toward what may be their last chance at redemption.

canadacouncilThe short story collection won the Governor-General’s-Award in 2002. The winner’s news release said, “Gloria Sawai brilliantly creates a world in which love and light redeem human failings. With clarity, deftness and generosity, she celebrates a universe in which even the least of her characters can achieve a vision of the infinite.” The finalist news release said, “A Song for Nettie Johnson is a profoundly light-filled collection of short stories set on the Prairies and peopled with holy sinners, visionaries, children and so-called ordinary folk. The power of grace illuminates her world.”

I read this collection years ago and I think I wrote a post about it–because she is among the writers who have influenced my own writing–but that must have been in another blog because I can’t find it in the archive.  I find myself thinking of her from time to time along with her stories which, as the Canadian Encyclopedia describes them, are “filled with gentle humour. Her stories often focus on characters in pious communities, set amid the majestic extremes of weather and landscape on the prairies. They emphasize the power of grace to bring forth hope, wonder, and goodness out of circumscribed lives and straitened circumstances.” (Sawai, of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, died in 2011 at 78 years of age.)

Here’s a brief excerpt from the story: “First He was a little bump on the far, far off prairie. Then He was a mole, way beyond the quarry. Then a larger animal, a dog perhaps, moving out there through the grass. Nearing the quarry, He became a person. No doubt about that. A woman perhaps, still in her bathrobe. But edging out from the rocks, through the weeds, toward the hill, He was clear to me. I knew then who He was. I knew it just as I knew the knew the sun was shining…And there He was. Coming. Climbing the hill in our back yard, His body bent against the climb, His robes ruffling in the wind. He was coming. And I was not ready. All those mouldy clothes scattered about the living room. And me in this faded old thing made in Japan, and drinking—in the middle of the morning.”

Perhaps some of you will enjoy this collection, the art and craft of all the selections, and the lighthearted but powerful “The Day I Sat With Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts.”

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

 

When magic creates the ride, all the writer can do is hang on

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“A bit of advice
Given to a young Native American
At the time of his initiation:
As you go the way of life,
You will see a great chasm. Jump.
It is not as wide as you think.”
― Joseph Campbell

 

Magic is like drugs. However, once you let it take over, you’re not lost. You are found. Logic, the more addictive drug, will become your greatest trap because, like an old bad habit, it works on you, makes you think that magic is a a delusional part of your unconscious that’s escaped into your mind like devils, makes you doubt yourself.

magicbookWhenever I run back to logic, I stop writing. I stop writing because logic tells me loud and clear that hanging on to a magic carpet as my fingers type words on the screen is no way to write a book. It’s illogical. One must plot and plan and outline the who shebang from beginning to end. Yes, that makes sense. The thing is, I don’t know the story I’m telling until I’m telling it, and then all I know is what happens next.

When logic gets a hold of me, I’m scared to write: I don’t think I can do it because I don’t know how I do it. As I mentioned in my last post, we create our own reality. So, we meditate, play around with the law of attraction, go on shamanic journeys, repeat affirmations and cast spells, but how quickly that can fade in the chilling light of day when the car won’t start or your spouse is sick or the man you hired to build a fence around part of your property hasn’t shown up for six weeks or the trees in your yard of dying for lack of rain. Where’s the magic now?

Logic breeds on itself. The more I think I need it, the more I use it, doubting myself more and more in the process.  Sooner or later, I say to hell with that and jump the growing chasm of doubt. The rains come, the fence gets built, my wife gets well, and the words flow.

Some say magic gives the practitioner more control. I suppose if one thinks of magic is the wizards in the Harry Potter books hurling never-fail spells across the room, then perhaps it does. But there’s a paradox here. Exerting control is logical thinking. To live and write by magic means surrendering to the greater part of oneself and the universe and one understanding that the less one pushes, the smoother the ride.

A couple of days ago, I used the word “epitaph” in a figurative way in my work in progress. The moment I did it, I knew it wasn’t figurative at all. Magic knew where it was going before I did and logically it made so sense to go there. After resisting that idea for two days, I saw I had no choice but too get out of the way of the story in the same kinds of ways our greater selves ask us to step out of the way of the directions our lives are meant to go.

MRbloghop2016Too much logic ensures it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

When I was in the navy, I often heard the proverb “Smooth seas don’t make good sailors.” Maybe we need a few of those hard knocks of life to finally understand we’re going about it all wrong and start seriously looking for a better way.

I think I ran through every pothole the universe had to offer until I realized I was gripping the wheel as though my life and art depended on it. Early in life, we often become brainwashed into thinking we need to grip that wheel the way we do.

Whenever writer’s block looms  large before me, I remind myself to let go while I write. My hope is that my readers will let go while they read.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” available in paperback, e-book and audiobook.

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the frog button for a list of other blogs in the hop. Links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.