The term ‘magic realism’ came into being by way of Germany’s post-Expressionist painters using peculiar techniques for depicting the ordinary world as if seen through a mysterious lens. The style was thought to be distinctive from surrealism: absurd scenes juxtaposing illusion and reality to allow the unconscious to express itself. As a literary genre, magic realism is generally described as storytelling that explores alternative perceptions of reality from a specific cultural perspective. Magic realism should not be confused with fantasy and science fiction that are set in make-believe worlds—instead, the author renders a down-to-earth setting where odd characters lurk, bizarre events happen and mystical spheres are accessible.
There are many interpretations of magic realism, as is evident from this web page by Alberto Ríos (Department of English, Arizona State University).
I’m currently writing a novel that’s part historical fiction, part psychodrama and part magic realism. The story is inspired by historical events in South Africa, a legendary disaster in the United States, and a horrifying crime in Austria. It’s set in South Africa’s semi-desert Karoo and in New Orleans, Louisiana. When the baby of a troubled couple—a man seeking revenge for the atrocities of his father’s generation and a woman also feeling unduly victimized by past events—enters the world during a natural disaster, her Bushmen nanny sees this as a sign of dark things to come and calls on the Spirits for help. The main themes I’m exploring are war, rape, intergenerational shame, post-partum depression and shamanic traditions.
One of the characters in my story is a Bushman medicine woman called Dikeledi. Although she is not the main protagonist, she is my favorite character—her history, culture and beliefs constitute the magical elements of the story. Dikeledi is guided by the Weather Spirits, and their omniscient voice—one of several roving points of view— is one of the magical threads that weaves its way through the story. Here’s a short excerpt:
IN THE backyard under the giant Camel Thorn, having made herself comfortable on a wooden wine crate, Dikeledi caught the distant chatter of Gerald and Monika. She would wait for them to finish lunch before getting on with her kitchen duties. Using her pocketknife, she bent down to scrape away the outer skin of the trunk at the base. She cut off a piece of exposed root so she could boil it and give the infusion to Dabe for his toothache. That reminded her to speak to Geelbooi about Dabe overdoing it on the kougoed during work time. It was one thing using the intoxicant for traditional ceremonies, like their ancestors had done for hundreds of years, or like she did these days for calming her nerves; but when smoked with dagga, and for no good reason like Dabe was in the habit of doing, the effects could be very unpredictable.
Lulled by the hot breeze, Dikeledi leaned back against the tree. She stared at the rustling leaves, her thoughts traveling to the time the Weather Spirits had blessed her with healing hands. She'd been watching Matope Medicineman and the other men of her clan enter the spirit world through trance dancing. She was only ten—two years after she and Heidi had been separated, torn apart by the authorities who had whisked her adopted sister off to an orphanage. It wasn’t right, they’d claimed, for a white child to be living with Bushmen. Her mother, Kifelwe, had pleaded with them. “She was just born when her mother died during the war. If I didn’t take her away from the concentration camp, a savage soldier would’ve killed her. I fled with her on my back and my own in my stomach, walking for many days over hills and through streams. I raised her. She belongs to me now.” But the men in the long coats and strange hats hadn’t cared. They had loaded Heidi in their black Oldsmobile and driven off.
So, at dusk that day, swaying with the women’s rhythmic clapping and singing, listening to the steady dum-dum of the drums and watching the other children leap about, she longed for her sister. The men were dancing with seed-filled rattles strapped around their ankles, snaking around the women, the fire, and an Eland carcass, hoping to take in the antelope’s spiritual potency. She could smell the pungent scent of its blood. Many times she’d seen how the rhythmic dancing and rapid breathing induced an altered state. And she’d watched the shaman go into this trance to receive supernatural powers from the spirits. She knew anything could happen in that mystical place. She’d seen grown men grab their heads and scream and have nose bleeds; she’d seen others keel over and fall down, sometimes into the fire; she’d laughed at those who hooted like an owl, hopped like a rabbit, hissed like a snake, or pranced around like a monkey; she’d heard the stronger shamans roar like fierce lions.
While novelists exploring magic realism enter the spirit world via their stories, in many cultures across the globe there are intermediaries like shamans and sorcerers who use special abilities or powerful drugs to journey from the mundane into other worlds. As a child of Africa, my fascination with magical realms stems from my exposure to South African shamans like the Bushmen and others known as sangomas. While other children played Hopscotch, my black friends and I acted out the ‘throwing of bones’ and other bizarre rituals hoping the spirits would speak to us. You’re not to assume that my parents encouraged my behavior … if they’d been any the wiser, I might’ve been locked in my room until … well, even when I told them about my spirit guide, the Serpent Goddess, they never believed me. If you’re interested in my childhood experiences, you might want to read my memoir, Out of Sync.
On this note, I’d like to introduce you to a kindred spirit: author Ian Mathie. I hosted Ian here in June this year—he said: Much of my life has been spent in rural Africa, first growing up there and later working as a water engineer among tribal cultures that are fast disappearing under the relentless onslaught of the twenty-first century. Old traditions are dying out, superseded by the all-pervasive greed and superficiality introduced by foreigners. They came, occupied and exploited the tribal lands for a 150 years and then, calling it independence, abandoned them, ill-equipped to face the pressures of modern geopolitics, economics and climate change. So, do I, having lived and worked among them helping to provide the water that sustained them, now have some responsibility for preserving their culture? Is this why I’ve written a series of African memoirs?
The good news is that the latest volume in Ian’s African memoir series is due to be published at the end of October 2013: Sorcerers and Orange Peel. It is about West Africa and features a number of interesting sorcerers he encountered whilst working there as a water engineer and development officer. Ian says, “As a western trained psychologist I’m also interested in their ways, and I hope by writing about them I can open a few small windows in the minds of my readers.”
Please join Ian and me over the next few weeks as I explore magic realism as a literary genre and he talks about his upcoming book featuring his experiences in the magical realms of African traditions. Bruce Nicoll will conclude the series with a post about his interest in shamanism and w.i.p. YA novel on the concept of adolescent rite-of-passage.
Ian Mathie was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Africa and the Far East. He has worked as a Royal Air Force pilot, rural development officer in Africa, high-tech irrigation project manager in the Middle East and industrial psychologist in the UK.
Today, Ian is known as a prolific author of stories about his experiences in Africa. His contact with the dark continent began whilst still a baby, and although he has lived in Warwickshire for the past 16 years, Ian has never been able to shake off his fascination with Africa. He can be contacted at website / Facebook / mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ian Mathie’s books are out as paperbacks and e-books—I suggest you go to his website to see ‘how to buy’ this remarkable series of African stories. His fifth memoir, Sorcerers and Orange Peel, will be published by Mosaïque Press in October 2013.