Literary magic realism originated in Latin America when writers traveling to Europe were exposed to the art movement of the time in cultural hubs like Paris and Berlin. The term seems to have originated in the writings of the German art historian Franz Roh who considered magic realism an art category. It was later adopted by Latin American authors like Borges, Márquez and Cortazar. Literary magic realism has seen its fair share of controversy; because Westerners are more detached from mythology than non-Western culture, they tend to hold a more critical perspective of the form. Ever since One Hundred Years of Solitude by García Márquez drew the world's attention, some have applauded the fictional style as a significant international literary movement while others either see it as no more than Latin America’s ‘authentic expression’ or refer to it as a postcolonial style per se. Today, thanks to novelists like Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri and others who consider themselves citizens of the world, the international popularity of magic realism cannot be disputed.
While novelists exploring magic realism enter the spirit world via their stories, in many cultures across the globe intermediaries like shamans and sorcerers use special abilities or powerful drugs to journey from the mundane into other worlds. In my previous post I introduced you to author Ian Mathie and his upcoming book featuring his experiences in the magical realms of African traditions: Sorcerers and Orange Peel. Below follows his first installment of a four-part series about African sorcerers:
Magical Realms: an introduction to African traditions
In Africa there are three aspects of life that are important: the mundane physical here and now, the realm of spirits and those in limbo, and the world of the ancestors and ghosts. All three occupy the same space and time, interacting and influencing each other, but since humans have limited capacity and most are unable to reach beyond the mundane physical world, they need intermediaries to manage and mediate these aspects of their lives.
These intermediaries are special people, often bred to the role, but invariably individuals who have undergone years of detailed and secret training. They’ve been initiated in stages and inducted into their craft and cult through tried and tested traditional processes. Whilst very much part of society, they’re often separated from large parts of its normal activities, held in awe and often feared by everyone else. They become exceptional people with unusual abilities, capable of defying the normally explicable rules so that their activities appear illusory or even magical.
Even so, they perform an important role in society, being the bridge between daily life and the hidden aspects, harmonising these and seeking to calm and ease the upsets which any imbalance could cause by interacting with entities beyond the reach of normal humans. To fulfil this function, they must understand not only the human behaviour, but the ways of the spirits and the ancestors and also the darker arts. Some of their rituals and practices appear very menacing and dangerous. Indeed, some of them are very dangerous, employing as they do powerful drugs, poisons and physical trials. But they have developed the skill of using parts of the psyche still little understood by western psychologists and being in touch with parts of the inner being most of us are unaware of.
These men and women take many roles but are most commonly classified as witch-doctors, sorcerers or fetish priests and their skills often extend way beyond the spiritual with practical applications like herbal medicine, surgery and even practical things like building and mechanics. With so much variety across the continent, different cultures have different names, such as shaman, sangoma, ngyanga, inutmé, anyaji, Devil and many more. Whatever they are called, they all fall into this same grouping of arcane practitioners. Whilst all share common basic features, most have some expertise that makes them unique in their environment. Special abilities enhance their perceived importance in the society they serve, for they are, mostly, primarily human beings and subject to the same urges and motivations as the rest of us.
The latest volume in my African Memoir series, due to be published at the end of October 2013, is called Sorcerers and Orange Peel. It’s about West Africa and features a number of interesting sorcerers I encountered whilst working there as a water engineer and development officer. The book is in three parts and begins with a man who was both expert in creating illusions and who served a vital role in the guidance of souls to the hidden worlds when their physical bodies died. He was a man whose name was not to be spoken except in the sacred place and his role included clearing up the physical debris their lives left behind. To achieve this, his alter ego was that fearsome creature the Spotted Hyena, an animal with an evil reputation, famous for devouring carrion in the bush.
That this extraordinary person, clad in animal skins and smelling like rotting carrion, really was a man could be in no doubt. He touched me and I felt the warmth of him on my skin; he took food that I offered, ate it and behaved like any normal man. Yet in the blink of an eye he transformed himself into that scavenger of the bush, a snarling, drooling hyena, to demonstrate his alter ego and explain its role—I only realised his reason for doing so sometime later; when it happened, I was too scared to think—I am not given to imagining things of great drama, being more inclined to an empirical view. I know from the tracks the animal left that it was as real as the man had been and as I am myself, even though recounting it may seem to many minds like something fantastical. Therein lies part of his illusion.
The presence and function of this sorcerer was later explained to me by another person with special powers. She was an old woman who’d seen great moments of history and who claimed the ability to foresee events. She and her aged medicine man husband, Ayenu, had reached a turning point in their lives and had been prepared for death. Due to my arrival and intervention their course was changed and both survived. They left the dying house and were returned to their community. Nasia told me she’d foreseen my arrival and knew this was supposed to happen. She also told me of other things, personal to myself, which years later and over a thousand miles away, came true exactly as she had predicted them. She also told me of other things that would occur locally, and they all happened as she had predicted.
On returning the two old people to their village, I encountered the village witch doctor, Etu Ikemongoutlou. A seemingly normal man with the hands of a hard working farmer, he could see into the other realms and talk directly to the spirits. He was to play an important role later in the story, but first he needed help from a sorcerer with very different powers.
My own upbringing in Africa exposed me not only to many people like these but to the underlying belief systems that give them their place in society. Growing up, I was privileged to participate in several initiation ceremonies along with my peers and friends. The fact that my skin was a different colour made no difference. These ceremonies opened windows in my understanding of people’s role in society and the worlds they inhabit and influence. Even things I do not understand completely, I’m usually able to accept and thereby rub shoulders and co-exist with them. 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.
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 his website or Facebook.
Ian Mathie’s books are out as paperbacks and e-books—his fifth memoir, Sorcerers and Orange Peel, will be published by Mosaïque Press in November 2013.
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 and training in shamanism and the YA novel he’s writing on the concept of adolescent rite-of-passage.