Monday, February 7, 2011

Get Out Your Purple Notebook

A cherished writer friend recently planted a flag in the literary sod and vowed to build a brand based on Magical Realism in fiction. I cheered. Someone gets it, I thought.

Rightly or wrongly, it seemed that this writer understood that the tradition of Magical Realism uniquely - and ironically - suits itself to Christian Fiction.

Why ironically? Because when we think of Magical Realist Fiction, we generally think first of novels written in places where the Western European, "Christian" culture has colonized and marginalized the native culture, and those novels often subvert the imposed worldview and re-claim, re-dignify the lost or nearly-lost native worldview.

Oh my. Don't I sound like a school-marm on the lecture circuit? And this after Bonnie's brilliant post last Friday that had us all laughing all weekend.

But remember her step number three?

Invent a perpetual motion machine. Give it a catchy name. Then, hide it in a closet for at least one year. After the appropriate amount of time has past, take the machine out of the closet, tinker with it until it moves at double the speed. (This step ensures you are able to do the impossible – at least twice.)

Good Magical Realist fiction does the impossible, with grace. So bear with me, and consider that perhaps the colonizing culture was more rationalist than Christian. I know, the church was always deeply a part of Western colonization, but would I get in much trouble if I suggested that at least on occasion the church had first and long before been colonized itself by the Enlightenment mindset (too enlightened to believe the impossible), than by its native Biblical perspective?

Certainly by now The Age of Reason has outgrown its need to get the church on its side, and, it seems to me, left a sadder world as its legacy in its last days.

I'm less inclined than some to feel persecuted or marginalized as an American Christian (I realize things are different in other places), but at the very least, as one who believes that Van Gogh's stars tell the Gospel truth, that the world is charged with the grandeur of God, that he dances and whispers sweet somethings in our ears, that rocks cry out and donkeys speak and a virgin brings forth a son and water turns to wine and the lion will lie down with the lamb... at the very least I often feel lonely.

You too?

Then take a look at this short list of the attributes of good magical realist fiction:

• It blends the mundane with the fantastic so seamlessly as to challenge perceptions of what is real and what is not.
• It elevates the mundane to the sublime.
• The story’s message is subversive to the dominant worldview.

Got any angels in your closet? Do you see something sublime in a lunch of bread and fish? Has this list brought something wondrous to mind?

Then please write it down in your purple notebook.

But first share it here, please, in the comments. We love to read what you have to say.

PS: For inspiration, try the Magical Realist classic, "One Hundred Years of Solitude," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Or try two newer novels, "The History of Love" by Nichole Krauss, and "Peace Like a River" by Leif Enger.

PSS: "I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream, but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy." - George Tooker

PSST: "My most important problem was destroying the lines of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic" - Gabriel Garcia Marquez


Dina Sleiman said...

Wow, Bonnie, this was awesome!!! I do agree that Englightenment thinking colored our Christianity during the entire modernist era with its focus on what we can perceive with the five senses. Some Christians seem to fear the new postmodern mindset, and it does come with its own set of obstacles, but it also opens people to wonder and beauty and the spiritual world. We as Christians need to learn to minister to this generation in ways that meet their needs. You've definitely hit on something with this "magical realism."

Would you say that The Passion of Mary-Margaret has a touch of magical realism?

Patti Hill said...

Do you suppose Christians have a hard time with magical realism because of the word "magical?" That may conjure (sorry, couldn't help the use of that word) associations with the occult. Jesus' incarnation is a good example of what the wondrous and unexplainable looks like in a work-a-day world. All of his miracles! His resurrection! Christophanies (sp?) all through the OT! True confession: I had to do some heart work to get past the term, too.

Niki Turner said...

I always wonder why we, as Christians, have such difficulty merging the supernatural with the natural. That realm, with all of its "magical" qualities, should be more real to us than reality. Something for me to think about today!

How about Rooms (Jim Rubart)? That fell into the magical realism category, IMHO.

Dina Sleiman said...

Ahh, Roooms, great example, Niki.

Kathleen Popa said...

Patti, I understand, but don't share, that Christian aversion to the word, "magic," which can mean witchcraft, but can also mean something like "so wondrous it moves me to tears and worship." Lewis' Aslan spoke of the deep magic from before time, and by that, Lewis meant the most holy thing.

Niki, I think that back in the day, Christians bought so whole-heartedly into the enlightenment because they felt foolish if they didn't. There's a lesson there, isn't there?

Today I will be at one of my husband's galleries, painting pedestals, but do please comment. I'll check in as soon as I can, and I'll want to read your thoughts.

Megan Sayer said...

Kathleen remember the post you wrote about a renaissance of Christian literature? That plays around and around in my head sometimes. It makes me think about what I want to see in Christian fiction, and what I want to contribute to it. The answer I've come up with is exactly this: an exploration of the divine supernatural - magical realism. It does seem to be a serious lack. We are a spiritual people, and the church needs to champion this, not be afraid of it.

Two of my favourite ever all time books in the known universe are real and gritty dramas with magical realist elements: Beloved (Toni Morrison) and The Riders, by Tim Winton. Oh, and That Eye, The Sky by Tim Winton comes a close third. These are all books that have left me breathless.

Could I be so bold as to ask are you writing magical realist elements in your WIP? Having read To Dance in the Desert I'd say the lyric quality of your work would lend itself well to it.

My writing (I promise I won't go on about it) is quite your face...but I love to contrast that with the gentleness of the divine supernatural. The first draft of my WIP (a Magical Realist that's the best description I've come up with yet!) was written entirely (simply because it seemed appropriate at the time) in a purple suede notebook. I must have known something before I began...

Megan Sayer said...

Hmmm. Back again after brekkie, a shower and the dishes.

The word Worship keeps going through my mind in response to this. Offering our bodies as living sacrifices is our spiritual act of worship.

What does it mean to us to offer our writing to God in worship? For me it means to be free to write whatever I want without being overly concerned about which publisher it will sell to (granted its not royalty checks that pay my bills).

Offering our bodies is about being stripped bare before God and giving him ourselves warts and all. Should we not then give Him stories and characters that are exactly that - free to be who or what they come out as. I'm not talking about "warts and all" writing as in bad writing, or "God gave it to me so it's perfect", but characters who sin and struggle and wrestle with God, who experience the divine and don't understand it and do stupid things and don't even know enough to repent of them.

I've been reading the OT again - Abraham and Jacob and all these guys who do really dumb stuff sometimes. The bible doesn't editorialize. It doesn't say "Jacob wrestled with God all night and God was angry because he refused to submit". Jacob got blessed for it. I feel it's too easy to editorialise or sanitise our characters and stories, and when we do that we limit their ability to find and understand the One True Living God - we push Him into the realm of the Small.

Who is this One True Living God? He's the one who made the rules and breaks them anyway, who does stuff that's beyond our understanding. When we can take off our blinkers and throw our hands up to God and say "Whatever! Whatever You Do. Whatever You want" THAT is our true worship.

Sorry about all that. Got a bit carried away.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Every time God shows up in literature it is 'weird' and contrary to reason's expectations; magical. Wondrous.
I want to write a story that has the magic of Narnia and Middle Earth but does not rely on creatures beyond our human experience. I want to show that humans are sufficiently magical without relying on dwarfs and elves and talking beasts. I hope that this accentuates the magical quality of the High King's appearances.
Megan, I love what you say about the magic of worship. One of the most enthralling parts of my writing has been inventing new ways of worshiping the High King, since my characters are long broken from today's traditions. What does communion look like in another world? Or baptism? Or simple, day in, day out lifting of our 'whatever!'? I don't see the need to invent new sacraments, Jesus covered the 'hatch, match and dispatch' regime, just new envelopes for those, new robes, new songs, new places.....

Kathleen Popa said...

Megan, I was serious about a Christian literary renaissance. I feel much like CS Lewis, who once remarked to his friend JRR Tolkien that there were so few of the kinds of books they liked to read, that they would have to write some themselves.

Thanks for asking about my WIP. When I wrote Dance, I knew nothing about Magical Realism, but I knew that I had seen in my favorite novels "just the slightest touch of the numinous within the real world," and I wanted to do that too, because it reflected my faith, that the Lord really is as close as our breath, that it all happens all at once, the spiritual world and "the real."

I think it's likely that my present project will reflect that as well. I can't imagine writing anythng else.

"characters who sin and struggle and wrestle with God, who experience the divine and don't understand it and do stupid things and don't even know enough to repent of them." Sounds a lot like the apostle Peter, no? He's a character in a Christian bestseller.

And I'm with you on the story of Jacob wrestling with God. It's one of my favorites, a very freeing story.

"When we can take off our blinkers and throw our hands up to God and say "Whatever! Whatever You Do. Whatever You want" THAT is our true worship." Yes! Yes! Yes!

Here's a book you might love: Mariette in Ecstasy, by Ron Hansen. You can get it on Kindle. The best beginning, and far and away the best ending, of any novel ever.

Your writing sounds interesting. Hooray for the purple notebook!

"I want to write a story that has the magic of Narnia and Middle Earth but does not rely on creatures beyond our human experience. I want to show that humans are sufficiently magical without relying on dwarfs and elves and talking beasts." YES!!! And bless you.

Megan Sayer said...

: ) : ) : ) : ) : ) : ) : ): ) : )

Oh Kathleen! Or should I call you Giotto? I'm feeling your vision for renaissance.

(BTW On your recommendation I bought Mariette in Ecstacy. Looks really good...thanks for the tip). many thoughts jostling for supremacy.
Here's one:
There seem to be endless amounts of Christian romances, quite a few Christian thrillers/adventure stories/mysteries/chick lits/biblical and allegorical stories, although there doesn't seem to be much in the way of magical realism. Could it be that Patti has nailed it when she talked about Christian's fear of a connection with the occult? There seems to have been an unusual amount of silence generated by today's post.

If so, and granted that you, me and Henrietta aren't the only ones out there who enjoy this kind of literature, could it be true that readers are to be found mainly OUTSIDE traditional church and CBA reading circles?

And if this is the case, how do we reach them with our books?

Dina got it right: we need to to learn to minister to this generation. There's a generation out there of people who are seeking spiritual connections and deeper truths and don't know where to go...they seem to be going in droves to Eat Pray Love!

Here's my question (if you're still reading : ) )
Are there Christian agents out there who are supportive enough of your work to be able to take it to the secular publishing houses? Is the industry too cloistered to even think of doing such a thing? Are there Christian publishers out there who WANT to bridge the gap between the "secular shelves" and the "religious" ones?

Better go - enough for now.
Thanks again : ) : ) : )

Ellen Staley said...

Wonderful post! So much food for thought.

Not sure if my wip falls into this category or not, but its a category I would love to write, if I understand it correctly.

Our lives are full of that which we can not see,the battle that ranges all around us but remains invisible and to most western non-believing thinkers, non-existent. But it's there, in all it's glory vs fearsome horror, and we the treasured pawns.

Marian said...

Call it Supernatural Reality and suddenly Magical Realism will become more acceptable to a wider range of Christians.

C. S. Lakin said...

I'm just completing my twelfth novel and writing my marketing proposal, which brought me to your blog because I am writing all about magical realism with a character who has a miraculous gift of healing--way miraculous, among other gifts, but I hesitate using the term in my proposal for fear CBA publishers will be instantly scared off by the word "magical."

So I'm wondering if there is another term that is sometimes used interchangeably. Any ideas? (I also write fantasy but there isn't much problem using that word there. With a contemporary, serious novel though raises hackles...)

Kathleen Popa said...

C.S., I may be wrong, but I think most publishers would be familiar with the term, Magical Realism, and would not mistake it for anything necessarily occult. There's a handy little fusible bonding tape they sell in fabric stores, and I've never known a Christian to pass it by because it's called "Stitch Witchery."