The books today dance in and out of the classification of Magic Realism. They are not bright and mostly beautiful stories in lush and exotic climes with burning (if misdirected at times) sexual desires that must be gratified. No. The element of Magical Realism from which I am drawing in this post is the piece of the definition that involves oppression, and trauma: as the wikipedia definition puts it, implicit criticism of the elite.
These books are more heartbreaking than magical, in my opinion, because the oppressed that are talked about are African American people in the American South.
It seems that every list I have found of these texts always has
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
even though people don’t even always agree that it even counts in this genre. It does fit my definition of “people who won’t stay dead,” however.
This book is about trauma: the trauma of slavery, oppression, growing up with tenuous connections to others, losing a child. Yes, this book accepts what seems unreal and questions what is more commonly considered real, but it is more a trauma narrative to me. Trauma can blur the lines between real and imagined, adding another element of unpredictability to a world that already feels unpredictable. The characters don’t know who they are and cling to their children as the only things that they have in this world. They are desperately trying to gather a sense of self after the identity of slave no longer applies. Slavery was not an appropriate identity, but then when slaves are freed, what do they have to move forward in a place and time that hates them and considers them not even full people?
Consequently, I had to use SparkNotes on this one, to be sure that I was gaining all relevant facts through the beautiful, yet intentionally disjointed, narrative that is shared from a number of perspectives. It is not an easy read on a number of levels, and yes, it has a ghost in it, but it is about getting on after the level of oppression has been reduced. It is about what is real and what is not and what is heartbreaking.
Maybe this post is a little soap boxy today, but I can’t avoid it. These books are the oppression and critique of the powerful part of the genre.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
This book broke my heart and for more subtle reasons than Beloved. There are those who stretch this into the Magical Realism genre due to some of the nature metaphors (especially with the hurricane and its serious consequences as a turning point), and it is about a black woman in the American South in the 30’s just trying to find love and be happy. This is the first book that could be considered in the genre where there is no ghost or supernatural being, just ties to nature and its volatility. And the heavy oppression.
Some of the articles I have skimmed about this one are critical of Janie for taking her identity from the men that she is with and not developing her own, but that is far from a cultural norm of that time. The woman who raised Janie tells her as an impressionable young woman, due to past family trauma in her own life that it is more important to be safe and secure than it is to be loved. Anyone who knows about Maslow’s hierarchy knows that people need safety and security before there is love or self actualization. In an unpredictable, oppressed and scary existence, it makes perfect sense that in the beginning that she would be following a strong personality, like her second husband Jody, for security because that is what she was told love is. I felt that a critique of her that she follows men all the time is a very white-centric and privilege blind one. I rooted for Janie. I wanted so badly for her to be happy. When Tea Cake started with his craving for but aversion to water I had to shut the book off for a minute to brace myself for what was coming. I didn’t think it was okay for Tea Cake to hit her, but I certainly was not yelling to the book that she should pack up and leave. And when her second husband died, she did not rush out to find another guy, even though with her beauty and means she had her pick. The men she knew had been drooling over her for years. She was a little burned out on it before Tea Cake came along and won her heart fair and square. She trades love for the security that she was told to look for instead.
The audio for this book is an amazing performance piece. The heavy use of vernacular is of course criticized as well but through the language comes those beautiful and poignant things that you always knew to be true and universal, even if you have not thought about it that way before. I think that if one is planning on teaching this book in high school, the audio should be used to draw students in and help them not get tripped up on getting through the language. I read this book because it is a modern classic, but I absolutely fell in love with it, despite the deep sadness and oppression. I am sure as a high school kid that it would not have been the same to me as it is now. I should probably re-read the Maya Angelou that I read in tenth grade, to see how it feels differently now.
I am looking for North American magical realism that is more magical and less sad. Sometimes I have a hard time reading about whites in the South because of how their opulence and privilege was at the expense of so many, but maybe I can find something that feels magical and not because there is, as Roxane Gay puts it, a magical n-. I was thinking about Sarah Addison Allen for this, or maybe some Alice Hoffman. Magical Realism also takes place in cold places, and further into Asia, and I have to read about that too.
Hope everyone is enjoying the intensification of spring. It can’t help itself now. Even if it wants to keep snowing we are tilting toward the warmth of the sun and the expanding hours of daylight.