Seriously, What Even Is Magical Realism?

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Spend enough time in literary circles or delving into Latin American history, and you’ll come across a term that’s been bandied about for decades: magical realism.

I could just link you to the Wikipedia page and be done with it, but that’s lazy even for me. And recently, after debating with a friend about the 2017 movie The Shape of Water, and what Guillermo del Toro wants to achieve with his surreal cinema, I thought I’d take a shot at trying to define and defend this genre myself.

To wit, magical realism is a literary genre where magical elements are dropped into a realistic world. It’s a style of storytelling that first emerged in the German Expressionist movement. In 1925, art critic Franz Roh coined the term “Magischer Realismus” to try and capture its ethos. And when you look at classic works like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you begin to see where Roh was coming from. His term would then emigrate to Latin America, becoming “realismo mágico” within the same decade.

At a time when colonial cultures, modern conflicts, and indigenous revivalism were boiling together, writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier were finding a new way to tell stories using old myths and legends. Carpentier tackled Cuban politics with stories that spoke to bizarre yet plausible antics, while García Márquez addressed political violence and familial conflicts through stories where tornadoes wiped out whole towns and some children were born with pig’s tails. Most critics at the time only saw such novels as fantastic tales, but they missed the underlying reality, let alone the critique of modern-day issues.

In the last few years, I’ve become more attuned to my Latino identity. Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post about an artistic ethos that I dubbed “Latinofuturism.” I still enjoy the article, but if I had to write it again, I’d go back and add “magical realism” to the list of things under that cultural umbrella. Being looser with the boundaries between the mundane and the fantastic is something that I hope new readers will be eager for.

As a writer, I know I’m interested to see new kind of stories. In fact, I wrote one.


A couple of years back, I wrote a short story that I posted on this site under the name “The Foghorn Man.” It was born out of a failed draft of a monster story that I’d tried to write months before, about an eyeless monster that belched ammonia and stalked its victims in the dead of night in a small town. But, you know, I was never satisfied with the premise. I had this whole idea about a sheriff torn between his duty to the town’s prosperity and the horror of this man-shaped creature that made it all possible (because of the ammonia and its value to the local auto industry, a sentiment that probably made way more sense in my head at the time). But try as I might, I couldn’t get the conflict right.

And then, it hit me. What if the monster isn’t the threat? What if it’s the guy trying to expose the monster?

Maybe the scientist Kevin Lemarque is morally in the right, but in the story, he’s a tragic antagonist to Deputy Sheriff Nate Rogers. His “meddling” puts the town of Odyssey at risk. And that Foghorn Man… well, he don’t mean much harm, right? Not in Nate’s eyes anyway. So Nate has to break off his relationship with Kevin for the good of the town. It’s a poignant conflict, and I knew it as soon as I began writing it all down.

Now, you’re probably wondering, “The hell does this have to do with genre?” Well, it’s because of the monster’s role. On its own, a shuffling, gray-skinned beast of a man with no eyes is pretty creepy. But I needed to really sell the horror of it. So I made the sheriff’s deputy—and the whole town, by extension—its accomplice. They knew the Foghorn Man was horrifying, but because they were doing well, they figured they’d go along with his ravenous, unspoken needs.

That’s the magical realism element. We can wrap our minds around a monster invading our ordinary world, but a known monster whose crimes go unmentioned? That’s harder to confront. And in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, as we face the monstrous behaviors of the accused and the once-silent suffering of their victims, we find ourselves grappling with similar questions. How did we not see this before? When are some behaviors “too far” and others “not that bad”?

From the perspective of Kevin Lemarque, and from the POV of women and men hurt by abusers in the halls of power, those who stand up to defend their idols must seem as nauseating as Nate Rogers standing beside a bellowing nightmare figure.


I hope that this analysis provides some idea of where I’m going where. I’m all for traditional boundaries of science fiction, fantasy, and realism. But given the changing tides of our world, and given how many new voices are fighting to be heard against traditional narratives, there’s a lot to be said for the value of magical realism and its place in our libraries, our classrooms, and our minds.

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Why I Write In Neo-Noir

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I adore Star Wars and other science fiction and fantasy tales, but that’s not what my inner writer enjoys.

My inner writer likes light and shadows.

He likes big cities and jazz.

He likes alternative rock soundtracks set over lonely highways.

He likes running from cafés in broad daylight and confrontations on the bad side of town at a quarter to midnight.

He likes troubled heroes ready to get back into action and panicked damsels who’ve made morally questionable choices.

He likes individuals fighting corrupt organizations, and he likes the tired heroine getting trapped with the psychopath.

He deals with anxiety, paranoia, isolation, having to go on the run, and digging through layers to find the truth.

He’s a film noir fanboy with a neo-noir flair.


On that note, I’d like to offer a quick and dirty list of films and TV shows that I think fall square into the neo-noir mix, with one or two genre overlaps. Some of these stories have stuck with me for a long time, and in many ways, they’re a big influence on why I write what I do.

Blade Runner (1982). Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Hampton Francher and David Peoples.

Oldboy (2003). Directed by Park Chan-wook. Written by Hwang Jo-yoon, Lim Joon-hyeong, and Park Chan-wook.

Collateral (2004). Directed by Michael Mann. Written by Stuart Beattie.

No Country for Old Men (2007). Directed and adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen. Based on the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy.

Jessica Jones Season 1 (2015). Created by Melissa Rosenberg. Based on the comic series by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos.

Altered Carbon (2018). Created by Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan.

If you have any additions or other recommendations about neo-noir media, please feel free to leave it in the comments below.

A Closed and Common Orbit and the Clash of Identities

Copyright © 2017 by Becky Chambers

As I said in a previous review, I’m interested in how we’re changing the tone of science fiction with newer works. The spirit of camaraderie and cautious optimism in Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet really sold me on the merits of the story, as well as the fictional future that Chambers outlined. Even with energy consumption issues, ongoing wars, and multispecies politics, there’s still a chance for people to come together and find new familial bonds in the depths of space.

In the sequel (spoiler alert incoming), A Closed and Common Orbit, we follow a similar route, but with a tighter focus. The AI known as Lovelace, replacing the original personality of the ship computer on the Wayfarer, has since moved on for greener pastures with the crew’s mutual friends Pepper and Blue.

With a body kit that gives her an organic, almost genuine human appearance, Lovelace quickly adopts a new persona and life on Port Coriol as the modder girl Sidra. But Sidra’s exploration of organic culture comes with a price, as she struggles with built-in protocols and coding that could expose her not-so-legal existence. Compare all that with a series of flashbacks, detailing how a young Jane became the modder girl Pepper through escape, surviving the wilds, and fixing old tech with a friendly AI named Owl, and we begin to see how two women’s lives are shaped through a rough journey of self-discovery and persistent repairs to the tech they need to live.

It’d be easy to say that Pepper’s flashbacks form the more compelling side of this book. After all, she escapes a dystopian life as a slave with a number, and she faces off with wild dogs and a near-dead starship in a junkpile for years on end. But there’s a lot to be said for Sidra’s journey, too. Even as she uses her new body to befriend an Aeluon tattoo artist, and try new food and drinks, our AI protagonist is still fighting an inner and outer battle. She’s terrified of the chance that outsiders will recognize and report her as an illegal entity; she’s also battling all her code, which tells her that being inside a starship is natural and being in a body isn’t. It’s dysmorphia on a new and unexplored level.

I also appreciated how much this story fills in more of the background on the Galactic Commons and how spaceflight had advanced. We learn a little more about the rise of the Harmagian species, the entry of humans into the GC, the status and rights (or lack thereof) for AI, and what sets apart the culture and history of Aeluons. Every culture and race feels authentic, with a sense that they’ve lived as they have for centuries, even with tech innovations and meeting new species. Seeing a Laru’s reaction to things like humans crying (or “leaking”) or the way Aeluons perform their mating rituals in the open definitely adds to the flavor of the setting. And for Jane and Sidra, our main characters, it’s a chaotic and colorful world they’re entering for the first time in their respective eras.

I do respect that, on some level, new readers or people unfamiliar with some of science fiction’s ups and downs might have trouble with Sidra’s storyline. Even with all the cool things she gets to experience, hearing her talk about rewriting code and analyzing her digital pathways can seem a touch overwhelming. It certainly helped me while I was reading that I have some small knowledge of HTML, Python, and JavaScript. Rest assured, though, that you won’t be sitting there reading endless pages of technobabble from an engineer’s POV. This is a novel that gives you a little bump into the world of lab-engineered people trying to figure out their place in life.

While Closed and Common Orbit didn’t have the same wide array of plot points and conflicts as Small, Angry Planet did, I do think it’s a worthy follow-up to the first book. Even if it isn’t a perfect standalone piece, the story has a quiet but meaningful weight in how it approaches identity issues and personal growth. So long as you’re cool with petbots and aliens smoking redreed (and why wouldn’t you be?), you’ll find a good time in these pages.

A Closed and Common Orbit is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.

 

Latinofuturism: A 2018 Late-Night Thought Experiment

If this writing seems strange or piecemeal to you, it’s only because my thoughts being written up at half-past midnight might have that effect. Nevertheless, after taking a look at what I’ve written below, as a new take on culture and artistic impact, I think it’s worth sharing even by the light of day.

So, how did we get here? By way of Afrofuturism, and how it inspired such amazing modern feats like the film Black Panther (directed by Ryan Coogler, and written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole), and the whole of Janelle Monáe’s career. As a concept, Afrofuturism is an aesthetic where African culture and technology intersect. Cultural critic Mark Dery first coined the term in his 1993 essay “Black to the Future,” although this ethos has been prevalent since at least the 1950s (possibly as far back as Ralph Ellison’s 1954 novel Invisible Man). It’s an aesthetic that both celebrates African achievements and identity, and clashes with mainstream views of science fiction and technology determined by the often white cultural elites.

Naturally, thinking about all this late at night got me into a few questions about my own ethnic heritage. I’m Irish-American and Mexican-American, but when I’m asked to pick one race on any census form or official document, I always pick “Hispanic or Latino.” I can’t deny that side of myself, and in recent years, I’ve learned to embrace it as part of my overall identity, along with being bisexual, politically progressive, and devoutly Catholic. Thinking about this, especially as a writer, means that I’ve been pondering how my Latino heritage and our social views on technology might intersect in the larger media? To coin a phrase, how to achieve an aesthetic like “Latinofuturism.”

So what, then, would Latinofuturism look like?

Copyright ©2009-2018 by milehighrandall on deviantArt.

Let’s say there’s Aztec ziggurats standing next to Spanish colonial cathedrals. There are Mayan stone calendars everywhere you look. All signs of old and new cultures are available to the public.

Art by Julian Mendoza.

Let’s say that someone’s bringing back the pachuco heyday of the Twenties, with flashy suits, big hair, and floral colors. We dress well, and we’re doing well, too.

Photo by Vladyslav Otsiatsia via Getty Images.

Let’s say that cybernetics and medical engineering is something that Latin Americans revolutionize (as is actually the case in countries like Cuba). Instead of the old tired cliché about low-paid workers stealing manufacturing jobs, imagine a world where trained youth are building their own futures.

From the mural “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central.” Art by Diego Rivera, 1947.

Let’s say that Remedios Varo is handling the city’s architecture, Frida Kahlo is turning news stories into sensual portraits, Diego Rivera is covering every street corner in his murals, and Jean-Michael Basquiat is the inspiration for a new generation of graffiti artists.

Source: The Piña mural in the Government Palace in Chihuahua, Mexico, 1992.

Let’s say that Simón Bolivar’s face is being flown against the likes of Che Guevara and Benito Juarez. A new politics based on independence and human rights.

Native community in Tres Islas, Peru. Copyright © 2012 by Empresa Editora El Comercio.

Let’s say that indigenous people are being consulted on which lands to cultivate and which to let be. Imagine a world where jungles and deserts are allowed to bloom as they have for centuries before us, and where our need for natural resources isn’t at the expense of native cultures and tribal lands in places like Chiapas and Tres Islas.

Now, you might read all this and say, “So what? It’s some left-wing laundry list of things Latin America has in common.”

And I’d say, “Exactly.”

Afrofuturism is a movement and ideology built on the concept of black cultural heritage and achieving technological and social progress under that banner. In my mind, Latinofuturism is the same thing, but placed on a different set of continents. It’s what Latinx people can cherish and strive toward, no matter their countries or their economic status. We all share these elements, and we can make a start in our media, our industries, and our politics.

And as someone who wants stories with more Latina protagonists in them, I think it’s as good a place as any to begin.


So, readers. Thoughts? Comments? First impressions? I’d love to see a conversation starting about culture, identity, art, and literature here.

Flash Fiction: “Hoovertown Knights”

I can never stay around from my homage character to Hunter S. Thompson. Especially not when I get a wild story prompt like I did from my friends in Burbank.

Enjoy!


Hoovertown Knights, by Alexander Willging

Word Count: 684

At some point, along the way, I stopped caring about how absurd all this was. It wasn’t every day that you force your brother-in-law to commit a daring heist on his own jewelry store in East Vancouver. Sure, call it insurance fraud. But what are such paltry crimes against the chance for immortality, babe?

Yes, dear readers, it’s your favorite madcap journalist Armand Boston, reporting live from the bushes outside a factory in North Canton, Ohio. I sit here, adorned in a Pith helmet and several thousand dollars’ worth of ruby necklaces. These accoutrements are my lone defense against what I can only assume is the dark magic protecting this lonely red brick palace.

“And yet,” my brother-in-law Phil muters at my side, “we could be doing this during the day. Could’ve taken the tour and everything—!”

“Hush,” I whisper back. “El Monstruo approaches!”

And sure enough, with terrible plodding steps, out comes the night watchman. I can barely see the brass buttons gleaming on his starched, pressed uniform. He sweeps his flashlight right over us, and my breath goes tight. Phil looks ready to grumble some more.

Perhaps he’s still mad about his smashed-up jewelry store?

In total silence, I reach into my pocket and pull out a tiara. A bit small, but Phil says nothing as I plant it atop his curly head. Still pissed, but hey, with this diadem, he’s now royally pissed.

Then, ignoring his grunt of protest, I ready the softball I had in my other pocket.

Right as that security guard turns around, I hurl that sucker hard as I can.

Plop! With a groan, the guard collapses. With a clatter, his ring of keys drop onto the pavement. And just like that, Phil and yours truly are making our way inside the main building for the Hoover Vacuum Company.


Most vacuum cleaner enthusiasts know about W.H. Hoover, the brand’s esteemed founder. But few know about the massive vault under his former office in North Canton, Ohio. Or the fact that, in 1945, a team of spies working for the Office of Strategic Services made a secret deposit into that same vault. Something big and heavy, shipping straight out of a Nazi base somewhere in Tunisia.

Of course you wouldn’t know this story, dear readers. The mainstream media wouldn’t suck so hard unless it were owned by the likes of Big Vacuum.

One elevator ride later, Phil and I are measuring our steps down a long, dark corridor. The jeweled medieval compass—the one that I stole from Phil’s shop when his boss wasn’t looking in all the chaos—points our way true. Within minutes, we are directed toward a turn in the corridor and arrive at a pair of giant, nondescript steel doors.

On the doors is a black circular port. Looks like something the size of a compass could fit there…

Well, you know how these things go, reader. Click, boom, doors swing open, lights switch on—

And there she is.

Atop a gleaming white pedestal, bathed in a heavenly afterglow.

A grail. The Grail. That gold cup that all the knights and archaeologists and conspiracy junkies have been hunting for centuries.

And of course they’d hide it out in freaking Ohio.

“Phil, mi compadre,” I whisper. “One sip of this, and we’re gonna live forever!”

“Um, about that.” Phil taps my shoulder. “I think we’ll need to. ‘Cause in case you hadn’t noticed…?”

He points to the glittering shelves. Good God, they’re all here. The Ark of the Covenant. The Hand of King Midas. The sword Excalibur. The Shadow Constitution that James Madison wrote up in 1812!

And, of course, guarding it all is a giant three-headed dog.

A big, black growling son of a gun.

“Right,” I say, not losing my cool. “Right, so… we go downstairs…”

“Armand—”

“…And turn on every vacuum cleaner we can find.”

“You’re insane.”

“And you married my sister. So what does that make you?”

Phil sighs. For, like, a minute.

“Go on three?” he asks.

I slap him across the shoulders. “Now you’re starting to use your head, man!”


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.