The Latin American Boom is now a thing of the past. But the political climate that made magic realism so relevant has scaled new heights in recent decades. The ugly effects of delusional power-mongering has never been more visibly felt in public life. Hence, recent literature has been full of voices seeking light in a time that offers little respite from the clutches of nefarious agents at work. And, female authors have occupied the center-stage in re-imagining this darkest of worlds for the better. Puja Sen Majumdar picks and chooses her way through some of them…
Jeanette Winterson once said that the choice of a subject, like the choice of a lover, is an intimate decision. This makes a lot of sense to me for there are certain subjects I keep fleeing back to whenever absolute stark desolation stares me in the face. Magical realism is one of those.
The first magical realist story I read was a story that seemed to be nothing but a simple fairy tale to me. All of us, who read Bangla, know the story perhaps. Kankabati, the daughter of a rich and greedy father makes the mistake of eating a forbidden fruit. As a result, she is forced by the men in her family to marry someone (in the fairy tale, her brother) against her wishes. Kankabati jumps into a pond and kills herself. But Troilokyonath takes the fairy tale ─ a little part of it ─ and situates it in poverty-ridden colonial Bengal controlled by rich Brahmins and upper-caste moneylenders. Although his text is neither non-patriarchal nor devoid of constant casteist assertions, he does a very strange thing. In a world that is heart-wrenchingly realist till now, Kankabati jumps into the pond and suddenly comes across different kinds of aquatic creatures which coexist with the human characters in the book, taking a number of decisions that changes her own life as well as those of others. Once she comes out of the water, she regains control of her story as well. But there is a little spill from the pond. The world of colonial rural Bengal is no longer as it is in the beginning of the story. Contradictory voices jostle each other to make room for themselves. Rabindranath found this is to be a very entertaining tale, although intended only for children. But perhaps what adults can also learn from a tale like this is that Kankabati needed a deformation of time and space within the narrative or access to a reality where she could wait and remember who she was and what had brought her there. Or she simply needed some space to breathe and think.
Later, while reading A Room of One’s Own together with Orlando, I was suddenly reminded of Kankabati’s tiny waterbody. I realised that the room that Woolf speaks of, as well as the house of Orlando, are both internal spaces as well as external. A male friend used to tell me how it helps him think of new poems whenever he is standing alone near the sea, conversing with no one. The last time I tried that, there was a group of men around the sea shore staring at me in ways that made me leave the sea quite early. I remember my best friend used to love reading in empty buses during monsoon. I don’t think she does it anymore. Literature is something women often do not have the luxury to think about while alone in the streets, even amongst nature. But at the same time I wonder how many times as a traveller or as one of those readers unnecessarily excited by the idea of flânerie I have taken refuge in stories written by women I have come to love; the innumerable number of times such stories have helped me resist the internalization of certain gazes and allowed me to look at my own city from newer perspectives.
Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry has been a revelation in that regard. It has pushed me to rethink both space and time. Her writing systematically dismantles linear time through the figure of the “dog woman”, a formidable protagonist who scares entire armies of men, runs around with dogs and plucks out people’s eyes if they do not adhere to her political convictions. Towards the later part of the novel, the readers gradually realise a strange thing. Winterson tells us of a girl who had been bullied throughout her childhood for being fat and ugly and who had repressed all her memories. Perhaps the dog woman, the book suggests, is created through that repression but in another time, another space (in this case 15th century England). Throughout the novel Winterson repeats; “The third is not given”. The dog woman is the third one, born as a result of a clash between the real world and the world of magic. To the girl who exists in our time, the dog woman seems like a dream, a monstrosity which lurks somewhere deep within herself. She says: “…the weight persisted in my mind. I had an alter ego who was huge and powerful, a woman whose only morality was her own and whose loyalties were fierce and few. She was my patron saint the one I called on when I felt myself dwindling away through cracks in the floor or slowly fading in the street. Whenever I called on her I felt my muscles swell and laughter fill up my throat. Of course it was only a fantasy, at least at the beginning.…” And yet to the readers, the dog woman is very, very real. Oh, I forgot to mention! Read the book to know how according to Winterson the great fire of London took place. A lot of people will not forgive me if I end up giving them this spoiler.
Another book which left me shook and changed the way I looked at magical feminism is Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits. I finally figured out that for some authors such as Allende who have witnessed brutal dictatorships and consequent Communist struggles to overthrow such regimes while the entire world just sits and watches the show, magical feminism is a way of survival that no other narrative technique can replace. That is how in most of Allende’s novels grandmothers hand over old stories to their granddaughters. Her magical realism is ontological and I would love to go more into that but I have promised a friend that for once I will refrain from muttering about theory. The book revolves around three generations of women each passing their faith in revolution to their daughters and grandchildren. I have innumerable problems with the novel that I am still trying to resolve. I found Allende’s stances very pacifist at certain situations. But towards the very end she describes Alba Trueba’s days in the concentration camps of Pinochet as she reclaims her past and overcomes the terrors of the present. At the same time, she tries to understand why dictators exist and how there is no way to fix the world unless Communists and feminists becomes allies. I could not help but fall in love with Allende once again at that point. For sometimes, one needs to know that we have the ability to tell a story again and again. To be free is to be able to tell a story again and again. Memories must interrupt history. I do not know how Allende managed to reconcile her world of spirits, magic and the supernatural with a story that speaks of so much violence but perhaps that is the only way to do it. To return to what I started with, during moments when there seems to be no way out of phallocentric language, it is a good idea to read some magical feminism. Angela Carter would suggest that one outstares such moments of failure. Winterson’s protagonist or she herself would bitterly say
“When I’m dreaming I want a home and a lover and some children…it won’t work. Who’d want to live with a monster? I may not look like a monster anymore but I couldn’t hide it for long. I’d break out, splitting my dress, throwing the dishes at the milkman if he leered at me and said, ‘Hello, darling’. The truth is I’ve lost patience with this hypocritical world. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t smile, lie, cajole or even smile very much. What is there to smile about?”
I would humbly suggest that when you feel like that, read some Carter, Allende and Winterson instead. Read them if you do not quite understand what Judith Butler is trying to say in Gender Trouble. Butler might be the rockstar of theory, but these women definitely make destroying heteronormative binaries much more fun.
P.S.: If magical feminism entices your readerly spirit, or this humble piece has carved some space in your mind, your go-to book-rack should have some or all of these ─
- Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
- So Far from God by Ana Castillo
- Mama Day by Gloria Naylor
- St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
- Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
- The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender