Why Magic? Guest Post by Buffy Cram
“…There must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.” -- Ralph Ellison in his 1953 acceptance speech for the National Book Award for Invisible Man.
When it comes to my writing, the one question I get asked more than any other is “Why magic?” The questioner has usually just finished declaring me a magic realist or a fabulist or just plain kooky and they want to know why, in such difficult times, I have chosen to write about a father and daughter transforming the Pacific Garbage Patch into the last continent after Global Warming, or a teenage girl who wakes up with a Russian radio transmitting from her belly, or a woman who watches her boyfriend disappear into thin air.
There is an undertone to the question that suggests magic is frivolous, that reality is more serious and therefore more useful to people—after all, nobody ever asks the realist writers “Why reality?” But there is another shade to the question that I’ve only recently been able to detect and only because I’ve spent the last decade living and writing in other corners of the world. There seems to be a belief, both here and abroad, that it is somehow “not Canadian” to write in a highly imaginative way, that this kind of “magical thinking” is better left to the South American and far eastern writers, that Canadian short fiction can only be about people standing inside of log cabins looking out at winter landscapes and contemplating the meaning of life. Or people doing cross-stitch while contemplating the meaning of life. Or people doing the dishes while contemplating the meaning of life.
The truth, of course, is that we Canadians are not all housebound and philosophical. The truth is we are actually quite good at imaginative writing, whether that works its way into magic realism, speculative fiction, fabulist fiction or fantasy. It has been said that only countries with long and complex histories, spicy food and/or a pantheon of gods can produce a cannon of magic realism, that Canada is far too “new” a country to even try. But Canadian writers Jack Hodgins, Barbara Gowdy, Zsuzsi Gartner, Yann Martel, Patrick Roscoe, Anosh Irani and Gail Anderson-Dargatz—to name just a few—have long proven otherwise. And now there is a new generation of writers coming onto the scene—Neil Smith, Jessica Grant, Pasha Malla and Matthew Trafford—who aren’t afraid to take great and thrilling liberties with reality. While we may be considered a new country by some, the twenty-three Canadian writers in the recent anthology of dystopian fiction Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow prove that being Canadian is no obstacle to imagination. If we are too new a country to write about our past, we have no problems dreaming up possible futures.
Now that I have joined these writers by releasing a collection of what many people are calling magic realist stories, I realize that I am going to have to learn to answer the question “Why magic?” more articulately than my usual knee-jerk response of “Why not?” Because no matter how far Canadian literature has come, no matter how expansive readers and critics are, in these northern climes magic realism still seems to need defending. And so I offer the following three answers to the question “Why magic?”
1. I think of magic just like I think of my finances. As a young writer with a crippling student loan debt, the constraints of my budget dictate that I should confine myself to eating rice and beans for the next twenty-five years. But the truth is sometimes I take myself out for ice cream. Sometimes I buy strawberries in the middle of winter. To me, using magic in fiction is a little bit like blowing my budget on out-of-season fruit. In a world of rules and constraints it’s a necessary excess, a celebration of life, a reason to keep on going.
2. In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury writes, “We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.” Here is where I confess that I started my writing life as an altruistic journalist who wanted to write about the big issues and make a difference in the world. I quickly found that writing about the issues that mattered most to me felt depressing and useless and a lot like making things worse. In short, I was dying of truth. It took many, many years but I eventually wandered all the way down the imaginative spectrum of writing into fiction, and then, even further into magical fiction. And what I’ve discovered is that the further I venture into magic, the more I am able to tackle those big issues that called me to writing in the first place. When I write about the Pacific Garbage Patch as our last continent, about a girl with a radio in her belly, about a disappearing boyfriend, I’ve chosen to step further out into magic in order to approach some of life’s more difficult realities, in this case, the extent of the damage we’ve done to the planet, how confusing it is for teenage girls to decode the messages society sends them, and how love so often diminishes us. My writing doesn’t offer solutions to these problems any more than journalism does, but my hope is that it at least offers a new way of seeing things. In a world that is dying of truth, I offer up imagination—and yes, a little bit of magic—as a salve.
3. In his book On Writing, Stephen King wrote, “Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” This description of literature—that truth is the shiny pearl at the heart of every good story—is one of the best I have ever heard. Like Stephen King it’s my belief that what surrounds that truth, it’s dressing, can be magical and kooky and that the truth will remain intact—in fact, I think that truth will shine even brighter. As writers, why shouldn’t we dip into the tickle trunk of life and dress our lies up? Why not entertain and make our readers laugh? Why not arrive at the truth with all the bright magic of a fairytale?
Buffy Cram's stories have appeared in Prairie Fire, The Bellevue Literary Review and the anthology, Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales From Tomorrow. Her fiction was a finalist for the 2009 Western Magazine Award and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has received a National Magazine Award for her creative non-fiction.