I didn’t learn how to read until college. Not literally (in the sense of phonemes and word recognition), but literally (admittedly misusing the word here, but in the sense of learning how to greater appreciate great texts). I learned to read with purpose, with a deep appreciation that can only come through reading mindfully, almost meditatively. This sort of reading, I learned, uncovers a more meaningful, transcendent text that somehow manages to exist above, below, and in the spaces among the words on the page. I wish we had a word for this sort of reading in English, similar to the distinction between “hearing” and “listening.” I may have learned to read in grammar school, but it wasn’t until college that I really learned how to–really–read.
And yet, by the end of my degree I found some aspects of studying literature weren’t for me. Despite it opening volumes of subtext to me, once opened, I felt we were murdering to dissect, as it were. Welcomed into this new imaginary garden, I felt I was trampling the real toads in them, to borrow Marianne Moore’s famous phrase. Categorizations and genre studies put unnecessary boundaries around works of art (a great irony now that I am a librarian). And so, the first time I heard “magic realism,” I probably rolled my eyes and guffawed. After some threshold, studying literature began to ruin literature for me, and it took years cure myself of it.
But the first time I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this passage opened up yet another world to me:
“A short time later, when the carpenter was taking measurements for the coffin, through the window they saw a light rain of tiny yellow flowers falling. They fell on the town all through the night in a silent storm, and they covered the roofs and blocked the doors and smothered the animals who slept outdoors. So many flowers fell from the sky that in the morning the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by.”
Ah, so that is what they mean by “magic realism!” I thought. Those flowers did fall. They must have. The genre now had a pulse, and I tend to agree with Zoe Brooks that “magic realism is not a genre, but a way of approaching writing fiction.” In some ways its also an way of approaching many things. In fact, I experience almost all art in this way: it calls into being the magic of reality, the magic that is already and always there, just under the surface, just above our heads, disappearing as soon as we focus on it, like the faintest of stars. Magic is the ineffable.
In many respects, that is also how I perceive history, and why I write the sort of historical fiction (“touched by magic realism,” I am told) that I do.
Song of the Jayhawk is definitely an historical novel. I’ve taken great pains over several years to portray historical characters, and the events that forged their fame, as accurately as possible.The major exception would be that a giant bird runs about my novel, twisting the story in dark directions. Kansas in the 1850s, I believe, had no giant mythical bird running about.
Or did it?
It did, like every time and every place, have a myth. A past. Subconscious motivations. Hidden agendas. A removed people, the Kanza, who told tales of Mialueka–monsters with giant beaks who led warriors into dark woods, or to rivers, and they never returned. In other words, the past had a past. One that influences the present like the moon does the ocean; like any unseen force of nature acts upon the world. As I write in the introduction, I have long delighted in wondering if the Mialueka were the inspiration for the infamous Kansas “jayhawk.” The librarian and historian in me believe not, but the writer knows it is so. It simply must be.
To me, this is what is magic about history, and reality. The reality that transcends our understanding of reality. And in the Second Song, I plan on opening the gates to this garden a bit more, and hopefully I’ll find a few more real toads in there.