Crucifixions and Resurrections:
Hey. Not to get all religious (no seriously, I am really NOT getting religious) but let’s look at the crux of the Christian faith. A man who is languaged as “more than a man” was sent by his father (who is apparently God) to suffer the sins of the world in order to purge those sins by his sacrifice in the form of human suffering and ultimate death. Okay fine. But then there’s the whole rising from the dead after three days to ascend into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God thing. Magical realism. OR…speculative fiction if we drill down into the facts of Jesus’ birth and decide to take a look at his mother who is inexplicably pregnant though reportedly a virgin. The Bible then becomes one speculation as to the origin story of Jesus’ arrival and his mother’s strange pregnancy. Perhaps Mary was a witch. Perhaps she is predecessor to those burned women in Salem who were simply in possession of their gifts. I have speculated this very thing in writing though I rarely read it out loud for fear of persecution. I am not intending to be offensive. I promise. I am a writer. I deal in the impossible being possible and quite frankly so does the Bible. It’s why I love it. But I read the Bible as literature. Not as historical fact.
Another speculation might be that Mary was being punished. Pregnant virgin whose progeny was doomed to suffer and die on behalf of…the whole world? There are those who might hear that and think it more a punishment than an honor. I’m just…speculating.
Consider. In the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a seminal work if you wish to truly understand magical realism, one of the things Marquez does brilliantly is make the narrator unimpeachable. The tale is fantastical but the narrator is solid and non-judgmental. Unsentimental even. He is simply reporting what happened and by being so calm and untouched by the impossibility of this world, there is no need to try and explain or justify the implausible parts of the story. The intangible and tangible join forces and run amok. The narrator is simply relaying the information as though it is the implacable truth. Consider this excerpt: “Just a moment, now we shall witness an undeniable proof of the infinite power of God.” (Marquez p. 85) A priest who levitates by means of chocolate said that statement. It sounds absurd to you perhaps. But it is offered in an unperturbed expression that renders the reader ready to accept it. Does that make sense? Think about this: what if the goal is not to interrupt reality with magic? What if you introduce reality into magic? What if magic is the norm and reality is the visitor? You have an invitation to write that way. Why don’t you give it a shot? Toggle between the impossible and the mundane. But make the impossible the norm and the mundane the interruption.
I would like for you to create a split screen. On the left write 10 phrases that all begin with “If’s” (You know…”If God is who he says he is…” or “If peacocks are so thirsty for attention…” or “If all of this is an elaborate hallucination…” Ten of them. Please don’t think too long on it. Just let your sub-conscious do the work for you. Whatever comes out is what’s supposed to come out. On the right side of the page write 10 “Thens” (You know, “Then angels very likely can’t tell time” or “Then graveyards are holy places.” Whatever. Don’t try to make them match. This exercise is about you listening to your sub conscious. You are going to need it to work for you for the remaining exercises. Trust me. But more importantly, trust YOU.) This should take no more than ten minutes.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, a character called Jose Arcadio goes on a hunting trip with his wife, comes home, goes into his bedroom to change clothes, and minutes later the sound of a gun firing followed by this:
“A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down the steps, climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendia house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Ursula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.” (Marquez p. 135)
It doesn’t matter that Jose’s death is ridiculous. It is a fact. One we accept because well…we have no choice. We weren’t there. The narrator is telling us what happened and we trust him. I want you to think about that. How do you get the reader to trust you and how you see things? Do you browbeat them? Are you condescending? Are you professorial? I would posit that all you need do is mean it. It is YOUR story to tell. If you cannot stomach writing about what your best friend’s uncle did or what your mother’s drinking habits created for you or what the neighborhood boys’ rapaciousness grew in you, but you still NEED to expel those stories, consider that you can make the uncle a shark you snared on a fishing trip, your mother’s drinking was a potion helping her to stay in her human form as opposed to returning to the sea as the mermaid she really is, the neighborhood boys were jackals from an ancient time period come to keep you from finding the seeds your ancestors buried for you in some celestial garden which would allow you to become immortal. You being a god and all…
Some aspects of real life need fantasy. Sometimes what is really happening is so absurd it feels like magical realism. Sometimes what your right-now reality holds is so un-languageable you find solace in speculating about what produced that reality. I have often thought of President Trump as the walking id of our unconscious shadow selves gathering momentum through the eons, situated in his body to detonate the mythology of American exceptionalism and teach us about the work we still need to do. A hex you know? A curse we have to reckon with so we can get to the hallelujah. I am not trying to be political. I am simply looking at all that has shifted in our collective consciousness since his arrival and think…ah….there’s a hex in there somewhere.
The genius in what Marquez does in One Hundred Years of Solitude is the genius in what Toni Morrison does in Beloved.
Consider this: Toni Morrison was researching chattel slavery when she came across a story about a woman named Margaret Garner who had been born into slavery and had three children who were also immediately regarded as property. She elected to escape when she was pregnant with her fourth child after suffering indignities not to be named here. She sent her three children out ahead of her with a woman who she knew to have made the journey successfully before. Two boys, neither older than five years old, and a toddler girl who was still being breast-fed when they were packed into a wagon and sent out, heading to Cincinnati, Ohio. Margaret Garner ran from the plantation in Kentucky and gave birth to her fourth child along the way. She crossed a frozen Ohio River and experienced 28 days of liberty before the slave master found her, accompanied by the sheriff. She was just a woman, sure. But she was a mother and that is feral. When she saw the men coming up the road, she grabbed all of her children, prodding the boys to run ahead of her, into a wood shed.
What happened next was used by abolitionists to support their claim that slavery was evil, and used by slave masters to support their claim that black people were evil: she hit the boys in the back of their heads with a shovel. She dragged a handsaw across the toddler’s throat and she was in the process of swinging the newborn by the feet trying to connect its head with the wooden planks on the wall when the sheriff came in and stopped her. That’s what happened. That is the nonfiction horror of slavery. Margaret Garner preferred killing her children to seeing them returned to slavery. She did not succeed in killing her two boys or the newborn but she did kill the still breast feeding toddler girl she sent ahead of her to escape slavery. Morrison took that event and elected to drill down into the marrow of a baby interrupted abruptly by the shock of a blade and created a character that walked fully dressed, out of the water. This character is the child murdered by her mother who has come back, not as a ghost but a girl who is the age she would have been had she lived, still seeking her mother, needing her, but also traumatized and angry about what happened to her at the hands of her mother.
That is magical realism.
The reader has no choice but to experience the novel Beloved from a place of grand acceptance that this baby came back, bearing a long jagged scar on her throat (Obanje) from where her mother dragged a handsaw across it when she was a baby. These literary devices don’t spare the reader from the horror of what happened. Quite the opposite. It deepens the horror…and the grief. We aren’t running from anything here. We are going to dig and we are going to believe…in magic, our own, and that which hoists up the known universe.
It reminds me of something my grandmother used to say, “You might not believe in magic but it believes in you. And magic has never needed folks to agree with it to do what it does. That’s religion. But magic just is.”
I am hoping that if you don’t integrate anything else, you integrate this…you have PERMISSION to activate your imagination and give color a sound if you need to. To raise the dead if you feel like it. To grow talons if it suits you. You have permission to tell us about the birth story of Abraham Lincoln, who you speculate, may have been a warlock. Or Moses, reincarnate.
(Side note: Have you noticed all of the references to that which is biblical and that which is witchcraft that I keep returning to?) Yeah…I’m aware of it too. Hyper aware. it’s an interesting dichotomy and very likely a feature of my having gone to Catholic school my ENTIRE life so I am filled with catechism and heresy ladies and gentlemen. I’m not in conflict about it. I use it all.
The ritual of Mass always fascinated me. I saw my math and science teachers, (VERY left brained logical people) take wine and wafers into their mouths and believe them to be “the body and blood of Christ.” So you can imagine the dissonance I felt when I came into class one day after recess telling Sister Dehlia that the girl’s restroom was haunted (it totally was) and was promptly castigated for being “illogical and foolish” but an hour later at Mass Sister Dehlia and Sister Ellen Kerr were eating Jesus.
Let me give you more (cuz I like you and care about your success)…
Please pick from one these writing prompts and follow the yellow brick road…
I will share a story with you and offer it up as potential example. It was a dream really and in the dream I was killing someone. It was gruesome and incredibly violent. I was standing over the mangled body of my stepfather tearing it apart with my bare hands. My stepfather is the only person I kill again and again. In poems. In dreams. In nightmares. At any rate, he was unrecognizable and I was still ripping him apart. I was reveling in it. I was wild with it. I remember knowing that though it was very dark, I was dressed formally. I could feel the strictures that only formal wear creates and I had on high heels. I was conscious of blood and tendon tunneling my nail beds. I kept going. It was perhaps the most visceral dream I have ever had. Suddenly a spotlight came on. It startled me. My eyes had to adjust to the sudden incursion of light so it took me more than a few seconds to realize that I was standing on stage and there was an auditorium full of people looking on. I. Was. Mortified. And devastated. I was trying to figure out what to do next when they started clapping. Raucous house-shaking thunderous applause. A standing ovation for the crazy murder lady. I was flabbergasted. I stood there looking out at the faces in the crowd. I observed that some of my old teachers were there. Old lovers. Former classmates and teammates. And plenty of strangers. All applauding me as I stood in a strapless evening gown covered in blood, the mangled body of my stepfather at my feet. I looked at my hands. Saw his blood emphasizing the lines in them, raised them up, started clapping for myself, took a bow and exited the stage.
Point is: you are more than welcome to use the raw material of dreams you’ve had for this writing exercise. Your dreams can tell you more about what is gurgling beneath the surface of your personhood than a therapist can sometimes.
Please aim for 200 words at least on the writing exercise. I want to emphasize, there is a no holds barred policy here. You can say whatever you need to. But own your language. Language is a culture keeper. It is hugely important. Be willful about being in an honest relationship with it. So much about how we show up in the world is performative. It’s exhausting isn’t it? Pretending to be fine when you’re not. Or pretending to be strong when you’re fragile. Or pretending to know when you don’t. Not here. You can drop all the pretense here. I am not interested in what you think I want to hear. I am interested in what you actually have to say. Do me the honor of not limiting yourself in this space. Be available to your own magic.
There is something else I would like for you to try.
I would like for you to consider using either speculative fiction or magical realism to create revisionist history. Perhaps you can spare John F Kennedy from that fateful day in Dallas if you elect to reach for something that you weren’t directly proximal to. Perhaps you write Emmett Till perfectly alive having never gone to Mississippi in the summer of 1955. Or maybe you need to revise some part of your own story. Was there something that happened that altered your trajectory? Is there devastation from your childhood that you wish to undo? What can you invent to rescue you from that moment? Who or what interrupts the event that almost pulled you under? If you give this one a go, remember…start with the structure of reality and then detonate it with your invention.
(Note: This requires you to first name the bruise or the trench before there can be the tourniquet or the hero. And as always, I hope you are the hero in the end. I hope you win!)
Here is a short excerpt from Like Water for Chocolate
To make the cake for Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding, Tita and Nancha had to multiply their recipe by ten, since they were preparing a cake not for 18 people but for 180. Therefore, they needed 170 eggs, all on the same day.
When she had beaten barely a hundred eggs, the phenomenal energy required for the task began to have a bad effect on Tita’s mood. A fit of trembling shook Tita’s body and she broke out in goose bumps when each new egg was broken. The egg whites reminded her of the chickens they had castrated the month before.
“I won’t stand for disobedience,” Mama Elena told her, “nor am I going to allow you to ruin your sister’s wedding, with your acting like a victim. You’re in charge of all the preparations starting now, and don’t ever let me catch you with a single tear or even a long face, do you hear?”
Tita was trying to keep that in mind as she got set to castrate the first chicken. She was dripping sweat and her stomach was swooping like a kite on the wind. Mama Elena looked at her piercingly, and said: “What’s the matter? Why the shaking? Are we going to start having problems?”
Tita raised her eyes and looked at her. She felt like screaming, Yes, she was having problems, when they had chosen something to be neutered, they’d made a mistake, they should have chosen her. At least then there would be some justification for not allowing her to marry and giving Rosaura her place beside the man she loved.
Mama Elena read the look on her face and flew into a rage, giving Tita a tremendous slap that left her rolling in the dirt.
Today Tita was not as good a helper as usual. Not that she made any complaints under her mother’s watchful eye, but when Mama Elena left the kitchen to go to bed, Tita let out a long sigh. Nancha gently took the spoon out of her hand and embraced her: “Now we’re alone in the kitchen, so go ahead and cry, my child, because I don’t want them to see you crying tomorrow. Especially not Rosaura.”
And so, arms around each other, Nancha and Tita wept until there were no more tears in Tita’s eyes. Then she cried without tears, which is said to hurt even more like dry labor, but at least she wasn’t making the cake batter soggy, so they could finish the final steps…
(the wedding …)
Tita was so wrapped up in her thoughts that she didn’t notice that all around her something very strange was taking place. The moment they took their first bite of the cake, everyone was flooded with a great wave of longing. Mama Elena, who hadn’t shed a single tear over her husband’s death, was sobbing silently. But the weeping was just the first symptom of a strange intoxication-an acute attack of pain and frustration-that seized the guests and scattered them across the patio and the grounds and in the bathrooms, all of them wailing over lost love.
Everyone there, every last person, fell under this spell, and not very many of them made it to the bathrooms in time.
Only one person escaped: the cake had no effect on Tita. She urgently wanted to tell Nancha that she had been right in saying Pedro loved only her. Envisioning the happiness that would spread across Nancha’s face, she didn’t notice that with every step the scenes of misery around her, pathetic and horrifying, were growing worse.
Rosaura struggled to control her nausea, but it was too much for her! Her only concern was to keep her wedding dress from being fouled, but as she crossed the patio she slipped and every inch of her dress ended up coated with vomit. She was swept away in a raging rotting river for several yards; then she couldn’t hold back anymore, and she spewed out great noisy mouthfuls of vomit, like an erupting volcano, right before Pedro’s horrified eyes.”
In this excerpt, Tita is grieving that her older sister is marrying the man that Tita loves. As Tita makes the cake for her sister’s wedding and cries into the batter something supernatural happens. Her grief is baked into the cake and those who eat the cake inherit that grief and longing. Magic.
The Wrap Up…
Ladies and gentlemen it has truly been an honor to offer this content to you. I want to leave you with resources and references for both speculative fiction and magical realism so below you will find a list of readings for your consideration. I also want you to consider using word pools for your writing. Or a ghost line. If you elect to use word pools, get quiet and jot down the first twenty words that come to you and integrate them into your writing. Or you can grab a dictionary, flip to different pages and point with your eyes closed to a word. Whatever word you land on you use. If you try the ghost line technique it is simple enough. Take any piece of writing that speaks to you. Literally anything and use a line from that piece as your first line. Build off of that ghost line and when your piece is done, erase that ghost line.
Here are the references I promised to other examples of magical realism and speculative fiction…
Alexie, Sherman. “Every Little Hurricane” / +“A Drug called Tradition” (from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven)
Barthelme, Donald. “Cortes and Montezuma”
Faulkner, William: As I Lay Dying (excerpt: includes “Addie”) / +“The Old People”
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown”
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian (excerpt: Chaps. I-XII; recommended for those specializing in Western or North American literature)
Scott Momaday, N. “The Way to Rainy Mountain” / +The Ancient Child (excerpt)
Morrison Toni. Beloved
Okri, Ben. Famished Road
Native American Selections: “The Bear Man” / “How the World was Made” / “Notes on Native American Myths” / poems: Hogan “To Light” and Whiteman “Dream of Rebirth” / Oratory: Chief Speckled Snake and Chief Joseph (
Neruda, Pablo. +“Amor America”
Rhys, Jean. +Wide Sargasso Sea (excerpt; recommended for those specializing in Caribbean literature)
Saunders, George. Lincoln in the Bardo (excerpt; recommended for those specializing in Western or North American literature )
B. Theoretical, historical, reviews:
Baker, Suzanne, +“Binarisms and duality: magic realism and post-colonialism.”
Carpentier, Alejo. +”On the Marvelous Real in America,” +“The Baroque and the Marvelous Real”
Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. “The March to Mexico” (excerpt)
Faulkner, W. “1950 Nobel Prize Speech”
García Márquez, G. “1982 Nobel Prize Speech: The Solitude of Latin America”
Jameson, Frederic. “On Magical Realism in Film”
Faris, Wendy B. “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction”
Churchill, Ward. “Smoke Signals: A History of Native Americans in Cinema.”
(Native America and the Vision Quest: Restoration through Ceremony and Mysticism)
Readings: Native American Selections: Myths: “The Bear Man,” “How the World was Made” / poems: Hogan “To Light” and Whiteman “Dream of Rebirth” / Oratory: Chief Speckled Snake and Chief Joseph / Scott Momaday, N. “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” The Ancient Child / Alexie, S. “Every Little Hurricane,” “A Drug called Tradition” / Churchill, W. “Smoke Signals: A History of Native Americans in Cinema” / Film: Smoke Signals (highly recommended: Thunderheart, Skins, Whale Rider)
(Defining the Self within the Magically Real, the Poetics of Politics in Cinema)
Reading: Jameson: On Magical Realism in Film / Films: El Norte / highly recommended: Hasta la lluvia (Even the Rain) / The Green Mile / Magnolia / The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (on Netflix)
**Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven. NY: Harper Perennial, 1993.
*Baker, Suzanne, “Binarisms and duality: magic realism and postcolonialism,” Postcolonial Fictions. Ed. Michèle Drouart, SPAN, Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, Number 36 (1993).
*Barthelme, Donald. “Cortes and Montezuma.” Sixty Stories. NY: Penguin, 1993
Bowers, Maggie Ann, “Origins of Magical Realism,” Magical Realism. London: Routledge, 2004. 8-19.
*Churchill, Ward. “Smoke Signals: A History of Native Americans in Cinema.” LiP Magazine. (November, 1998).
*Faris, Wendy B. “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction.” Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
Faris, Wendy B. Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2004.
**Faulkner, William. As I lay Dying. 1930; rpt. NY: Modern Library, 2012.
*García Márquez, Gabriel. “Un Señor Muy Vejo con Alas Enormes.” La hojarasca. Barcelona: Bruguera, 1955; 1990. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Trans. G. Rabassa. Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology. NY: Longman, 1984.
*____. “Los funerales de la mamá grande.” Los funerales de la mama grande. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1962; 1977. / “Big Mama’s Funeral.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Collected Stories. NY: Penguin, 2014.
Harris, Wilson. Palace of the Peacock. London: Faber & Faber, 1960; 2013.
*Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown,” 1840; rpt. Selected Tales & Sketches. NY: Penguin, 1987.
Horne, Dee. Contemporary American Indian Writing: Unsettling Literature. NY: Peter Lang, 1999. Especially see “Chapter One: Dancing along the Precipice.” 1-24.
*Jameson, Frederic. “On Magical Realism in Film.” Critical Inquiry. 12, 2 (1986): 301-25.
Leal, Luis. “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction.” Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.Leeming, David and Jake Page, eds. The Mythology of Native North America. Norman: Univ of Oklahoma P, 1998
Marmon Silko, Leslie. Ceremony. NY: Penguin, 2006.
*McCarthy,Cormac. Blood Meridian. NY: Vintage, 1985.
*Morrison Toni. Beloved. NY: Penguin, 1987.
*Neruda, Pablo. “Amor America.” Canto General. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1950.
Owens, Louis. “Other Destinies, Other Plots: An Introduction to Indian Novels”: 2-31. “Acts of the Imagination: the Novels of Scott Momoday”:90-127. ‘The Very Essence of our Lives’: Leslie Silko’s Webs of Identity”: 167-191. In Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: Oklahoma UP, 1994.
**Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. 1966; rpt. NY: W.W. Norton, 2016.
**Saunders, George. Lincoln in the Bardo. NY: Random House, 2017.
* Scott Momaday, N. “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” 1969; rpt. The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico Press, 1979.
Young, David and K. Hollaman, eds. Magical Realist Fiction: An Anthology. NY: 1984.
Art that reflects the tradition of magical realism:
Frida Kahlo is an important contributor here. You might also consider Bridget Bate Tichenor, Maryam Hashemi, Jaroslaw Kukowski, Marcela Donoso, John Rogers Cox, Ricco, Alfonso Ponce de León, and Nicholas Zalevsky.
I mentioned The Killing of a Sacred Deer and I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Also consider Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, The Green Mile, Birdman, Like Water for Chocolate, About Time, Stranger Than Fiction, Amélie, Donnie Darko…honestly the list is wildly endless.
Link to a reading from me: (This is part two to the Period Poem I wrote that is more widely known… https://youtu.be/mopg3hiieEc
I want to be available to you all when the class is done. If you need to reach me, need further critique or just need to cuss me out or whatever my email is firstname.lastname@example.org
I am excited for you all. I am proud of you all for engaging the work and activating your radical imagination to dream a world…one that is deserving of your holy, your perfect, your incalculably necessary life.
Be brave. Be dangerous. Be loud. And by all means, insist, exist, and resist.
Dominique Christina, MFA, M.Ed