“You knock at the door of Reality. You shake your thought wings, loosen your shoulders, and open.” Rumi
We need to reimagine the world. This is a desperate, unrelenting need to speak a new world into being. Throughout my PhD, I have explored what unimagining and reimagining might mean from the perspective of refugees. Can we narrate into existence a world beyond borders?
This is the question that was in my mind as I attended the online conference, featuring presentations by Maggie Bowers, Felicity Gee, and Tinashe Mushakavanhu at Oxford University. This one-day workshop offered a deep dive into the genre of magical realism, its implications, and its applications in various forms of art. Magical realism was explored as a deeply counterhegemonic mode of narrative that voices the lives, stories and imaginations of the subaltern.
Maggie Ann Bowers: Magical Realism’s Dilemma Cosmopolitan Voices Narrating the Voiceless
Magical realism defies the boundaries of reality and imagination through a fantastic expression of the mundane. Yet it does more than this. It can also illustrate the historical and present-day violence of coloniality and neoliberalism. A rewriting of colonial history from a subaltern view. This might be seen in the stories of India's midnight children and massacres, communal conflicts, riots and banana plantations. Often these narratives are told by the cosmopolitan - the person sent into spiritual or indeed a physical exile from the homeland and now turned into the world traveller. As mobile, world-educated writers, they become global citizens and global elites. Maggie Ann Bowers, in the first session of the workshop, questions whether this cosmopolitan can truly be a representative voice.
Bowers, known for her comprehensive overview of postcolonial literature, highlighted the significance of magical realism in expressing the postcolonial condition. Her discussion resonated with my own exploration of magical realism in my PhD research in Law. Like Bowers, I too grapple with the question of authenticity and appropriation in representing the subaltern. Her presentation reaffirmed my belief in the power of magical realism to challenge and subvert dominant narratives. Though her probing of the history of magical realism also left me staring uncomfortably into a mirror and with questions of my own privilege and positionality. In my own use of the fantastical in my PhD to represent refugee voices; how do my stories live with the colonial histories and tensions in the stories of my participants and co-researchers?
This genre seems to have found its home in the heart of postcolonial literature. But why? Why do the postcolonial narrative and stories of those who suffer find solace in the arms of the extraordinary? Why does violence need to be retold as story? (And, though Bowers does not bring this up, what does magical realism have to say about the desire for social change and human rights?)
Authors such as Alejo Carpentier in his work El reino de este mundo in1949, create powerful narratives which rewrite history from the perspective of those who suffer the indignities of a life without rights. Carpentier wrote about the Haitian Revolution at the turn of the 18th/19th Century. Here the slaves, not the slave owners are the storytellers of history. Whilst we can discuss here how the origins of magical realism are distinct to the Caribbean, Latin America and otherised geographies – what I find most interesting is not its localism but its propensity to reimagine violence into a call for change.
During her presentation, Bowers moved through the works of Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez, two well-known storytellers of magical realism. Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" paints a fanatical backdrop to a reality of questions of rights and privilege. Two babies are swapped at birth; the untouchable Dalit baby (Saleem) is given a life of privilege and the 'high' status baby now is destined to live as a pauper. Saleem is magical. Yet at one point he loses his telepathic powers during Indira Gandhi's policies enacted on the poor, and the sterilization of the midnight's children becomes a metaphor for the violation of rights and the suppression of agency and voice. Similarly, Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" uses magical realism to reflect on the cyclical nature of history and the impact of colonialism on Latin America. His fantastical village grows and changes beyond recognition through the encounter with neoliberal institutions. Specifically, his stories illustrate the violence of 'progress' and increasing consumerism. The narrative lives in the tensions of memories and rejection of what occurred during a protest at a banana plantation. A story of rights and exploitation of workers, yes... but also a story of how such losses and violence are swept away by the tides of change and as Maggie Anne Bowers notes 'under the rug of history'. Magical realism, as a genre, serves as a counter to the exoticism of what Edward Said termed orientalism, and further embedding narratives within their specific cultural perspectives. But, there is always a danger of an unreliable narrator - subaltern or not.
But... What Do These Stories and Voices Tell Us About the Postcolonial Condition?
Maggie Bowers and Tinashe Mushakavanhu delve into these questions. Bowers, in her book "Postcolonial Literature," provides a comprehensive overview of this genre, highlighting its significance in expressing the postcolonial condition. Mushakavanhu, a Zimbabwean writer and scholar, uses magical realism to bring to life the stories of marginalized voices. But is this enough? Can the fantastical truly capture the essence of the postcolonial experience?
This brings us to a critical juncture - the question of authenticity and appropriation. Are authors complicit in silencing when they try to represent the subaltern? Or can they use the postmodern voice to overcome the assumed postcolonial voice, acknowledging the unreliability of the narrator?
“This is the oppressor's language
yet I need it to talk to you.”
a line poem Adrienne Rich's poem Burning Paper Not Children.
As a writer and a PhD, I find myself grappling with a similar paradox. In order to create, I need to colonise myself, to internalise the structures and narratives that I seek to critique. As academics, we colonise ourselves through writing forms and structures. We need to colonise ourselves to communicate to the wider world because 'the colonial' is the language of the world. Every time we communicate we recolonise our minds even as we may seek to decolonise. In another blog, I speak about this, and how academic writing itself is a colonial endeavour.
We, as academics and researchers, are therefore the unreliable narrators of the stories of those on the margins. In my own work, I came to the point to ask if the use of narrative could open up more inclusive and multivocal ways of expressing the stories of the subaltern and the border dwellers. Could magical realism within academic/legal scholarly expression offer an alternative way to express these questions of rights, borders and social change? Can I engage in the process of decolonisation, of challenging and subverting the positive and academic narratives through my writing of a fantastical world?
Does it offer a safe space for those with the lived experiences of trauma - like the refugee, stateless and asylum-seeking forced migrants who were the co-researchers in my project and my own?
Trauma has been a significant part of my journey, especially given how I personally experienced PTSD in my field research. Listening to Felicity Gee's session on "Magic Realism in Photography and Film: A Politics of Subtlety", I found myself asking if I had unconsciously reached for magical realism as a mode of narrative in my PhD because of this aspect of releasing trauma that seems to be embedded in the genre. Her talk also illustrated how magical realism extends beyond literature and can be seen in other forms of art, such as photography and film. These forms of media convey a sense of a relationship between the viewer and the screen and ask how trauma can lead to geopolitical questions.
Tinashe Mushakavanhu's presentation on "African Magical Realism Today" seemed to marry the two strands of thought of postcolony, voices and trauma. Mushakavanhu, a Zimbabwean writer and scholar, raises the importance of African literature being seen as magical realism to bring visibility the stories of marginalised voices in the continent. He reminded me that the domain of the postcolonial is not on in the expression of the loss of resources, land and material lives, but also the loss of language, culture and constriction of knowledge. Though he questions using the term magical realism to describe the deeply supernatural and spiritual works of African authors, he remains firm that the genre offers the potential to serve as a form of empowerment or resistance against the constraints of colonising and provincialising discourse, a theme that is central to my own research.
Traversing the Borderscape and An Alchemy of Rights and Voices
As we traverse the terrain of magical realism, we are compelled to question and challenge the boundaries of our understanding, knowledge and emotional connection to the world. Does magical realism, as a genre, create a space for voices to counteract boundaries in text, or is it a prescriptive literary definition that only certain strands of literature can fit within? This question also lingered with me. As well as Patricia William's work The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Her work is perhaps not best defined as magical realism. Yet, her words convey a history with raw emotionality and appeal to the magical to illustrate the violence of law and the hope from rights, in a way that reminds me of Rushdie and Marquez.
As I delve deeper into my PhD research in Law, where I use the fantastical to narrate the core of my thesis, I find myself exploring new intersections. Can the fantastical offer a voice for the rightsless? Can magical realism offer something to legal scholarship - perhaps influence our understanding of law and rights, particularly in the context of forced migration and statelessness? Can the co-creation of stories with forced migrants using magical realism rewrite the imaginaries of states and borders that disempower those voices? Can it offer a mode of resistance against the constraints of traditional and positivist legal discourse?
As I navigated through these imaginative margins brought to focus during this workshop, I came to see new pathways for expression. I was left with a deeper insight into how the subaltern can be heard, reimagine their world through literature, and express their knowledge in new and transformative ways. It can, as the panellists stated, obliterate borders. In the end, though, I am left with more questions than answers. And perhaps ambiguity is the true enchantment of magical realism - its ability to keep the reader questioning, dreaming of the coexistence of the ordinary and the extraordinary, where voices from the margins are heard, and where the world as we know it is continually challenged and reimagined.
If this is an area of interest to you, feel free to contact me via the button below and perhaps we can share ideas to collaborate on decolonising academic writing and building the essential critical communicative modes of expression to better facilitate the voices of the subaltern.