Magical Realism – Mythopoetry – Speculative Fiction

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art by Kevin LapeƱa

The other day, a young Pinay writer emailed, to ask some questions about magical realism, how I define it, which communities of writers write it, what are some books falling under this category. While the question kind of came out of nowhere, coincidentally, I’d been thinking about issues tangential to or intersecting with magical realism.

I’ve been thinking that magical realism is that thing you call ethnic literature when you don’t know what to do with their “folk” beliefs still existing and manifesting themselves in the modern day. You don’t know why those old beliefs still exist, and why the mythical and spiritual are so incorporated or fused into their everyday modern lives.

It defies conventional logic in modern, secular societies, to still believe, but more so, it defies conventional logic in modern, secular societies for those old beliefs and mythical deities to manifest themselves in our modern daily lives. Advanced as we think we are, we decide that such conventionally unexplainable phenomena are the province of the superstitious, backward, third world, unenlightened. We hear their testimonies of encounters with the fantastic with an air of doubt, and we judge them. In high literature, these stories become exoticized, objectified, hence, magical realism. In poetry, perhaps it’s also objectified and othered as the mythopoetic.

Just the other morning I was skimming an interview with Manila based speculative fiction writer Dean Francis Alfar, as well as looking at this new Philippine speculative fiction online journal Usok. I started to wonder why speculative fiction seems to be big in the Philippines, and it dawned on me, especially looking at the image at the Usok website (I love this image, tikbalang in a jeepney, aswang hanging on the back!) that speculative fiction, what I read as a more culturally neutral term than magical realism, is what Philippine writers are calling their own work in which those old “folk” beliefs do indeed find themselves manifested in the present day, in our urban centers, even among the thoroughly educated, urbanized, and modernized. Others would call it magical realism?

Alfar has a story called “Six From Downtown,” in his very awesome book, The Kite of Stars, about … well, actually, do read it if you can here, particularly the sections which take place in the strip club, between the husband and wife who’s returned from her night out, and in the modern day fish market. Just some thoughts. I’m glad for the question.

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7 thoughts on “Magical Realism – Mythopoetry – Speculative Fiction

  1. And if you connect that thought to a true left-wing politic and the idea that poets have access to mysteries of language that not everybody does, you have a very powerful idea. But if you use it without the left wing politic (or cynically) a disaster awaits. This has been my personal experience.

  2. Hi Barbara!

    I just want to mention that “speculative fiction” is only culturally neutral depending on whose perspective. The other, more conservative Filipino literati here don’t like term for example, and was a big point of debate during the Taboan Writing Conference earlier this year. It also ties to Dean pushing for the term.

    • Thanks Charles. I see what you mean re: perspective. I’d be interested in hearing why the “conservative Filipino literati” dislike the term. Is it because it’s still “genre” versus “high literature”? I’m under the impression (and I could be wrong) that “speculative fiction” while broadening the field of sci fi/fantasy, is or can be an elevation of the literature. Perhaps the conservative literati are resistant to that elevation?

      • Their main criticisms (and this is an oversimplification):

        1) why place genre labels on fiction? isn’t all fiction speculative? or on the opposite end, there’s nothing fantastical about meeting a manananggal as it’s part of daily life.

        2) why borrow a term from “colonialists”? do we not have an appropriate term for the genre? (just as magic-realism was imposed on Marquez and other Latin American writers instead of coming from them).

  3. Hi Barbara Jane,

    Haven’t been by in a while. Just wanted to say you got mentioned on io9, a pretty popular science fiction blog. Had already read your words here, but came across them again while geeking out.

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