I was sitting with Alicia Haniford in October, struggling to come up with a line that described “Dye Me in the Colour of Spring,” my contribution to the anthology. “It has non-realism,” I said, “but I don’t know if I would describe that as magic. Because magic implies that it’s not true.”
Magic and the supernatural have played an important role in cultures and societies around the world. In many cases, specifically cultures that are not white or western, the supernatural is still integrated in perceptions and outlooks on life. The subgenre of magical realism originated in Latin America and is attributed to writing in which the supernatural permeates the mundane. Adding any further definition is difficult, according to Mexican critic Luis Leal. “If you can explain it, it’s not magical realism,” says Leal. It is largely part of the Latin American literary tradition, although the term has been claimed by non-Latinx authors in recent times. In my conversation with Alicia, I didn’t want to claim the term as a descriptor for my story because my story exists in a different literary context. The circle comes back to the question of definition.
In the mainstream social context put forward in literature and other media (and framed by legacies of colonialism and western imperialism), magic is regarded as something that is not true. Genres like fantasy describe anything that is not real, i.e. not explainable by (western) understandings of science. Whenever magic appears in a story, the author must establish the rules of magic, how they operate, and what the expectations and limitations are. Magic can never just enter randomly into the story, because this goes against the orderly structure writing must take. Against these rules, I started writing.
Before I started working on my story, before the characters took shape and the relationship between Karishma and Rohan developed, I knew I wanted my story to blur the lines between realism and non-realism. Not fantasy, not magic, but a world where boundaries between worlds blurred. Something that went against the rigid, rational construction of the world by western hegemony. I wanted my story to scratch away at the layers of western societal construction to expose a reality that lives in harmony with so-called rationality. To build a world where rationality does not equal more real.
I wasn’t thinking about genre when I set out to write my story, but my conversation with Alicia exposed some of the assumptions about fiction in settings that don’t fit into the definition of realism. Magic isn’t always vampires and werewolves and elves – things that belong to genres like fantasy. It’s hard to call beings like jinns (invisible fire beings from Islamic culture) or wendigos (cannibalistic beings from Algonquin culture) magical because that implies they fit into the same category as the above-mentioned creatures. I use the word “beings” instead of creatures because of the ambiguity of where exactly these figures lie in the broader, global space they inhabit. Calling them “creatures” reduces them to colonial-influenced language, when in reality they are so much more than that. The beings mentioned show up in texts and oral stories passed down through generations, and are still part of the cultural fabric of these communities today. Are these beings real or not? That’s not for us to decide.
Why does magic in a world have to be laid out or defined? Can it not exist as plainly as cellphones would in a story set in 2019? There’s an answer to these questions that lies somewhere between colonial legacy and western imperialist thought.
I wanted my story to scratch away at the layers of western societal construction to expose a reality that lives in harmony with so-called rationality. To build a world where rationality does not equal more real.
These seem like heavy words to attach to fiction-writing. But when we think about the distribution of power in society, leadership is attributed to people who are “rational.” For example, thinking about how women are treated as emotional, hysterical, and “too irrational” to be in leadership positions. What else do we conceive as irrational, and what else does not fit into the western hegemonic societal structure? Magic.
Bringing this back to fiction-writing, when we spend so much time trying to prove why “magic” needs to exist in a story, we lose track of the characters and their motivations. Instead of moving the plot forward, we have to justify how the magic works and where it comes from. I remember the phrase, “suspension of disbelief,” applied regularly to Shakespeare’s plays, but never to stories by authors who inhabit the world outside of the white, western hegemony.
Perhaps this was why working on You Hit Me with Your Car (and Other Love Stories) was such a beautiful experience. I received feedback like “Can you put in more cute scenes with Karishma and Rohan,” that helped me build their individual characters as well as their relationship with each other. In “Dye me in the colour of spring,” Karishma’s lessons with her grandmother unveil a lot of her powers, but don’t necessarily explain how supernatural elements work from a logical or rational perspective. I expected comments wanting to clarify how her lessons related to the supernatural aspect of the story; instead, I got requests to elaborate on what Karishma was doing during these lessons (without explaining the logic of them).
This critique comes in contrast with comments I’ve gotten on stories in other editing workshops. In a previous workshop, at least half the class commented, “I don’t quite understand how this heatwave melts metal but doesn’t affect people.” These comments came despite the instructor’s praise of the premise. When a story is built on the premise of an exaggerated heatwave, comments like the one above didn’t help me iron out the ending or tighten up language, two areas I knew needed work in the story.
Although I settled on the word “supernatural” to hint at the elements of non-realism readers can expect, I still think there must be a word for the presence of jinns in my story that does not draw on colonial language. Paige Pinto suggests the word “hypernatural,” to hint at the nitty-gritty of nature that we can’t see unless we’re hyper-attuned to it.