Monthly Archives: August 2014

Voices in the Canyon; Magic or Real?

April Le Boeuf: “My Grandmother sleeps in these hills.”

April Le Boeuf: “My Grandmother sleeps in these hills.”

My Grandmother sleeps in these hills.”

In upcoming (September) novel, Mikawadizi Storms, two girls protest the opening of an open pit iron ore mine near their homeland, by jingle-dress dancing. One of the girls, April Le Boeuf, mentions she sometimes hears voices singing when she sits in the canyon below a waterfall nearby. She believes her deceased ancestors inhabit the hills threatened by the mine. Is this possible?

The girl’s story is based on the account of Matt Berigan, an old friend now living in Brazil, who visited northern Wisconsin back in the 70’s – he lived in Madison at the time. The waterfall in question is Brownstone Falls on the Bad River.

Matt describes his experience:

I wanted to go sit in the mist below Brownstone Falls and just be alone with my cigarettes and thoughts. It was late afternoon. There were few visitors in the park and nobody on the trails or around the gorge. I sat for quite some time and the sun was advancing, the light diminishing. I thought I heard a voice singing but rationalized that it was something in the pounding waterfall noise that created this effect. The rationalization worked until, all of the sudden, it became more than one voice and it was a singing unlike anything I had heard previously – it was chanting with peaks of a shrill shouting-like call. I really thought, at first, that there must be some group of people up on the top of the gorge doing some interesting musical performance – and the size of the chorus grew as the evening sky advanced.

I knew very little about Native Americans at the time…

It grew dark and as much as I was mesmerized, nearly terrorized, by the ever-increasing sound which had become a thousand voices, I knew I had to get out of there because climbing out in the dark would have been a bad choice. I clambered out and on achieving the top of the gorge all sound ceased. I was in a peaceful forest. I wasn’t sure if I simply had a huge lapse of sanity or if the experience had been real.

I’ll come back to Matt’s choice between lapse of sanity and real in a moment, after considering the literary version of this distinction.

One widely quoted source defines magic realism as: a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment[1]. Other definitions of this genre of fiction make a similar distinction between the magical and the real, including the Oxford English Dictionary, and Merriam Webster. Zoe Brook’s thoughtful essay, What is Magic Realism?, mentions fictional accounts that question the nature of “reality” (the quotation marks are Zoe’s) and suggests alternative realism might be a better designation for fiction that describes a world where there are alternatives to rationalism, thus avoiding the suggestion that the magical is somehow irrational or unrealistic.

In Mikawadizi Storms, the singing ancestors aren’t only in April Le Boeuf’s imagination; they are part of the overall narrative fabric that makes up the novel. They are as real as the character who hears them. So, Mikawadizi Storms is an example of magical realism. But, of course, the novel is all fiction; none of it real. What about Matt’s experience below the Brownstone Falls? What is it that makes Matt’s pounding waterfall noise rational (or, in Faris and Zamora’s definition, part of a mundane, realistic environment) and the alternative – singing voices – magic? Why would Matt worry that hearing these voices might be a huge lapse of sanity?

Matt’s pondering over how to understand and describe his experience is grounded in a real world version of the distinction that is the heart of most definitions of magical realism, and goes to one of the persistent questions in philosophy (specifically ontology) – what is real?

Immanuel Kant argued there is an underlying reality we all experience, the noumenon or thing-in- itself (das Ding an sich). But we don’t experience this noumenon directly, rather we experience an interpretation (which he called phenomena) constructed on top of this world. In fact, our speculative reason can only know phenomena, never the underlying noumenon. In short, the world we experience isn’t what is real, but only an interpretation of what is real. We don’t consciously construct this interpretation, of course, but some of the aspects of the world we experience that Kant believed we contribute might surprise you – time, space, cause and effect. Many philosophers don’t accept Kant’s views; that’s true of any philosopher you might name. Still, the idea there’s a common underlying reality we all share seems sensible, as does the view that our experiences of that reality are significantly textured, arranged, and adjusted before we actually experience them, by us. The upshot is that both interpretations of the sound below the waterfall, the noise made by falling water or the singing of ancestors, are on equal footing in at least one respect – both are interpretations. As Zoe Brooks put it, these are alternative realities. So, which alternative is best?

Matt’s experience illustrates one of the characteristics of reality – it is self-imposing. He didn’t choose to hear the sounds below the waterfall as singing voices; he heard singing voices. While we strive to maintain the fabric of interpretations we surround ourselves with as a consistent, cohesive, complete narrative – the world around us, or the stories of our lives – we generally don’t chose one interpretation over another. We simply experience. To some extent, our interpretations are fit to our expectations, and some of these are grounded in upbringing and culture. My character, April Le Boeuf, was raised in a traditional Indian family and community. She’s not at all surprised to hear her ancestors singing in the canyon below the waterfall. She expects to join them doing that one day. Matt’s experience is more a surprise, and the fact he wasn’t raised in this way (in fact didn’t know much about this type of singing) suggests his experience didn’t derive from his upbringing. This possibility is what gives magical realism stories their power and relevance. Stories in the genre aren’t escapist – they’re not intended to provide an alternative world for readers to explore. They’re not speculative – they don’t posit a different version of reality in order to develop consequences. Rather, they stand interpretations of reality based in different cultures (real cultures that have actually emerged from the experiences of real people) alongside each other without judging between them or even commenting on the differences too much. The result is a hybrid world where the magical world is everyday and (when done well) the everyday world is magical.

[1] Faris, Wendy B. and Lois Parkinson Zamora, Introduction to Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, pp. 5

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Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding SweetgrassSome millennia ago our ancestors discovered language and so began the project of finding the best representation of this (here thump on whatever physical reality is in front of you) in terms of this (here place your hand near your mouth and open/close your fingers to imitate talking).

Robin Kimmerer is a scientist who understands there are dimensions to reality science hasn’t explored thoroughly and won’t explore until voices like hers are heard. This is not to say scientific accounts to date are wrong, but they are incomplete and can be improved by expanding the vision of science while retaining the rigor and objectivity of its methods. As practiced for more than a century by a world-wide community including millions of trained and coordinated people, modern science is the most significant social and methodological human achievement so far. Much has been accomplished by this community following these methods. Yet much remains, and with improvements in communication and storage of information achieved in the Information-Age, the prospects for further achievement are very bright indeed. Young people now going into scientific disciplines will be part of an amazing expansion and improvement of human understanding in the course of their careers. The basis for this expansion and improvement, in my view, will include thoughtful consideration of the perspective Kimmerer recommends, one grounded in ancient insights from the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and other indigenous peoples worldwide.

Unfortunately, the debate in the US has come down to science vs. religion, often pitting evolution and the big bang theory against the Genesis creation story, and hammering the question ‘which is right?’ The resulting polarization presses religion into discounting the value of the scientific method, creative reasoning, and evidence. On the other side, the scientific community is pressed into discounting worldviews that include a spiritual element as superstition, mythology, or fantasy. This dichotomy is unnecessary and regrettable. We have much to learn, certainly, and the historic juxtaposition of spiritual against material will need to be significantly amended, if not abandoned, for that learning to occur.

Kimmerer uses the methods and precepts of modern science to explain purposeful behaviors among plants. She points the way for rigorous, creative exploration of flora and the behaviors of flora using the scientific method, but without bleaching away what is most interesting in plant (and, ultimately, animal and human) behaviors. She explains this fascinating world through her personal narrative, which includes both her unwavering grounding in scientific disciplines, and her understanding and steadfast appreciation for the worldview of her Indian ancestors and contemporaries.

I recommend this book to those interested in how the world works, not as conclusive but as pointing the way to increased (and ultimately more satisfying) explanations.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Pottawatomie Nation. Her writings have appeared in Orion, Whole Terrain, and numerous scientific journals. She is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.

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Prices Reduced on Seven (count them -7-) Books!

 To celebrate and prepare for the release of Mikawadizi Storms in September, kindle versions of seven titles from Sunny Waters Books are now reduced from 4.99 to 2.99 $US, with corresponding reductions in other currencies. These books are also now available free through kindle unlimited, if you’re into that sort of thing. The books are:


Witless: Two peoples settle in Britts Mill, Wisconsin. The first are free-spirited and fun loving. They build the town’s dance hall and saloon. They love, dance, play cards, pull pranks, build their dreams. The second are members of the Church of the Bridge. They trade austerity now for paradise later. Differences between these two cultures create a friction that grows for half a century and erupts into an explosive conclusion.




Bluehart: Seven Hart, mysterious daughter of A. J. Bluehart, sets out to discover the source of her father’s contentment. Following audio tapes he recorded to preserve his memories, she uncovers a captivating life story, and solves, through her search, the riddle of her own happiness.



The Second VirtueThe Second Virtue: Searching for the courage to become themselves weaves three characters into a braid of exploits, including unraveling a stubborn crime puzzle, and the best sex scene ever involving a woman with casts on both legs. The Second Virtue rediscovers the universal truth Charlie Chaplin once observed: “Life can be wonderful if you’re not afraid of it.”



Adams AppleAdam’s Apple: Narrated by his press secretary Mooney Trompeur, Congressman Adam Ibsen’s story carries him from conception to election into the House of Representatives, original to mortal sin. He savors incest, patricide, lust, avarice – all the top ten – gorging immorality like a gastronome on all-you-can-eat Sunday at Les Gourmet Cafeteria. Fickle, impulsive, and uninhibited, Adam taste-tests the h’orderves on both sides of the culture war, juggles reality and illusion, engages meaningful and absurd, savors the left, relishes the right,  sips liberality, nibbles conservatism, gobbles the gamut of political penchant. In the end, his life reveals no moral; however, it does come to a surprising point. Adam’s Apple includes 24 yummy recipes for forbidden fruit.

Passing Through ParadisePassing Through Paradise: A collage of characters, events, and places, some forming linear narratives, others embellishing these narratives with odd images and facts. Characters appear and vanish. Plots take shape and develop. Settings adjust sporadically. Themes emerge. Mysterious satyr-like character pops up in Colorado and walks to Chicago, gathering an entourage along the way, to put on Sophocles’ satyr play, Ichneutae. Naive author of newspaper articles falls into ill-starred infatuation. Derelict Jazz-age theater, subject of intense political wrangling, is razed to make space for characterless condominiums. Elements from these and other narrative fountains splash onto the pages to create a playful literary kaleidoscope.

Between the Shadow and the SoulBetween the Shadow and the Soul: Expelled writing student, Devin Post, is flabbergasted to see his life fracture into two tracks. In one, unprincipled employer, Leach Pharmaceuticals, sends him into Mexico on an impossible quest. In the other, he is office sex toy for a lineup of lusty women. Which life is real and which fantasy? Between the Shadow and the Soul follows Devin through these escapades with humor and literary panache, exploring inter-dependencies between reality and imagination and discovering surprising connections between the two.

Double ExposuresDouble Exposures: Each of the twelve short stories in this collection strives to shed light on an underlying complexity (psychological, metaphysical, or aesthetic). They presuppose there is a world behind the world we experience, behind the world science considers, and this back-stage reality is responsible for much of what we encounter and for all of the meaning we discover.

Amazon pages can all be reached through my author page.

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