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