“What if I made this the organizing principle of an entire body of writing? ‘Every time you get stuck, come back to this: Write about a scar. Reverse its meaning.'”
In this essay writer/novelist/publisher Ariel Gore reflects on magical realism as an act of transforming realities and reclaiming power, and how the tradition shows up in her new book, We Were Witches (Feminist Press, September 2017). Read our Q&A with Ariel here, and find her tips for incorporating magical realism into your own writing in our biweekly email newsletter.
“Trauma needs a witness,” my mother used to tell me. “Children can survive any kind of abuse if they have one witness.”
I always thought that was a strange thing for my mother to tell me, since she was the main source of my abuse — and I rarely had a witness. But I took her advice.
When I saw the words “magical realism” on my dry-erase board this morning, it occurred to me that I’ve been using it to rewrite trauma and bring in witnesses for a long time now.
Magical realism emerges from fringe cultures and subcultures. It pushed itself up from the post-colonial earth in Latin America, Africa, and India. It bloomed among writers who had been excluded from the colonized, heterosexist, masculine centers of power. Magical realist fiction taught me that, when trapped, sometimes we have to paint our own windows of escape.
It’s not about changing the past.
It’s about getting the power back.
I was in maybe second or third grade when I stepped into my mother’s room, knowing she was already mad at me. What was I thinking? She’d just gotten out of the shower. She wore a white towel around her head and a white robe around her small body. I remember knowing she was mad at me, but I don’t remember now why. She had her back to me when I asked — in hopes of getting out of her hair for a few hours — “Can I go to the movies with Beth?”
I remember a painting of a naked lady on the far wall.
I inhaled fast as my mother spun around, and I don’t know if she slapped me or not — in one version of the memory, she slaps me, in the other version, she does not slap me. But in both versions, after the sound of the slap, my mother says, “I don’t care if you disappear.”
In her “liminal autobiography,” Nobody, Threasa Meads experiments with using strikethrough text to rewrite her experience of being abused by her creepy stepfather. Sometimes she writes the story as it happened, crosses out the part she wishes hadn’t happened, and then writes a new ending. The book is organized like a Choose Your Own Adventure, and, as with those books, it slowly becomes clear that choice is an illusion.
If my mother slaps me, turn to page 3.
In the back of Beth’s station wagon, my legs dangled over the edge of the sweaty upholstery. I stared down at my Mary Janes and sniffled, “My mom says she doesn’t care if I disappear.”
To me, then, the word “disappear” meant that all that would be left of me was a picture on a milk carton. Maybe someday they’d find my raped and murdered body. Maybe they never would.
Beth’s mother didn’t turn around. She kept her eyes on the road and said, “I’m sure your mother didn’t mean that, honey.”
I was pretty sure she did. Mean that.
I still wanted to please my mother, then. Maybe I could learn to disappear. In the dark of the movie theater, I closed my eyes.
Picture yourself suspended safely in a starry sky. Zero gravity, but you can breathe just fine. Start with your toes and make just the very tips of them disappear. We’re out past the rules of matter and nonmatter. Dissolve your body into the night. Inch in, inch up. Can you make all of your toes disappear? That’s good. Keep pulling the energy up. Can you make your feet disappear, too? Good. Now let the disappearance creep up your legs. Now into your hips. Up, up, up.
I don’t remember the drive back from the movie theater in the back of Beth’s station wagon. I can only assume that I’d already disappeared.
Write about a scar, my creative writing teacher said. Real or imagined.
It had been so long since I’d had a teacher — since I wasn’t the teacher myself. Write about a scar.
Reverse the meaning of your most traumatic imprint, my Real Astrology horoscope instructed. And somehow my horoscope got bound up in my mind with the assignment. Write about a scar. Reverse the meaning.
I hadn’t decided I am going to write a nonfiction essay or I am going to write a fictional short story. I had only my teacher’s prompt, my horoscope, this experiment: What if I made this the organizing principle of an entire body of writing? Every time you get stuck, come back to this: Write about a scar. Reverse its meaning.
If I disappear, turn to page 42.
See, magical realism isn’t some kitschy literary device — its history is firmly rooted in the literature of resistance, in the literature of re-visioning.
We’re transmuting violence back into voice.
Maybe it won’t be the same voice we had before. Maybe we’ll prefer the new voice, wrecked and brilliant.
Years after that day in second or third grade, my mother will tell me it never happened. She’ll shake her head the way she did and sip her wine and insist, “I was abused myself, Ariel. I would have known better than to pass along that kind of trauma.”
See, I don’t merge genres to make the bad things unhappen or to make myself seem heroic — usually it’s the bad things and my unheroic responses that make me want to tell the story at all. But sometimes I do need to go in and get my power back. I need to go back and give myself a witness. At the very least, I need to make art out of messy memories.
We can’t unwrite experience, but the lost energy is retrievable. We can create new projections into our histories and into our futures. Magical realist stories seduce — their hallways becoming rushing rivers, their naked ladies in paintings coming to life — but if you lick those pages you can taste the resistance infused in the texts. The rivers lead to freedom, if not safety. The lady in the painting sees all.
Maybe the reason I don’t know whether my mother slapped me or did not slap me is that in the instant before the sound, I was busy scanning the room for a witness.
As the open hand comes at you, think fast. Block or duck. Locate your witness. If there are no human witnesses, don’t worry. We can always con the rational:
A cat can be a witness.
Or the naked lady in the painting framed and nailed onto the stucco wall.
The owl in the oak tree outside will do.
In a pinch, the moon.
I learned to disappear, like it was some kind of superpower.
But I never got lost in that sky of invisibility.
If you can still see me, turn to page 99.
Ariel Gore is the editor and publisher of the Alternative Press Award winning magazine Hip Mama and the author of eight books, including the acclaimed memoir The End of Eve. She has edited half a dozen anthologies, including Breeder (Seal Press), The People’s Apocalypse (Lit Star Press), and the LAMBDA award winning Portland Queer (Lit Star Press). She lives in Oakland, California.
In We Were Witches, magick spells and inverted fairly tales combat queer scapegoating, domestic violence, and high-interest student loans. Wryly riffing on feminist literary tropes, We Were Witches documents the survival of a demonized single mother beset by custody disputes, homophobia, and America’s ever-present obsession with shaming odd women into passive citizenship. The writing draws from a a rich subcultural canon of resistance and failure populated by writers like Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldúa, Tillie Olsen, and Kathy Acker. The fiction-memoir hybrid was published in September 2017 by Feminist Press.