Magic realism is not ONE thing to ALL writers or readers—rather, think about it as some type of writing that’s determined by a narrator’s leaning toward the Latin American, European or ‘popular’ strand of magic realism. The style has undoubtedly matured beyond its Latin American origin and gone beyond any attempt at a simplistic definition; ergo, this is what magic realism is NOT:
Realism: storytelling that recreates real life in a way that can be easily understood by all—anyone who shares that reality can relate to in a meaningful way.
Surrealism: artistic expression of the sub-conscious or repressed in the form of a dream or a psychological experience—an idiosyncratic style that reflects the artist’s or subject’s psyche.
Fantasy: storytelling that fits into a newly created world—the presence of the supernatural has a disturbing effect because it cannot be integrated into a logical framework.
Science fiction: narrative set in a futuristic world different from any known past or present reality—because the style employs a rational approach to what lies ahead, we can recognize the imaginative content as a possibility for our future.
While novelists exploring magic realism enter the spirit world via their stories, in many cultures across the globe there are intermediaries like shamans and sorcerers who use special abilities or powerful drugs to journey from the mundane into other worlds. In previous posts you’ve learned about author Ian Mathie and his upcoming book featuring his experiences in the magical realms of African traditions: Sorcerers and Orange Peel. Below follows his third installment of a four-part series about African sorcerers:
Continuing my thread about sorcery, we have explored some of the more exceptional forms in terms of illusion and magic. Agbegbeyan, the fetish priest I met in Dahomey, was also a hard-working forest villager. When called upon to be the fetish priest, he conducted rituals very similar to some of those existing in modern Voodoo. Their purpose was to propitiate the forest spirits, to seek opportunities and favours for members of his community and to ward off evil influences. Off duty, like the other villagers, he harvested oil palm and other fruits in the forest and contributed to the village soap-making industry; he cultivated almost a hectare of fields spread over several different forest clearings, growing yams and vegetables for his family. When he was not in his fetish priest role he was treated like any other member of the community. But not all sorcerers are like this.
My base at the time was in a small village in north-western Upper Volta (Burkina Faso today) where we had a resident witchdoctor, the Wa-Wa man. He dealt with the mystical aspects of life in a different way, making amulets and tokens to protect people against evil spirits and influences, seeking intercession from the earth spirits to favour their farming practices, and generally maintaining the harmony between the mundane daily life of the villagers and in invisible participants, ancestors and spirits. He was also a skilled herbalist who could concoct effective potions and salves for almost any everyday complaint. Of course, these were administered with due theatre and ritual, but every doctor has to maintain the mystique of his craft, even western ones, lest they lose the faith of their patients.
Although he lived on the edge of the village, The Wa-Wa man’s hut was unique in being the only one without a compound wall around it. The space in front of it was open to all to see and was used to lay out his antelope skin and toss his bones when he conducted divinations. He often knew when things were going to happen long before anyone else, though he was not infallible as he didn’t forecast the locusts. The Wa-Wa man cultivated no ground and harvested no crops yet his granaries were always as full as anyone else’s, for we all contributed from our own stores to feed him and his wife. It was into his hands that I consigned my colleague Desmond Parkis when he returned from Nigeria afflicted by a tropical fever by some powerful magic that had been cursed upon him and that did not respond to western medicine. Curses of this sort are common in West African magic and whilst there is some evidence that a few are no more than straight forward poisoning, many cannot be so simply brushed aside. In eastern Nigeria, giving someone a parrot’s egg is tantamount to a death sentence. The end may be hastened by the effects of superstition, but the recipient will almost certainly die soon afterwards. I have seen this happen. By contrast, the sale of the parrot’s egg, even for a few pennies, would be nothing more than a commercial transaction and has no ill effects.
The Wa-Wa man knew a great deal about such curses, even though most originated from tribes very remote from our village. He had travelled in his youth and his own training and initiation had taken over fifteen years. As we became friends he told me of this and whilst he was willing to tell me about a few bits of his craft, he didn’t part easily with secrets. Even he, however, appreciated my bit of magic with beetroot making one appear to pee blood. It was a plant he had never seen before. It was his advice that led me to seek another kind of sorcerer to solve Etu’s problem in Mali. Despite being a trained sorcerer, Etu could not contact the spirits that inhabited a grove of wild orange trees because they had been entrapped many years before. Until they were released he could not intercede to enable the villagers to use the trees and the fruit which, up till then, was all left to the wasps and hornets. To this end I went south to search for a Devil near the Liberian border with Ivory Coast. The consultation was a strange experience with this bizarre grass skirted creature, the top half of which was heavily shrouded in dark green cloth and a huge mask, twirling and squatting in front of me and demanding fifty dollars. Once the money was paid I was instructed to come back the following day to receive an amulet, for which a further fifty dollars was demanded.
The charges stopped there and I was dismissed with the amulet, wondering whether this magic would really work, being so distant in time and space from the original curse. So I returned to Mali and told Etu what had happened. He was not surprised and confidently took the amulet and communed with the spirits in the trees. You’ll have to read my new book, Sorcerers and Orange Peel to find out what happened, but I promise you the magic worked and great things were achieved using the products of those neglected trees.
I was interested to realise that the Devil I had been obliged to consult was a practitioner of the dreaded Liberian Poro cult, for their reputation is nothing if not evil. And yet—one could not determine the gender or age of the being inside the Devil costume—he’d been perfectly polite and civil and willing, for a fee, to release spirits trapped by a curse laid long ago. How did its magic work, especially given the separation between the Devil and the entrapped spirits? There could have been no question of collusion between Etu and the Devil as he had no idea where I was going to find it or what I was going to ask for. Yet he was able to use the amulet and I could see by his reluctance to touch it that it had a powerful effect on him. I had examined the amulet very carefully myself to see if it carried any mystical signs equivalent to Masonic symbols or other ritual marks, but it was simply a sealed leather pouch on a braided leather cord, something I was capable of making myself.
In dealing with anything to do with sorcery a bit of scepticism is always good as the act of questioning opens the mind, and more can be achieved by an open mind. It can reach further into the unseen parts of life.
Ian Mathie was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Africa and the Far East. He has worked as a Royal Air Force pilot, rural development officer in Africa, high-tech irrigation project manager in the Middle East and industrial psychologist in the UK. Today, Ian is known as a prolific author of stories about his experiences in Africa. His contact with the dark continent began whilst still a baby, and although he has lived in Warwickshire for the past 16 years, Ian has never been able to shake off his fascination with Africa.
Ian Mathie’s books are out as paperbacks and e-books—I suggest you go to his website to see ‘how to buy’ this remarkable series of African stories. His fifth memoir, Sorcerers and Orange Peel, will be published by Mosaïque Press in November 2013. He can be contacted at website and Facebook.
Please join Ian and me over the next few weeks as I explore magic realism as a literary genre and he talks about his upcoming book featuring his experiences in the magical realms of African traditions. Bruce Nicoll will conclude the series with a post about his interest in shamanism and w.i.p. YA novel on the concept of adolescent rite-of-passage.