Associate Professor Maria Takolander on Magical Realism and Unfinished Histories

Maria TakolanderCHRGImageMaria Takolander is an Associate Professor in Writing and Literature at Deakin University in Geelong. In addition to being an award-winning fiction writer and poet, she is also the author of the many scholarly publications on magical realism.

Magical realism is a type of literary fiction that represents the magical as real. Triggering a “boom” in Latin American writing, following the publication of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, the form has proven seductive but also vulnerable to misreadings. Most commonly, magical realism is misinterpreted in exoticist terms that authenticate the narrated magic in racialized contexts. This diminishes the important historical salvaging work of these texts.

My interventions in the field of magical realist scholarship have attempted to highlight how magical realism is profoundly ironic and best understood as a postmodern form of historical fiction concerned with the unfinished business of the past. Associated not only with Latin America but also with other postcolonial environments around the world, including Australia, magical realist texts are primarily interested in provoking a re-engagement with occluded and traumatic histories. Indeed, the fantastic in the postcolonial magical realist text typically functions to ironize or overtly parody the obfuscations of imperialist historiography. Analysis of case studies reliably confirms this theory.

In García Márquez’s paradigmatic One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, a deluge lasting “four years, eleven months and two days” follows a massacre of striking UFC banana-plantation workers, perpetrated by the Colombian military in Ciénega, Columbia, in 1928 and subsequently covered up. Just as the flood of Genesis expunged the sins of the earth, the parodic deluge in the novel erases all memory of the sins of neocolonial corporations and governments. In Australia, Kim Scott’s novel Benang (1999) is narrated by a Nyoongar man who is so “light” that he ascends into the air or bumps up against ceilings as he describes how he became the “first-born-successfully-white-man-in-the-family-line.” The novel’s reiteration of key phrases from Australia’s Indigenous policies—most conspicuously, those involving ideological notions of “uplift” and “elevation”—satirizes the double-speak of the colonial project and the historical record.

In fact, it comes as a surprise to most readers that magical realism typically critiques rather than celebrates fantasy. Even a putatively romantic novel such as Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982), made into a film, rejects fantasy for engagement with Chilean history. The novel replaces the supernatural narrative of the clairvoyant Clara with the political narrative of Alba, who fights to “rescue the past” as the US-installed dictator Pinochet rewrites Chilean history “with a stroke of the pen . . . erasing incidents, ideologies, and historical figures of which the regime disapproved.” In Fish-Hair Woman (2012), by the Philippine-Australian Merlinda Bobis, the reader is presented with the fantastical narrative of Estrella, which is written as a love-letter to an Australian audience—a narrative device that acknowledges the appeal that magical realism holds for Western readers. However, the novel ultimately exposes Estrella as a drug addict and endorses a rigorous investigation into the cover-up of land appropriation and political murders that occurred in the province of Iraya during the Marcos regime.

Magical realist texts use the “edginess” of irony, as Linda Hutcheon has described it, to provoke engagement with unfinished colonial histories in order to open up the possibility of postcolonial futures. This is the urgent and consistent agenda of magical realist fiction from around the world.

Maria is the author of the following scholarly publications on magical realism:

Maria Takolander & Scott Pearce, “Magical realism as patriarchal mythopoeia: ‘Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa’ and The Field of Dreams,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, in progress.

“Magical realism, irony and postcolonial sovereignty: Alexis Wright’s Plains of Promise,” Journal of Postcolonial Writing (UK), in press.

“Theorizing trauma and irony in magical realism: Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Alexis Wrights’ The Swan Book,” ARIEL (Canada), in press.

Maria Takolander & Jo Langdon, “Shifting the ‘vantage point’ to women: Reconceptualising magical realism and trauma,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction (US), in press.

Maria Takolander & Alyson Miller, “Nasdijj’s fake magical realist memoir: Re-visioning magical realism’s relationship with fakery,” Postcolonial Text (Canada) 9.3 (2014).

“Magical realism and irony’s ‘edge’: Rereading magical realism and Kim Scott’s Benang,” JASAL 14.5 (2014).

“Magical realism and fakes: After Carpentier’s ‘marvelous real’ and Mudrooroo’s ‘laban realism’,” Antipodes (US) 24.2 (2010): 165-171.

Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground, Bern: Peter Lang, 2007.

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