Magical Realism and History: an arranged marriage?

This week allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore discusses questions raised by two different reviews of her historical magical realist novel Rising Up.

In conversation with the author EM Havens recently (which will appear on this blog in a couple of weeks), I found myself pondering whether in writing historical magical realism I was making my life – and the lives of my readers – really difficult. In one of my other writerly incarnations I’ve print-published a couple of historical romances and I recently provided some questions for a book club discussion of one of them. The book is a divisive one – readers seem to either love it or hate it (no, I am not Hilary Mantel in disguise) – and I was asked afterwards by the club convenor to provide some additional information about the sources I used for researching the novel. I was reminded then how important it is to historical fiction fans that a novel be authentic. These are readers with a scrupulous eye for detail. They enjoy the immediacy with which the historical world is created for them by the author and many actively dislike ambiguity and uncertainty. They are in many respects the very opposite of those who enjoy magical realist and other ‘fantasy’ genres, who are quite happy – as EM Havens so delightfully puts it – to be in the dark for a few chapters.

I was thinking about these issues again when I read two recent reviews of my novel Rising Up. Set in Warsaw, a young woman trapped in the Jewish ghetto of 1942 finds she can talk to a young man in the contemporary rebuilt city. He is seeking his family’s past, while she is terrified for the future of her family. He holds the key, of course, for he knows what happens to the ghetto, but what does he tell her, and how and why can they co-exist?

As I’ve blogged before, Rising Up emerged from a number of visits I made to Warsaw, and an overwhelming desire to try to capture the lingering effects of the Holocaust and the ghetto in Warsaw. I didn’t set out to write a historically authentic Holocaust novel, though cleary the need to be historically accurate and authentic, not to mention respectful, was particularly important and I researched very carefully and thoroughly. But my aim as a writer was to find a way to make that lingering real somehow, to explore how memory and knowledge combine to influence how we relate to the past, and what might happen if the past became suddenly more present. I wanted to find a way to construct the story that expressed my own direct experience of walking round Warsaw feeling the constant echoes and whispers and reminders of the past. And because I think there are so many ghosts (constructed or otherwise), it made sense to me as a storyteller to make those ghosts real. What turned out to be magical realism gave me a way to use fiction to explore that.

In her review of the book, Zoe Brooks asks the very interesting question of whether it is “right to use magic realism in this way, when the subject matter is so dramatic?” There is always the danger that when fiction embraces very recent, tragic or symbolic history that the events will become trivialised somehow. It can be a very fine line, as I discussed above. So what struck me about Katharina Gerlach‘s review was that in some senses she was saying the opposite, that the “tiny and consistent fantasy element” enabled her to read about a situation she found personally very distressing but in a way she felt was authentic and genuine.

I wondered if I should have been even more aware of that tension when I was writing the book than I already was, but then I realised that, for me, that particular juxtaposition of the magical and the real allows us as writers and readers to negotiate ways of revisiting the real when the real is very troublesome. It does not mitigate or trivialise that reality (in this case the past) by choosing to do more than just recreate it authentically, but it does offer a different way to examine our response to the facts. Rising Up was not an attempt to rewrite those facts in any way, in fact rather the opposite, but it was an attempt to enable a contemporary witness (Tom) to understand them better through the reality of Ela’s existence. Living museums and archive footage attempt something similar. But much of our understanding of dramatic and tragic historical events from before the age of mass media has been created and preserved through story-telling, and I wanted to examine how those stories might be changed or affected when individuals in different generations find themselves connected in a way that linear time ought not allow. When the past becomes the present and futures are shared.

I am Rising Up‘s central character Tom Macindeor – or rather I was when I was walking around Warsaw seeing and listening to the manifestations of the past. I could not help but be affected by what was in front of me, and I allowed Tom to do what I could not do, to listen to the voices of the past so I could understand my present better.

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