My grandfather was a faith healer. I know how it sounds, but it’s true. Friends and family called him to the hospital so regularly that one night his phone rang and it was the hospital calling because one of the surgeons wanted my grandfather to come down and bless the medical team before they operated in the morning. My grandfather didn’t know the surgeon or the patient, but he climbed into the truck and drove over to the hospital and took care of it.
Even though he was born and raised in Louisiana and Cajuns dangle like moss from our family tree, he never referred to himself as a traiteur, or “treater,” the term for a Cajun healer. It’s probably because he’d left his Catholic faith (which is bound up with treating) so many years before that he didn’t want to claim the title, but it was essentially what he was. He’d show up at a sick grandchild’s house and work on our feet, rubbing and applying pressure, then diagnosing the problems based on which parts of our feet were tender to his touch before prescribing home remedies. And of course, we got blessings by laying on of hands. One of them made my dad’s tumor disappear overnight. True story.
If I wrote his life up I could call it a biography, but I’m sure there are those who would label it fantasy, and I don’t begrudge the doubters. These are wild tales I just happened to have witnessed really happen. They are what draw me to writing a traiteur into my Acadian—or Cajun—fairy tale. While there are thousands of anecdotal stories about how traiteurs have healed ailments over the centuries, I’m not trying to convince anyone that these stories are true. I want to construct a fictional universe where a reader will yearn to believe that these things can happen.
Even though the healings I witnessed actually happened, the events challenge the natural order of the world, so for the purposes of storytelling, I’m dealing with magic, and the magic must be wrangled. That means I must ask myself: between magical realism or systemic magic, which serves the story better?
Prowl through a dozen scholarly articles on magical realism and you’ll turn up a dozen different definitions for magical realism. Lindsay Eagar, author of the debut magical realism middle grade novel Hour of the Bees offers this definition:
Realism’s become this blanket term in publishing to mean “real world with a hint of magic.” Truly, though, the term magical realism is far more complicated, and its history as a genre has its roots in Latin American fiction in the 1970s. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a GREAT one to start with, though he does write adult, as he’s the one who originally coined the term, but also Isabel Allende and Jorge Borges too. Obviously the term has snowballed, and so to write truly great magical realism means finding that link between a culture of oppression and magic. For Latin American magical realism, it’s the mixture of Catholicism and the native legends and magic blending together. But there’s also Midwestern magical realism (Bone Gap), which blends mythologies with good old-fashioned Christian dogma. Again, culture of oppression.
Magical realism can be closed or open world magic, but one of the fascinating aspects of literature that fits under the umbrella is that the word “magic” is rarely used by its characters to describe the fantastic events that are otherwise inexplicable. Fantastic things just happen with no explanation, no attempt to meld them with objective reality, and no resistance to their existence. Magical realism often has a more high-toned literary feel than straightforward fantasy, and can feel more inaccessible to readers. Maybe a way to say it is that magical realism often follows dream logic, and sometimes that’s what being inside a magical realist story feels like. This requires some work from the reader to ground themselves in the story and keep a hold on the thread of the narrative instead of getting sucked into the dream haze, an obstacle I don’t want to overcome as an author. I want the story to be accessible, even though I personally find a particular kind of joy in slipping into the hazy border between reality and fantasy that earmarks magical realism.
My five years of teaching eighth grade suggests that most young readers prefers more structured magic which requires less work from them as readers to understand. Holly Black says that when building a magic system, an author must ask herself six questions. “Who has the magic? What does the magic do? How do you make it happen? How is the user affected? How is the world affected? How are the magic users/magical beings grouped and perceived?”
In my current work in progress, Dark Bayou, a story set in the Louisiana swamps in 1797, I have a character who is a faith healer and one who doesn’t know she’s a healer yet. There would be broader scope for the imagination if I were to allow magical realism to creep into my protagonist Sylvie’s abilities, allow her to perform fantastic feats at key points in the story that transcend the limits of a real-world traiteur’s abilities. However, it feels too disrespectful to the generations of practitioners who treat it as sacred to play fast and loose with the rules.
But that doesn’t rule out magical realism altogether. It tries to seep into the setting itself. Swamps are replete with earth magic—I don’t even believe in earth magic and I feel it. It’s in the soil and scents and sounds. In Dark Bayou, this is where the inexplicable happens with no need for explanation, subtle touches that reinforce the otherness of the swamp, like a heron who appears as an omen, and Sylvie’s intuitiveness about even the faintest changes in the air.
But writing a book about miraculous healings would just be too easy (it’s totally not easy), so I lost my mind and decided to include another element of Cajun folklore: the rougarou.
I know. I’m as entertained as you are that the woman who normally writes romantic comedies—very straightforward, non-magical romantic comedies—has werewolves prowling around my story. I mean, I got the memo: the werewolf “trend” has been over for years.
But I didn’t invent the Cajun folklore, and so here is the rougarou, regardless. And so I must deal with it and decide again: magical realism or systemic magic? Is it a creature bound by rules like poor neutered Edward of Twilight, a monster built on systemic magic? Or is it a creature woven from the fabric of the swamp that reflects the swamp’s spirit, occupying that blurred boundary between magic and realism?
Again, Holly Black offers a list to use when assessing a magic system. “Sex, love, money, God, status…How will the people in your world use magic in the service of these things? Because these are powerful motivators.”
I would add another question to Black’s list, which is fear: if I write a monster, what does it say about the deepest fears of the culture in the book? Is the rougarou punishment from God? A manifestation of the devil? What does the victims the rougarou chooses reveal about the culture’s values? Who, then, would it attack? Only vile sinners? What sins would those sinners be guilty of, exactly?
A creature like that is easier to understand, certainly. And maybe for younger readers, that’s best. Ultimately, systemic magic is simply about rules, choices, and consequences, a framework that gives a young adult reader a tool to understand an unfamiliar world.
Magical realism absolutely can have a place with young readers, but writing it well takes a magic I don’t have. Then again, it makes my appreciation for that magic extra deep when I see it.
Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.