Performing Fiction(s)/Performing Folklore: "Magical Realism" as a literary trope/Folklore as embedded belief

By Elaine J. Lawless


Many writers of Latin American literature have for some time utilized a kind of supernatural or surreal writing that requires a suspension of disbelief in their readers. These writers are not alone, however, in employing what literary critics often term "magical realism." If a piece of furniture moves unwittingly from one room to the other, the writer may be employing the trope in ways that readers have come to expect. I am reminded of Margot Livesey's 2001 novel Eva Moves the Furniture, in which an unabashed intrusion of mind over matter within a "realist" novel tradition prevails. I might agree that Livesey is utilizing "magical realism" in this particular novel. On the other hand, writers across the globe also have consciously utilized their own understanding of folklore (belief, traditions, superstitions, legends, tale types, riddles, songs, proverbs) to meld the elements of a fictional story together in ways that arise naturally from the context of the story and reflect the actual beliefs and practices of communities of people who share cultural and material landscapes. On the most superficial level, some have noted this use of folklore with disdain as simply "local color," and, indeed, some works of fiction seem to have these tidbits of folk culture thrown in to "season" the taste, so to speak. However, many fiction writers seem to grasp the inherent significance of folk culture in ways that go far beyond the smattering of quaint local traditions, seizing upon the critical importance of how folklore shapes meaning, value, and cultural identity. In fact, a more nuanced reading of how fiction writers utilize folklore in their fiction parallels the field of folklore itself.

What is performative in fiction? By this question, I mean several things, and my question may perhaps evoke aspects for the reader that I was not aware of when I designed it. At the outset, I was thinking of how folklore "performs" in literature, in fiction(s); but I also recognize it as referencing the ways in which fiction(s) perform. It can also be deconstructed to suggest that there are "performing fictions," akin to the way Kamila Visvaswaren was speaking in her 1994 book, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography, to reference a wide variety of ways in which we might understand the title of her book, as well as her critique that "feminist ethnography" (indeed, all ethnography) even with its well-intentioned efforts often can fail because ethnography is, after all, a human endeavor. Visvaswaren's book raises a critical question about what, exactly, ethnography is by comparing it, first, with fiction: "If we agree that one of the traditional ways of thinking about fiction is that it builds a believable world, but one that the reader rejects as factual, then we can say of ethnography that it, too, sets out to build a believable world, but one the reader will accept as factual" (1994:1).

When I talk about "ethnography," I agree with Visvaswaren that the world we want to "build" is a believable, certainly a truthful one, created via our efforts to extensively engage with the socio/cultural contexts of a group of people in order to try to discern how those people in that specific group, living in that particular site, "make meaning" in their lives—and to find a way to convey that to our readers/listeners. Ethnographers and fiction writers alike are either "outsiders" to the study who endeavor to become knowledgeable intimates of the group, or they are already "insiders" who, in some way, are accepted as participants, which carries with it its own complications. How shall we connect ethnographic research and writing with literary writing that embodies folklore?

My question then is this: What have we learned from ethnographic research and writing that can be applied to literary criticism, particularly when literary critics seem not to even know about folklore scholarship and folklore research/understanding and insist upon using literary critical terms such as "magical realism" when trying to understand fiction that derives from cultural experiences—literature that obviously strikes critics as different from literature constructed as self-conscious "high" fiction intended to address a postmodern ethos that depicts the death of the sacred, the community, and human connection?

Post-Ethnography—but why?

In 2002, my paper delivered at the American Folklore Society meetings in New York explored what I wanted to call the "performative" in literature—that is, how some writers use John Austin's idea of "doing things with words" on the page in print (1970). This stems out of a concern I have with the entire notion of "folklore in literature." Like many in the academic setting, I am worried when I teach seminars on this topic, because I often feel as though the scholarship has not advanced very far since the days of Richard Dorson's identifying folklore items in literary texts and then determining if they are "authentic" through Tale Type and Motif Indexes and research comparisons. Others in the field have never really satisfactorily addressed my concerns about how we should deal with this critical area of study, although I was delighted to see the publication of a new book on the topic of folklore and literature co-authored by Frank de Caro and Rosan Jordan (2004).

At times, I find myself thinking that perhaps we ought to consider entering into a "post-ethnographic" age. I will try to explain my feelings about this odd statement—coming from someone who has spent a career in the field trying to explore the possibilities for us to do different kinds of writing based on what we have learned. Perhaps it is the fact that we are in that paralyzing moment in a graduate seminar at the University of Missouri, after having read Clifford and Marcus's Writing Culture, all the feminist critiques of the male-centered reflexive posing found in the Behar/Gordon collection Women Writing Culture, and having been challenged by Trinh Minh-ha and Kamila Visveswaren, only to feel, at best, frustrated about the ethics of an endeavor such as ethnographic field research and the minefield of claiming for one second we know how to write about any group and how they "make meaning"—whether we belong to the group or not.

I remember the years in which I was totally captivated and thrilled with Karen McCarthy Brown's book Mama Lola, only to re-read it recently for my class and finding myself uncomfortable as I read how and why Brown was initiated into Alourdes' transplanted voodoo religion in New York and how she claims the authority to "rewrite" the stories of the various Haitian ancestors and present them for her academic audiences in well-constructed, linear stories because the ones Alourdes and her community know are (she claims) "rather messy." Her words remind me of how John Neihardt claimed that he wrote Black Elk Speaks with Black Elk's blessing because (as he put it bluntly) he could "write what Black Elk would have written himself, if he only could have." All protestations aside, cultural imperialism is alive and well; thus my threat to initiate my new "post-ethnographic" agenda.

I remember the years in which I was totally captivated and thrilled with Karen McCarthy Brown's book Mama Lola, only to re-read it recently for my class and finding myself uncomfortable as I read how and why Brown was initiated into Alourdes' transplanted voodoo religion in New York and how she claims the authority to "rewrite" the stories of the various Haitian ancestors and present them for her academic audiences in well-constructed, linear stories because the ones Alourdes and her community know are (she claims) "rather messy." Her words remind me of how John Neihardt claimed that he wrote Black Elk Speaks with Black Elk's blessing because (as he put it bluntly) he could "write what Black Elk would have written himself, if he only could have." All protestations aside, cultural imperialism is alive and well; thus my threat to initiate my new "post-ethnographic" agenda.

Allow me to explain further. When I went on-line to look for books for my Ethnographic Writing class and to search specifically for some works to help me with this paper, I got 846 hits at my own university library (without any of the ancillary libraries or OCLC involved) with the term "ethnography." As I ran down that list of volumes, I found literally hundreds of works, most beginning with innocuous titles such as: The Ethnography of the------ (or The True Ethnography of the ------), literally hundreds of ethnographies—all representing, no doubt, years of field research, all done with the very best of intentions, and years of writing what the ethnographers hoped would be an addition to the knowledge base about this, or that, specific group of people and to the enterprise of knowing more about the diversities and similarities between and among human groups. I knew, as well, that beginning with the 1980s, many of the these volumes would also reveal a self-reflexive stance of the ethnographer, on some level, attempting to place his or her work into the conversation about how we write about groups to which we do or do not belong and addressing the question of how to present the work that has been done, hoping not to be imperialistic, trying to be fair, trying to let the voices of the "people" shine through the writing process, honoring the secrets, hoping to be ethical, truthful, and successful enough (to get promotion and tenure).

So, back to the volumes and volumes of ethnographic works on my computer screen, which I can also go look at physically in my library (I feel like a contemporary Virginia Woolf here, searching the stacks for answers). For all the time, work, pain, and true "labor" that go into these volumes and volumes of ethnographic work, who actually reads them? A few may get their "fifteen minutes of fame," but, in truth, most of our ethnographic work will, I fear, wind up gathering dust on the library stacks, ultimately to reside (at my university at least) in the underground annex because no one has checked them out for more than 15 years. So what, ultimately, do we learn from these voluminous works on people's daily lives and concerns? What better use might we make of what we do and what we know?

What I may be suggesting by my rather tongue-in-cheek notion of a "post-ethnographic" age is that we have perhaps failed to carry all this work into an arena where it can be understood, shared, and built upon. Ethnographic work by its very nature is a kind of one-shot deal. While the way we do ethnographic work may change somewhat with the latest and most innovative "tricks of the trade" and our postcolonial, postmodern, poststructuralist stances, what exactly do we do differently when we embark on our next ethnographic project? I have spent a career writing ethnographies, ever watchful for what the next one will be—and it's always there, like spirit babies, just waiting for me to notice it and offer it life and a place at the table. But lately there has been a voice in my head that is asking the question: what could I do that would take my ethnographic experiences further and move into new, more applied, more significant, and more politically-charged arenas?

In this vein, I have begun asking my Ph.D. students who are taking their comprehensive exams to defend the ethnographic enterprise. In a variety of seminars at the University of Missouri, we have been talking about this for several years. One of the ways in which we defend the ethnographic enterprise is that this kind of close work can reveal how folklore is performed within a cultural context (see Geertz 1973). In fact, any ethnography worth its salt will be able to do just that—demonstrate how folklore is performed in a cultural context by the participants in their efforts to create meaning for their lives. But if very few people are reading our ethnographic work, how can we share what we have learned with others who also need this information for interpretive endeavors—such as contemporary readers of fiction, for example—and how can we help expand readers' perceptions of fiction writers' employment of folklore and belief in ways that do not reduce those choices to what critics have coined "magical realism" (see Zamora and Faris 1995)?

Folklore and Performance Studies: Recognizing our alliances

Now, to bring my first questions in line with my second: one of the ways I am trying to answer the question of how contemporary writers "perform folklore" in their fiction has been to locate what I know from the study of belief and culture in conjunction with a fairly new discipline that has emerged within the academy—performance studies. Certainly, folklorists know that a "performance school" of folkloristics began during the late 1970s and early 1980s with the work of Dell Hymes and John Gumpertz in sociolinguistics (see Hymes and Gumpertz 1972) and Richard Bauman in folklore, especially with the publication of his now classic Verbal Art as Performance. Folklorists will also agree that even though Bauman was using a term such as "performance," he was quick to note that when he identified folklore as it is "performed" in its natural context, he was not making an association with theatrics at all. Rather than referring to "staged productions," he meant instead that folklore is "performed" (acted out in a Goffman sense) within the cultural context for an appreciative yet critical audience—that is, the other members of the group. Hence, "performance-centered" folkloristics came to be the paradigm that has affected almost all folklore research from that time on.

But in my thinking about how folklore might be "performed" within a new context—that of the pages of contemporary fiction—I want to move beyond Bauman and turn more toward performance studies—acknowledging that the performance of folklore upon the stage of a "book" certainly will take on new and different characteristics as it moves from the orally performed world to the literary one. Hence, my concern about looking for the "performative" in literature—how writers "perform folklore within literature."

A truly interdisciplinary approach to the study of fiction

The specific issue I want to address here, trying to flesh out some kind of answer to this complex question, is how folklore is performed in literature in ways that perhaps only folklorists can identify and explain. Why am I, an avid ethnographer, turning my attention to the issue of "folklore in literature"? Because it seems to me that millions of people read literature (novels, poetry, memoirs, creative nonfiction, short stories)—far, far more people buy and read these texts than ever read our ethnographies. So, what have we learned from a few centuries of ethnographic work that the reading world needs to hear? It is far too much to expect a general reader to read Sioux or Lakota ethnographic works, for example, in order to read Louise Erdrich or Sherman Alexie. And Alexie is just brassy enough to say he couldn't care less how much or how little a typical reader "gets" in his fiction; and while Erdrich may not say that exactly, I find myself having to read and reread her past works to get the cultural connections in those that currently are in press. But I think many fiction writers are aware that they are drawing on folk culture, beliefs, and traditions, and they do care, actually, or they would like to think readers would be able to understand their work and what they are doing with their fiction. They probably know, however, that many readers will not go the "extra mile" to find out about the culture in order to better understand the fiction, so the uninterested stance is far easier than dumbing their work down or trying to explain it. They just put it out there—catch it if you can. And many will not.

One thing is quite evident. More and more contemporary fiction writers are writing out of their own experiences, their ethnic backgrounds and sensibilities, their belief systems, their hybrid identities, their border crossings, their "otherness," and through their mythic and local storytelling traditions, rather than writing out of an academically-informed literary consciousness that has for years sought to consciously remove itself from the oral, the ordinary, the local. But our attempts to educate reading citizens about how to read these works have faltered, rarely going beyond (again) item identification, checks for authenticity, and a general acknowledgement that authors such as Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, and Lee Smith, are using folklore in the literature they write. No wonder those dedicated attendees of the Modern Languages Association and our other colleagues are taking a "ho hum" attitude when they accidently run across our articles, even on the new databases. Kingston calls it "talk story," so we all know what it is; Lee Smith gives an elaborate bibliography at the end of her books to authenticate her field research and assure us her folklore is "real" and she has used it in its appropriate context. But this simply is not enough. It merely begs the question.

At this point, I would like to include a few short selections from three recent novels and use these pages to continue my discussion of how we might begin to think about folklore as it is performed in fiction. The connections between these literary fictions and oral fictions will be apparent. Astrid Roemer (a writer from Suriname) says it far better than I ever could in an interview that she did with Charles Rowell, published in the pages of her novel Callaloo in 1998:

In A Name for Love I tried to write a novel for people who cannot read. Because I am a so-called Third World woman and, especially in my country because we have no publishers, we have a tradition of listening to stories. So I chose to tell a story to someone who is not there anymore—it is a "spoken" novel. So it is nice to read, but it is equally nice to hear it. It is the tradition of my country. Our poetry is direct; it is actual. I use lyrics of songs. I want to give words their sounds again, and that is why everything I am doing has an oral background. (509)

Following from Roemer's thoughts, I would like to talk about some selections from Linda Hogan's novel Power, Loida Perez's novel Geographies of Home, and Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. I offer, first, several lines from each of these novels. First, from Hogan:

I'm sitting next to Aunt Ama. . . and that's when I see the four women come down along the road slow as a breeze, shaking their rattles, singing together beneath the heavy clouds. . . . I can barely breathe. It is a mirage. . . and there is the sound of turtle-shell rattles, and I can feel the song in my stomach as they float above the road and seem to have no feet and come toward us. . . . They remind me of ghosts. I think they aren't there, they can't be there, but I ask, "What do you think they want?" She says, "There must be good news today. The messengers are coming." Says it like she knows them. . . . When I look again the women are gone. I want to know where they've gone as much as I want to know where they came from. . . . (25-26)

From Perez:

She stepped toward her mother. When she caught sight of Aurelia's profile, her brain conveyed that the information her eyes were transmitting defied all reason. For right there—on a Brooklyn street lit by a few dim lamps—her mother stood shape-shifting as surely only apparitions could. . . . She swooped toward her eldest daughter, her legs appearing to glide rather than to walk. . . . emotions tugged at her sharpening features, lending them a hawkish edge. The scratches clawed into her face faded even as her lips . . . appeared to beak, then exhaled steam that evaporated in cold air suddenly smelling of rain.(1999: 197)

And, from Morrison:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.

"For a baby she throws a powerful spell," said Denver. Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage?

Paul D tied his shoes together, hung them over his shoulder and followed her through the door straight into a pool of red and undulating light that locked him where he stood.

"You got company?" he whispered, frowning.

"Off and on," said Sethe.

"Good God." He backed out the door onto the porch. "What kind of evil you got in here?" "It's not evil, just sad. Come on. Just step through." (1987: selected passages, pp. 1-8)

In my examination of these texts, I offer the radical suggestion that many lay readers—intelligent lay readers as well as academics—who might pick up Toni Morrison and attempt to read her powerful novel Beloved might be at best confused, at most frustrated, with this beginning to her book, where a red aura, a burning light surrounds the door frame into a home at #124, in a house that appears to be alive, shaking, screaming, terrifying all who enter its door. Similarly, the opening scene of Perez's novel, Geographies of Home, in which the daughter is "visited" by her mother in the night, talks to her softly, and "picks up the next day from that conversation" when she telephones her daughter during the daylight hours may leave readers wondering; as might the imagined spiders that the older daughter sees and tries to kill in her parents' transplanted New York home—her demons. And, what to do with the spirits, the panthers, the messenger women in Linda Hogan's extraordinary, aptly titled novel, Power? As readers, what do we do with these passages? As folklorists, how are we helping a reading public read and understand the literature that is crowding the bookshelves at Barnes and Noble, on Amazon, and even in our community book clubs?

First, we might ask, what are the critics saying about these books—these "fictions"? Perhaps one of the more frustrating aspects of this dilemma, for me as a folklorist, is to discover that the literary world basically has no idea what to do with these kinds of "fictions." The presumption by the critics is that many contemporary writers self-consciously write in ways that are intended to "write against" or subvert the literary canon and the imperialism and domination of white European discourse that provides no space for cultural difference(s). Or, as some critics would have it—pointing toward "high" literature, as opposed to "low" literature—the "low" literature might be based on folk or cultural beliefs, but "high culture" would not, serving rather as universal texts that could speak to all readers. Of course, if you are recognized as writing against the norms of "high" literature, you certainly are not accepted within the hallowed halls of that "high" literature—instead you are perceived as merely knocking at the door. This perception reminds me of early critiques of "local color" writing, or writing by women as "different" (usually in negative ways) from normal, canonical writing (of men who had been tutored in the academy). When women began to write, the words most commonly used to characterize their writing were (and are still) "fragmented," "bricolage," "non-linear," "more emotional," "colorful," "nurturing," "interrupted," et cetera. The easy assumption has been that women are writing against the grain of high literature, consciously choosing these layered and "disjointed" effects in their writing; later feminist critiques suggested this might not be the case at all, that perhaps women were writing the way they lived their lives, the way they experienced life, the ways in which they found time to write and ways to express themselves. In other words, they offered different ways of reading and understanding women's writing—ways that were not necessarily a "conscious act of writing against the norm." Many early women writers, in fact, had never been allowed access to the academy; therefore, it was a bit silly to claim they were consciously writing against the grain of a legacy they had not been exposed to. Similarly, when African Americans began to write novels, short stories, memoirs, and to publish long lost slave narratives, again the critics burst on the scene noting how African Americans were consciously writing against the grain seeking avenues of expression that defied the "master's narrative." Their work was deemed subversive, revolutionary, reactionary. Until some African American critics emerged on the scene to suggest that, in fact, African Americans were writing out of their experiences and if their narratives were not the same as "the master's narrative," well, that made perfectly good sense. Like early women writers, subversion was assumed (and certainly in some works is evident), yet, the key to understanding these new literatures was, first, to understand the place from whence the women or the African Americans, the Asians, the Catholics or the Jews were writing. To claim all were writing against the grain privileges the "the grain" once again.

Critics have turned to words and phrases that are appealing in their attempts to understand and decipher much of contemporary literature, particularly those fictions that are emerging from indigenous peoples, hyphenated groups, ethnically-identified writers, those officially relegated to the margins—including women, blacks, Asians, Latinos—groups that are, in fact, rapidly becoming the "majority" in American culture, but neatly kept categorized (and thus "maintained") within marginally-identified sectors in order to keep them less threatening. Within literary criticism, there has emerged a way to "read" fictions that incorporate what is perceived as "strange" and supernatural—critics say the writers are utilizing a fictional tool called "magical realism." Tellingly, in fact, in the interview I just quoted with Astrid Roemer, the interviewer, a literary critic, posed his question to her this way: "I am fascinated by the one novel you did, the narrative technique in it, about the woman character talking to the dead. Would you talk about that technique you use, because I am reminded of Toni Morrison's latest novel (Beloved) using, I guess it is called ‘magical realism.'"

This term, "magical realism," emerged when Latin and Argentine literature arrived upon the literary scene in English translations. It is my contention that as long as writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez were being read only in their native language by Latin readers, what they were performing upon the "stage" of their fictions did not need explanation or a new literary term to define it. My argument would be that Latin readers recognized how filled these works were with the shared folklore and the beliefs of Latin communities. Everyone knew how ghosts lived amongst them; spirits were second-nature (first nature?); belief in Our Lady of Guadalupe and La Llorona was alive and well—in evidence in folklore, religion, and popular culture. The recognition was like meeting an old friend, a sign that the fiction writer had gotten it "just right" (write) (see Zamora and Faris 1995).

But with the translation of these texts for a translated audience(s), and their bid into a world of recognized "high" literature, the critics needed a term to deal with what was definitely "different" in Latin fiction, aspects that were "not" second nature to them—works that were filled with ghosts, spirits, the supernatural, or what some critics might label the "sublime." And they hung their hats on a term that seemed to make sense to them: magical realism. In his 1955 article "Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction," Angel Flores proposes the year 1935 as marking the birth of magical realism as applied to Spanish American fiction. Yet, Amaryll Chanady, in her book Magical Realism and the Fantastic, claims that Franz Roh, a German art critic, introduced the term in 1925 as a way of "reacting to reality and pictorially representing the mysteries inherent in it" (1985:17). Chanady acknowledges that the term became popular after Flores' article as "a concept in literary criticism" intended to mark the development of an autonomous literature of Latin America, in particular. Although few early writers actually clearly defined the term "magical realism," they seemed to think it was something you would recognize when you "saw" or "read it." As the term developed in both art and literature it came to be understood as having certain characteristics: the occurrence of the supernatural, or "anything that is contrary to our conventional view of reality." The operative term here, I want to point out, is the "our" conventional view of reality: who is the "our" in reference to here? Others, in attempting to define a term that began to be used without impunity, particularly when writing literary critiques of Latin American literature, included the following (qtd. in Chanady):

—"magical realism gives us a world view that does not depend on natural or physical laws, and is not based on objective reality" (attributed to Gonzàlez Echevarría, 9).

—"an amalgamation of realism and fantasy" combined with "the difficult art of mingling drab reality with the phantasmal world of nightmares" (Angel Flores, 19).

—"the practitioners of magical realism cling to reality as if to prevent ‘literature' from getting in their way, as if to prevent their myth from flying off, as in fairy tales, to supernatural realms" (Flores, 19).

—and notably, the "presence of the supernatural is often attributed to the primitive or ‘magical' Indian mentality (which accepts the supernatural as part of everyday reality), which coexists with an enlightened European rational view of life" (this from Floyd Merrell in 1975!, Chanady, 19).

Finally, Miguel Angel Astuyrias makes it clear that in "magical realism" writing, "The events are ‘real,' but only in the characters' imagination. Since they are presented as real, however, and are logically impossible according to our code of reality, they become ‘unreal,' or incompatible with our conventional worldview" (Chanady, 22). Notice the pronoun use here that implies the "enlightened European rational view of life" as (implied) "our [shared] code of reality that is juxtaposed against that of the Other, who may actually believe this nonsense. . ." While Chanady presents these varying definitions of magical realism, she tells us "the implied author of magical realism is analogous to the one found in the fantastic, since both describe situations in which they do not believe, and introduce the supernatural into a realistic setting. . . . In magical realism, the supernatural is not presented as problematic" (24). By this she means "the supernatural in magical realism does not disconcert the reader, and this is the fundamental difference between the two modes [fantasy and magical realism]" (24). Her discussion suggests that different authors and critics over the years have alternatively accepted belief practitioners within fiction as possessing an acceptable yet different perception of the world and denied them any authentic attitude towards reality. Often the "different from our own" attitude has been tolerated only because some ethnographers and critics have held to the belief that portrayal of "faith in the marvelous is necessary if one is to portray the South American primitive mentality accurately" (25). We can only hope this has ceased to be the dominating factor in recent portrayals of belief narrative and performance in fiction.

With the definition of this literary term broadly accepted and understood, what ensued was nearly a century of criticism that built upon how "magical realism" was the central, most important writerly mode in Latin fiction. Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude has been critiqued by perhaps hundreds of critics exploring all the varieties of ways in which "magical realism" informs his work. In fact, I would be banging my head upon a very solid, stubborn wall if I were to take on the whole school of "magical realism," as it has been played out on the Latin literature scene.

However, to my distress and consternation, I see that American and European critics are utilizing "magical realism" as a literary trope when writing about the contemporary fiction by ethnic writers, indigenous writers, writers of color, women writers, writers of different tribes and affiliations who are "performing folklore" upon the pages of their works. With that, I will take issue. Even the most broad-minded definitions of "magical realism" defy application to Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. Similarly, just last week, one of our graduate students returned from a literary conference where, she complained, Sherman Alexie's work was critiqued throughout the conference as exemplary examples of "magical realism." I agree wholeheartedly with Eduardo Gonzalez's frustration with the Zamora and Faris collection of essays entitled Magical Realism, in their "random and imaginative" application of "magical realism" to a global arena, finding magical realism in everything from Toni Morrison's fiction to that of J. M. Coetzee. "Here," he laments, the attempt to include fiction from every corner of the literary world "resembles Noah's flood rather than his Ark, a messy quality" that leaves Gonzalez feeling dissatisfied (1995:999). Perhaps the most frustrating of all (but certainly not a "new" story) is the fact that literary critics, scholars, and teachers of contemporary fiction do not read the scholarship in folklore studies—to their detriment. I am reminded of folklorist Bert Wilson's admonition to historians that to ignore the folklore of Mormon people, particularly Mormon wives living within the institution of polygamy, was to ignore the most poignant, the most honest, the most human of all aspects of that phase in American religious history.

Similarly, to understand Morrison's ghost, Perez's nighttime telepathy between mother and daughter and her very "real" spiders, or the power of the panther and the power of story in Hogan's novel as "magical realism" is to strip these novels of their basis in family, tribal, community, and personal folklore. It is also to deny the link in these fictions between the oral world and the literary one and the novelists' intentions to transform the oral upon the written page and in the process "perform" it for the reader. Folklore is performed here, nearly as vibrantly as it is in its "natural" (read oral) context. The talent it takes to make this move is extraordinary. To reduce it to a literary trope identified as "magical realism" is to strip it of its power as a living belief force within communities and among human being.

Why would I make this claim? Why do I take offense at the term as a way to understand these fictions? The offense I take with "magical realism" as a literary trope is that it infers a realism infused by "magic," "fantasy," "oddities," "the bizarre," the "fantastic," as Rawdon Wilson claims in Zamora and Faris' Magical Realism. Understood as a "realism" that is different from everyday realism, the term, as a literary term, is a way to "other" the kinds of reality shared by writers who move between the borders of orality and literature, belief and power, between this world and the next, between animals and humans, this time and past time. It implies a standard "reality" shared by all peoples, particularly the identifiable "now" of "rational" educated people, at the expense of other realities that are different and may not make any of the same distinctions. Perhaps most distressing to me as I read all these works on "magical realism" (including critiques of Toni Morrison, Leslie Silko, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, and many other contemporary American novelists), I cannot find one single citation of a folklorist—not one. I search the endnotes, the bibliographies, the indices, but not one folklorist is even mentioned in passing; not one folklore study of African American folklore is mentioned, no studies of Native American folklore are cited, no mention of the many folklorists who have studied voodoo, conjuring, or belief in the supernatural—sacred or secular; and certainly no reference to David Hufford's enlightening work on how the academy disregards belief by "othering" it as non-rationalistic, without even a nod to how belief might actually reflect a truth or a reality about the universe. Hufford's work also argues that the academic disbelief in all things supernatural is part of the "folklore of the academy"—disbelief is a part of a belief system (see Hufford 1982). But to recognize that requires more than most literary critics can wrap their heads around. Even Salman Rushdie's often quoted comment, "Impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun," includes a suspension of disbelief that nevertheless corners the market on what is "possible" and what is not. Wilson claims the space on the fictional page as a space for fiction writers to cross boundaries, to explore the power of language to leave the "normal" and explore the "alternatives" (1995:210). But none of this emerges from an understanding of people and their belief systems as transposed upon the written page. All these approaches assume a "we" and an "other"—one normal, the "other" as exploratory, fantastic, as daring. In fact, "border crossings" are a favorite in all discussions of hybridity, transcultural, cross-cultural, but I do not think it is ever quite that simple. One truly does not have one foot in Mexico and the other in Texas. Like map borders, there really is no mental manifestation of one side and another side, although the physical barriers are very real. The metaphor of "borders" and "crossing borders," while extremely popular, probably does a disservice to the real people we are trying to discuss and whose literature we are trying to read and understand. People do not actually "cross borders;" borders are marks on a map enforced by those who insist lines have actually been "drawn." Phrases such as "African American" or "Catholic American" are but words that convey a perception of mixed identity, but truly there is no line demarcating one aspect from the other; they fuse in each of us. Like new "substances," you cannot extract out the Catholic part, the voodoo part, the Irish part, the Texas part, the Latina part. Once they are mixed, they must be perceived as they live—holistically.

My favorite article title in Zamora and Faris' book is Mary Slowick's "Henry James, Meet Spider Woman: A Study of Narrative Form in Leslie Silko's Ceremony." And I do appreciate Laura Behling's discussion of hybrid texts and cultural contexts when she discusses the instability not only of different cultural contexts in which performances exist. She identifies the ambiguity and instability of critical forms and genres that accompany any journey across borders, a dangerous site that is complicated, often fraught with "dis-ease," but, ultimately, "full of interpretive richness" (Behling 2003:420). Her concerns are addressed, appropriately, not only to her critical colleagues but to her teaching colleagues as well, exploring the difficulties of these multiple discourses in the classroom context.

Perhaps our good friend folklorist Barre Toelken can provide an illustration both of what to do and what not to do in attempting to share what we know. I am perplexed about how it is that most folklorists I know read folklore scholarship, literary criticism, theory, history, American Studies, women's studies, feminist theory, oral tradition, and a host of other disciplines in our attempt to create a scholarship that is truly grounded in an interdisciplinary approach. But, unfortunately, literary critics and theorists, historians, even American Studies scholars are not reading folklore scholarship. I do not know if this is a reminder, again, of how much of a non-scholarly, non-academic bias there exists in the academy against the very term "folklore," or if it is because there is an inherent anti-interdisciplinary focus in most academic disciplines. But, the truth is, they are not reading our work, nor are they citing our scholarship in their own critiques.

Perhaps our good friend folklorist Barre Toelken can provide an illustration both of what to do and what not to do in attempting to share what we know. I am perplexed about how it is that most folklorists I know read folklore scholarship, literary criticism, theory, history, American Studies, women's studies, feminist theory, oral tradition, and a host of other disciplines in our attempt to create a scholarship that is truly grounded in an interdisciplinary approach. But, unfortunately, literary critics and theorists, historians, even American Studies scholars are not reading folklore scholarship. I do not know if this is a reminder, again, of how much of a non-scholarly, non-academic bias there exists in the academy against the very term "folklore," or if it is because there is an inherent anti-interdisciplinary focus in most academic disciplines. But, the truth is, they are not reading our work, nor are they citing our scholarship in their own critiques.

Several years ago, Barre Toelken published a really thoughtful piece in a magazine titled Parabola. This is a slick, intellectual magazine for busy, educated, lay readers. Sometimes you have seen a copy in a large international airport, or in the best bookstores. I imagine its main readership is through subscriptions. In this piece he called "Fieldwork Enlightenment," Toelken warned ethnographers/fieldworkers against the dangers of doing field research in cultures they really do not understand. In fact, his article suggests that he eventually stopped his own studies of Native American culture because he was finally convinced by some of his "collaborators" that his questions about and forays into certain traditional ceremonial practices were tantamount to "performing witchery" within the tribal community. He says in this article that he actually believes it was his own questions and meddling that caused several deaths in the family of Hugh Yellowman, his main informant. What I most admire about this article is Toelken's reach for a new audience—he is not talking to the "choir" here, nor is he "becoming a literary critic" so that he can publish in the literary criticism journals (a truly daunting endeavor), but rather he sought out an intellectual reading audience that needed to hear what the folklorist has to say. Many literary scholars and teachers need to know what the folklorist knows in order to read and better understand contemporary literature. I firmly believe folklorists have much to say about fiction and how it relates to the very real people who write it, authors who cannot and do not try to separate out the various parts of themselves in the process.

I will also point out that I have had numerous people, kin and friends (not folklorists), in New York and in Florida and Texas, tell me how much they loved that piece in Parabola. They felt so privileged to be in Toelken's "presence" and hear his thinking about his own research and the people he has come to know intimately. They felt he had shared something valuable and precious with them; they came away feeling he had done the ethical thing. He had left the field research when it seemed he was treading in the wrong places. On the other hand, even though I threatened to come here and preach a "post-ethnography" sermon, Toelken's cautions about fieldwork strike me as too reactionary. In fact, I've been known to criticize his audacity in suspecting that he, the white male folklorist asking too many questions, actually called up the witchery and killed various tribal members. I have suggested that he has actually given himself too much credit. Surprisingly, Toelken's plenary speech at the 2003 annual American Folklore Society meetings in Albuquerque reinforced the necessity for continued field research and ethnographic writing—and the need for always interrogating our own approaches. In this talk, Toelken presented an overview of his career as a folklorist, particularly with the Navajo and his friend and collaborator, Yellowman. Toelken admitted his failures in field research and talked with pleasure about his successes. However, at the end of his talk, Toelken bravely admitted that in many ways his ethnographic journey had been flawed from the very beginning. He realized this, he said, only when Yellowman's wife Helen leaned over and said to him, "I also know some stories." Suddenly, Toelken realized that not only had he never asked Helen Yellowman for her stories, it had never even occurred to him to ask her if she knew any stories. His astonishment at his own myopic gaze was mortifying; I was humbled by his admission of this to the collected members of the American Folklore Society in that grand ballroom.

These accounts of the ethnographic career of Barre Toelken bring together our understandings of ethnography and fiction. Are we thinking about readers' questions about the fiction they are currently reading? Do we know something worth sharing, and how do we locate and speak to these audiences? The key, then, is to find the people who can benefit from this kind of knowledge, who long to better understand the telepathy and the spiders in Perez, the shape shifting in Erdrich, the importance of La Llorona and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Sandra Cisneros, about panther spirits and messenger women in Hogan, Silko, and Erdrich, or the importance of talk-story, ghosts, and tigers in Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston.

So, in the end, I am not really advocating an end to ethnography. I know we learn a great deal in our concentrated field research with living peoples around the world and in our own backyards. I believe ethnography informs literature of all kinds. Knowing cultural beliefs and traditions can help us understand how they perform in fiction and how fictions perform folklore. In this respect, I am aligning my own work more significantly with performance studies. I have moved beyond the typical academic "products" of articles and books and taken the narratives I have collected on tape into actual performances. My theatre colleague at Missouri, Heather Carver, and I have developed a troupe of student "performers" who now travel with us to perform the narratives of actual women who have survived relationship abuse and violence and re-claimed their lives. There are other endeavors similar to ours. For example, Rodessa Jones' San Francisco-based "Medea Project," which has been serving incarcerated women's populations for several years, has proven to be highly successful (Fraden 2001). We began the troupe in 2003 and now, in 2009, Carver and I have published a book about the troupe experiences—a book that is written entirely as a performative "script." Our intention is to find ways to continue ethnographic field research while advocating new venues for the application of what we learn through ethnographic research—such as the interpretive reading of contemporary fiction or the performance of narratives for new audiences.

Note: This was originally the keynote address given at the Louisiana Folklore Society meetings, Lafayette, Louisiana, 2003. I want to thank the society and, especially, John Laudun, for their kind hospitality and invitation to come to Louisiana, and Carolyn Ware for soliciting this as an article in 2009.


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This article was first published in the 2009 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Elaine J. Lawless is a folklorist at the University of Missouri, Department of English.