What Happens Here Can Only Happen Here

“A particular place in the land is never, for an oral culture, just a passive or inert setting for the human events that occur there. It is an active participant in those occurrences. Indeed, by virtue of its underlying and enveloping presence, the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there.” – David Abram

The modern world often obscures the importance and influence of a place because in knowing about the events of many places at the same time via news and social media, we often focus on similarities while ignoring the differences. It’s human nature, I think, to look for common themes and even to copy those we like best leading, among other things, to build the same stores and restaurants across the country because they are profitable by virtue of being known as well as a comfort to both the residents and those traveling through town. Homogenizing everything we can not only destroys local culture and exciting differences but makes for a very sterile way of life by trying to translate the culture of another place into our place where that culture is unnatural.

(I digress when I say that I don’t like this practice, especially when traveling and finding mostly chain restaurants dominating the scene to the detriment of local culture and local restaurants. I can’t imagine visiting New Orleans, for example, and only eating the same fast food I eat at home.)

If you read and/or write magical realism, you know already the importance of the place where a real event or fictional story is set, and in knowing, that one understands how the place helps shape the events that happen there. Those events cannot happen anywhere else–no matter how much people might try to copy them–because they depend on the place’s history, culture, geography, and other factors that are unique. One tries through his/her writing to communicate this to the reader subconsciously rather than overtly. You can’t say “The swamp didn’t like Jim.” But when Jim goes into the swamp in your story, you can give the impression that this is true–or that Jim is scared of the swamp and acts differently than he would act if he weren’t scared of it.

It’s hard not to think of the exchange between Luke Skywalker and Yoda, when Luke asks (about the swamp), “What’s in there?” Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.”

This is true everywhere even though most people won’t acknowledge it.

In looking for similarities between shootings and other crimes, commentators are quick to compare a crime in one place with a crime in another place. They often refer to these as “copycat shootings.” But that can’t be true even if the second perpetrator was aware of the first and wanted to duplicate it. He/she lives in a different environment–the Great Plains as opposed to, say, the Everglades–and part of his/her motivation is copying, a factor that wasn’t involved with the first crime.

Focusing on the real or imagined copycat nature of an event will usually lead investigators astray. Storytellers know this and honor the influence of the place on what happens in that place rather than the extraneous fact that similar events might have happened somewhere else. In magical realism, we understand that what happens here can only happen here.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novels in the Florida Folk Magic Series. This Kindle set includes all four novels in the series.

A great example of local history for authors

I like history and folklore and frequently mention them in my books as part of what makes up the place where my story is set. Since history and folklore are tied to real people and what those people believe, the interesting tidbits we use need to be treated with respect.

We paint the reality of a place in part with old stories.
We paint the reality of a place in part with old stories.

I’m currently reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, a folkloric study of Jamaica and Haiti based on her trip there in the 1930s. Early on, she talks to a man whom she refers to as Brother Levi. What Brother Levi has to say about the meaning of the word “Christmas”might sound sacrilegious to some people. That’s fine, because if an author were to mention this story in a book, s/he would be doing so not as gospel or a religious tract, but to establish a strong ambiance for the location.

The writer doesn’t necessarily paraphrase a story like this. S/he has a character mention it or mention the days when Brother Levi was a strong influence on local culture and beliefs, or perhaps includes it in a narrative overview of the country’s beliefs that newcomers are unaware of and might come across over time.

Hurston’s Story

Brother Levi: “We hold a candle march after Joseph. Joseph came from the cave where Christ was born in the manger with a candle. He was walking before Mary and her baby. You know Christ was not born in the manger. Mary and Joseph were too afraid for that. He was born in a cave and He never came out until He was six months old. The three wise men see the star but they can’t find him because He is hid in the cave. When they can’t find him after six months, they make a magic ceremony and the angel come tell Joseph the men wanted to see him. That day was called ‘Christ must day’ because it means ‘Christ must find today,’ so we have Christ-mas day, but the majority of people are ignorant. They think him born that day.”

I have no plans to write about Voodoo in Jamaica. But if I were setting a novel there, I would find this snippet a delightful way of setting the stage, of showing an alternative point of view. I love reading folklore for what it is, but I take note of things that might one day become part of the depth of place I’m always trying to establish when I write.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the award-winning “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and its sequel “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” magical realism novels about a north Florida conjure woman’s battle against racism and the Klan.