[WERDZ] Ode to Magical Realism: What Drum Corps International, Scheherazade and the dirt in my flowerbeds have in common

Santa Clara Vanguard performing their DCI 2014 show: “Scheherazade.”

I just spent the last six hours in a nearby movie theater with some 50 other people watching the preliminaries of the Drum Corps International annual competition. I have a sixteen-year-old daughter in the color guard of a local corps; some of her friends joined me to watch this event live-streamed from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis (home of the Colts) three hours ahead of us.

…What does this have to do with magical realism? Just stick with me for a minute.

My daughter has been gone for nearly eight weeks on tour across the nation, performing at stadiums six out of seven days a week and spending much of the rest of that time either on the field practicing or sleeping on the bus. It is the opportunity of a lifetime, and I am a feminist at heart and believe our girls need to jump on these opportunities every chance they can get in their young lives. Still, the only time I have been able to see her this summer was when she performed live July 5. Her corps had brought their show to our neck of the woods, the Seattle Summer Music Games. I couldn’t wait to get there, mostly just planning to hug her and see her beautiful smile and take a lot of pictures.

There were seven corps performing at that July 5 competition–from California, Colorado, Oregon, Texas and Washington. This is generally how it works: each corps travels from city to city, performing their shows, racking up points, getting feedback from adjudicators both on the field and in the stands, then revising their movements until, ultimately, they all meet like they did today, in Indianapolis, to sound off against one another in a battle of bands like none you have ever seen.

In short, it’s a spectacle in every positive nuance of that word. Or maybe I should say it’s a marvel.

The music, if you are there live to hear it, rattles your eardrums with its powerful “wall of sound” resonance. The dancing and the formations bring the storytelling to life through dramatic ensemble efforts as well as delicate solos defined by stunning, ever-changing shapes. The costumes–and costume changes you literally don’t see happening–lend magical elements of character to the spectacle, and the props they bring to the field set the scenes and the landscapes to what ultimately becomes one big gorgeous act of storytelling.

On that July night, there were stories celebrating gypsies and changing seasons, honoring Poe’s raven in the poem, “Nevermore’… even a story which captured the beauty of life when something magical happens in “that one second.” Stories of spectacle, of marvel, of wonder, of fabulism, embodied by groups of 150 people under the age of 21 in consummate orchestration, as potent and fragile and complicated as the shared mechanisms of the living human organism.

This is the miracle of what we saw live that night and what we watched today at the theater: the machinery of souls united by a singular choreography, telling the stories of the human condition, even at its most mundane level. The elevation of the mundane to art. Falling leaves are a miracle, after all; pure moments of love, the repetitive power of a single mantra from an old poem… these are spectacles, these are moments where fable intersects with the ordinary, these are the things that return wonder to a world stripped of its imagination by technology, bureaucracy and social disconnection.

***

If this is not enough magical realism for you, continue reading.

I founded and published Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism for ten years (1998-2008) because I had developed an abiding love for the magical story, the fable or parable that tells of the wonders that life can bring us. These moments of awe and possibility can be found everywhere you look; I think all the time about the simple beauty of the flowers in my yard from a distance, how beneath it all, there are worms and dirt and fungus and dead rot and all things unlovely to keep other things alive.

I love these kinds of contradictions; I love that without these contrasts, awe could never occur. In order to have awe, you have to have a biding respect for the union of the probable with the improbable; you have to make your peace with the inexplicable. There can only be light in the world if there is also darkness. These are some of the reasons I became a publisher, editor and, finally, curator of literary magical realism.

One of the things we did regularly was publish theme issues. We managed to put together one on Caribbean magical realism, one of Spirituality and magical realism, one that covered the Iberian peninsula. We never made it to a theme edition focused on tales from the Middle East, though it had been in the plans, were we to continue growing the anthology. Instead, a decade in, my staff and I agreed to move on to other projects, as we felt we had, more or less, achieved what we set out to do.

I found myself missing the purposeful insertion of magical realism in my life, however. I made up for it by reading books of magical realism to my girls while they were still young enough for bedtime stories. Both girls “got” Paolo Coelho’s fabulist parable in The Alchemist and both appreciated the magical realist titles they would ultimately read in high school, and at a level that still makes me proud. The last book I read to my youngest daughter (it took me all summer, just four years ago) was Watership Down. She is now a relentless reader of Murakami and helped me celebrate Gabo’s passing last spring by bringing yellow roses to her literature class. Both of my girls see the underlying purpose of magical realism: to tell stories in order to save lives, to truth-tell against the ever-present censor, to empower whole communities to act together against oppression by weaving beauty and magic into the ordinary aspects of their lives.

No wonder our family’s favorite movie is Big Fishanother book I’m overdue to read.

***

Since we are talking about magical realist literature…
One of the other corps that performed July 5 was the Santa Clara Vanguard, one of the finest to compete for DCI over the last several decades. They tend to place in the top 10 worldwide. I was absolutely bowled over by their show. It was themed “Scheherazade” and, true to form, the music, costumes, movements and props all depicted the challenges of the famous young princess from the 1001 Nights as she cleverly “sweet talked” her way out of a troublesome new marriage through her rich and endless unfolding of fantastic tales. 

Earlier this year I realized that I still had not completely read through or was completely familiar with all the collected tales of the Arabian Nights. We all know about Aladdin, but what of the many other wonderful tales that came out of the Golden Age of Islam? Watching the Vanguard unfold their program, I was delighted and suddenly homesick for that place in both my intellect and my heart where the influence of literary magical realism is permanently wedged.

It has been six years since Margin was retired (though the entire site is archived), and I have since gone through many shelves and donated many magical realist novels and story collections. But I still have that copy of Richard Burton’s The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights, because I still can’t wait to jump into that princess’s clever mind and see how she spins fictions to save her life.

Tonight, I watched the Vanguard show again for the second time, and it was just as marvelous as the first time I’d seen it. Between the visuals and the music and the power of the performances, I was transported to a place I still want to see for myself, a place I have glimpsed only sideways through The Alchemist and the classic tale of Aladdin and his magic lamp (perhaps oversimplified in my own mind thanks to Disney).

Besides, I am a mother of daughters. The cleverness of Scheherazade “telling tales” appeals to the feminist in me, the one who knows that wiles are a best practice in self defense. It inspires my belief that there are truths we must tell, even if only slant, in order to maintain our autonomy. As women. As people. As human beings.

One of my daughter’s friends, one of the two drum majors for their high school marching band (and both are girls!) was also there tonight and, occasionally, I saw her lift her hands from her lap and practice the moves of a conductor. She likely didn’t even know she was doing it. She was leading. I love seeing this in teenaged girls, this “accidental leadership” which can’t be kept at bay. There is hope for the human race while we continue to raise strong, thoughtful children who appreciate art and beauty while desiring leadership.

We struck up a conversation at the intermission about the number of expensive props that some of the corps were using in their shows, and she said to me, “I think you can be simple and still do the same thing.” To which I replied: “Yes, because ultimately, these shows aren’t about props, they’re about stories. All art, ultimately, is about story.” And she nodded, clearly understanding this simple, and yet complicated, observation.

She makes me miss my own creative, idea-hungry daughter, the one on the road, the one lifting the silken flag with well-toned arms that should belong to a Grecian statue, the one sneaking Murakami stories late at night on the bus by teeny tiny booklight, the one whose upraised chin and cheeks on the movie screen today were as softly golden as Rumpelstiltskin’s thread.

Magical realism is everywhere, people. You only need to open your eyes to find awe, wonder, beauty, marvel and magic in the world.

The part of me that decided to create an anthology devoted to magical realism over 15 years ago, to be a teacher/curator/editor, to explore a literary category with a broad mind and multiple lenses… it was gentle nudged awake tonight as I watched the final scene in the Vanguard show, in which the princess, elevated above the field and surrounded by her feather-wafting harem, lifted the golden lamp in her hands, victorious.

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