Before I get into my car, I check to see that no one is in my backseat. Other than revealing the sad state of the world where that is not a uncommon habit for a woman, it also reveals the hold that stories have over me. I check the backseat not because of the countless bits of advice that I’ve been given when I’m reminded that it’s my responsibility to not be targeted by a sociopath, but because I heard an urban legend at a slumber party.
You’ve probably heard this story too. A girl drives home late at night and notices that she is being followed by a car that turns its high beams on at odd intervals. Regardless of which turns she suddenly takes or if she runs a red light that strange car follows. Finally, she can’t stand it any more and drives home, where she makes a run for her front door. The other driver gets out and starts screaming that there was someone in her car with her. She goes back and sees an ax laying across the backseat. Whenever the ax-murder raised the weapon, the driver behind her would turn on his high beams to keep the murder from killing her. Late at night when I get into my car, I inevitably think of this story and look into my back seat.
Often we think of stories as something that we grow out of. One person may say that he or she is too old to believe in fairy tales but still expect their romantic life to follow the lines set by the Disney films. How many us who don’t believe in ghosts will still stay away from those famed haunted houses? Even though many will still turn up their nose at superstition, they’ll still hold their breath when driving past a graveyard, knock on wood when they talk of possible tragic outcome, or remain silent on their wishes after blowing out the candles of a birthday cake. I know a few skeptics who were able to rid themselves of these habits entirely, and I envy them at times. But even though I know that nothing will change the chance of the universe, I still throw split salt over my shoulder. Just because I know, without a doubt, ghosts don’t exist, doesn’t mean I’m not turning all the lights on after hearing a particularly good story.
Perhaps that is why I enjoy magical realism so much. It is just realism where spilling salt is serious business, where breathing in the graveyard air is dangerous, and where folklore isn’t hidden away but a living, breathing presence. Perhaps this is why I write so many stories and poems that deal with fairy tales and myth, because I can’t explore my poor body image without thinking of Cinderella’s two ugly step sisters, I can’t think of aging without thinking about the queen in Snow White, and, when a strange man asks me for the time and stands a little bit too close, I can’t help but think of Little Red Riding Hood. Gods, monsters, princesses, and witches make up a large part of the fabric through which I emotionally view this world.
One book, which I recently read, that does a wonderful job illustrating how stories color our view of the world is The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. The book follows Natalia, a young doctor whose Balkan country has been divided by a civil war. She is crossing the new border to give vaccinations to people who view her, in general, as an ancestral enemy. On top of this she discover that her grandfather has died after also crossing the border for unknown reasons. There is a constant tension as Natalia, a lone woman, wanders this angry territory. Obreht does a wonderful job of showing how the threat of violence, while not necessarily overt, is always there. Natalia is reminded that she shouldn’t go to certain places alone—though she doesn’t always take the advice.
When describing The Tiger’s Wife to friends I’ve called it magical realism, but that category doesn’t do the book justice. As Natalia describes her current actions and remembers the times spent with her grandfather, she doesn’t witness anything that couldn’t happen in our mundane world. There are moments that seem magical, like the time she saw an Elephant walk through the city under curfew in the dead of night. It is a beautiful moment, but it’s not literally magical. Even the story that she reconstructs of her grandfather’s boyhood involving the tiger and the tiger’s wife can be logically explained—though there are many moments that seem to come straight out of a fairy tale. In fact throughout most of the story everything exists in our logical mundane world, it’s tension coming from us wondering if she will come across some of that magic she has only heard of in stories. Whether she does or not, I won’t spoil for you. For most of the book, it is only in the stories that Natalia remembers her grandfather telling about his encounters with the deathless man where we see something literally magical happen. Of course, we are hearing Natalia recalling stories her grandfather told her. There is a good deal of distance between us and what may have actually happened—like all good folk tales and urban legends.
Yet for all of this world’s reality and logic, it is still defined by these old folk stories and beliefs. Natalia’s grandmother doesn’t want to move her grandfather’s things for forty days after his death lest his spirit becomes lost. People leave coins for the dead. We see a group refuse to get their children medical care, as they dig up a vineyard looking for a corpse of a relative, who they believe has cursed them for not giving him a proper burial. Many of these people know those old stories are just “fairy tales,” yet their actions are still dictated by them
In the United States, we tend to pretend that we have moved beyond these stories. Yet, they still color how we approach death, birth, love, and myriad of other actions. To ignore these stories in the name of logic is dangerous, because these stories are still coloring our actions. If we put the folk tales, the fairy tales, and the urban legends, where we reasonable adults can’t see them, we can’t analyze how they are affecting our views.
I suspect that you can go anywhere in the world, point to a bit of geography and ask the locals “What’s that place’s story?”, and they will have one to tell you. Landscapes that are the bodies of giants, the result of a hero’s triumph, the scars of a god’s wrath, or echo with the body-less voices of miner’s buried alive. Even as children, my friends and I tried to create stories for our neighborhood. A small swell in the earth in an empty field became the haunted grave where a murdered baby was buried. The grove of cottonwoods where we rode our bikes was filled with century old ghosts that you might catch a glimpse of if you were alone, and a house that was falling apart belonged to a witch. When someone asks me what I’ll do when I’m done with my fairy tale poems, I stare confounded. I’ll never be done with them.