Penman No. 55: A Foray into Fantasy

TresePenman for Monday, July 15, 2013

WE HAD an interesting discussion in my graduate Fiction Workshop class the other week about fantasy.  I’d asked my students to do an exercise—a short piece of fiction with which they could introduce themselves and their work to the rest of the class at the start of the semester—and one of them had chosen to do fantasy. It was a very well written piece, to be sure, about a child who meets an elfin spirit in a tree in their backyard, but I wanted to push the limits of our appreciation of fantasy, if we were going there at all, so I didn’t let it go at that, and raised a few questions and possibilities.

As my students and readers know, I’m a hardcore realist myself in my own fiction, operating on the notion that there are enough mysteries and wonders to be found and explored in everyday life to have to invent more. That doesn’t mean I can’t or don’t appreciate fantasy, or science fiction, which I’ve enjoyed since grade school. Like most readers, I like to be transported to other worlds and other possibilities, as a relief—or, let’s face it, an escape—from the tedium of the here and now.

That said, there are fantasies and there are fantasies, and just because a story’s a fantasy doesn’t mean that anything goes, or that the rules of credibility and plausibility can be thrown out the window. I suspect that readers of fantasy can be just as discerning and demanding as readers of realist fare; they may even be so familiar with the genre and its conventions that they will be ultrasensitive to any radical departure, good or bad, and will feel grievously shortchanged if their expectations aren’t met. Freshness of treatment and insight is key. Fantasy stories that just repeat what’s been said and done before will fail to excite the reader, who’s always demanding something new and different.

So what, to my mind, is a superior fantasy? I’m going to give an answer that will sound a little strange: it’s fantasy that’s premised on the familiar, but takes off into parts unknown, if only again to reflect back on the familiar, or what we thought we knew. In other words, fantasy is ultimately not about complete detachment from reality, but rather the defamiliarization of reality. I’m sure that more sophisticated theorists out there have made pretty much the same point (theory isn’t my strong suit, and I’d much rather reason my way through a problem), but it’s really quite simple: by taking a step back from reality and looking at it from a distance, we notice fresh things about that we would have missed up close. Fantasy provides that distance, even a certain distortion that emphasizes some previously obscure aspects of a picture or a situation over others.

Like I said, I haven’t written much fantasy—the most fanciful story I wrote, back in 1978 (when our daughter Demi was four, thinking that she would read and appreciate it when she turned 12) was a pseudo-historical tale titled “The Mirror,” set in pre-Hispanic Philippines, about the arrival of the first mirror to our shores. I had fun doing that, so I can see how liberating this kind of exercise can be for writers who feel stifled by having to deal with what’s right before them. Reality can be claustrophobic, especially when it’s dark and narrow, as it often seems to be.

But if I were to write fantasy again—and this was what I advised my young student to do—I would play with the possibility of taking off from somewhere unexpected, some place or some point that doesn’t have the word “fantasy” twinkling above it in stardusted letters.

I’m fascinated, for example, by what would happen if our authors tried to fuse freewheeling fantasy with grungy realism, employing our most familiar and even our most sordid realities as a launching pad for a journey to the surreal and the irreal. Of course, like most things in art and literature, this has been done before by many fantasists and fabulists. As I suggested earlier, the best way to lie is to begin with the seeming truth, instead of a flagrant falsehood. (One great example of this approach is the graphic story contributed by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo to our Manila Noir book—which had a very successful launch at NBS Glorietta last July 6, by the way—which begins with a series of gruesome murders on the MRT and turns into a supernatural detective story.)

The imperative of this fusion is at its most urgent in our society, ridden as it is with poverty, violence, and corruption, and yet also uplifted and ennobled by the Filipino’s deep spirituality and by our unyielding imagination. I proposed to my students that in a society such as ours, even fantasy has a social function: not necessarily as an escape, but as a means with which—even briefly—to distance ourselves from our pains and to look at them without hurting too much, so we could deal with them better upon our inevitable return. For us, the most ambitious and the most meaningful fantasy will take our stark social realities into account: you can’t set great fantasy in Tagaytay Highlands, because living there is already a fantasy for most Filipinos; you’d be jumping off a very low platform if you did that.

I threw this impromptu suggestion into the discussion: instead of locating the encounter with the duende or the benign spirit in a backyard that already seems magical (nature—trees, waterfalls, caves, and such—is very often used as an entry point to the other world), why not set it somewhere you least expect a duende to appear (a place “most hostile to romance,” as Joyce put it in “Araby”)?

Think, for example, of a suburban bank branch full of people, toward closing time. A father, a mother, and their young daughter are there, because the dad needs to withdraw some cash to make a down payment on a second-hand car they’d been saving up for. The mom chats with the girl and fixes her ribbons while the dad does his business at the counter. It’s a pleasant day, and soft music plays in the background. Suddenly masked men barge into the bank and announce a holdup. A robber scoops up the dad’s money, but he begins to say something, and gunshots fill the air. (At this point, we don’t know yet if the father has been shot, or if the guards have opened fire.) The little girl is in utter terror, shaking in the iron grip of her screaming mother. At this point, the duende appears, suspending time, and maybe even the trajectories of bullets.

Unlikely? Of course. Corny? Could be. But it’s certainly less predictable than a leafy bower, or a cloud on a hilltop.

Again, I’m a hardcore realist, but I’d be the last to say that our people don’t need fantasy. We most certainly do, especially our poorest children, who’ve been battered and savaged by the realities of life, working in the streets or in some sweatshop when they should be in school, reading books and singing songs. They need fantasy to reclaim their sense of wonder, to see beyond the rust and grime and filth of their surroundings; they can be sustained and delivered not so much by fairy godmothers as by their imagination, which always offers hope.

 

FROM MY friend Jane Camens, the busybody behind the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association (APWriters), comes this message about a call for submissions to an international anthology of flash fiction—the term in vogue for very short stories (also called “short shorts” or “sudden fiction”). Flash Fiction International, to be published by W.W. Norton of New York, is seeking stories from anywhere in the world—especially the Asia Pacific. Jane says that “the stories should be under 750 words, in English translation or original English. Previously published work (within the last 10 years or so) is preferred. But new manuscripts are also considered. Submissions may be sent by email with attachment to Robert Shapard at his email rshapard@hawaii.edu . The submissions deadline is August 15. Submission limit is three stories.” Be so advised!

(Trese image from tumblr.com)

 

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