Magic Realism / SERIES

Magic Realism vs. Magical Realms #6

The shaman is Bruce's favorite role, even at Halloween parties.

The shaman is Bruce’s favorite role,
even at Halloween parties.


An easy and clear distinction between magic realism and fantasy, or science fiction, is that MR is about revealing and exploring character by weaving the story through two worlds—reality and fantasy— in such a fluid manner that neither seems to intrude on the other, whereas the other two genres are about building fantastical worlds that are meant to be dissociated from the reality we know.

Got it? — bi-dimensional world vs. one-dimensional world!

As promised, Bruce Nicoll will conclude this series with a contribution about his interest in shamanism and w.i.p. YA novel on the concept of adolescent rite-of-passage.

First of all, a disclaimer: While I am more interested in shamanism than almost anything else, I am not really trained in it. I have read numerous books on the subject and attended plenty of short workshops conducted by its luminaries; Michael Harner, Hank Wesselman, Eduardo Luna, Nan Moss, David Corbin, to name just a few of the many teachers I have been privileged to learn from. And of course, like many of you, I’ve drummed and journeyed and fasted, crouched in sweats, swallowed foul-tasting brews and heady tinctures, chewed on obscure seeds and bitter twigs, all in the sincerest and most respectful hope of entering into communion with the “other,” some transcendent harbinger of information from outside of the mundane. A direct line to and from the realm of Spirit. Many times I have been successful. I have had experiences that changed my life. But what I most sought, an experience that might change somebody else’s life, has eluded me. To my immense disappointment, the ability to be of service in relieving the dis-ease of others is not a gift the Spirits have seen fit to channel through me.

Nevertheless, my faith that there is something to it all remains unshakeable. What else has kept the human race alive against all odds for such countless millennia? Like radio receivers, we are tuned to a particular bandwidth, evolved to sensorially process only certain frequencies. Our scientific knowledge is mostly circumscribed by these faculties, though thought, imagination, a near-death or psychedelic experience can sure push the curtain back a little, to give us a notion that there are teeming universes going about their business right next to us, right now. Shamanism is, in my opinion, just one of the many ways that these alien frequencies sometimes leak through.

I guess that my interest in all that—an interest forty years in the fermenting—has built up iteratively, beginning with exposure to African folk tales in my youth, complete with their panopoly of shapeshifting natural and animal spirits intersecting with the lives of men and women, mostly to do mischief. Then there was the understanding that the majority of my fellow South Africans, the indigenous black people, that is, would rather rely on a traditional faith healer when something was amiss than bother with Western medicine. Practitioners of that tradition were divided between inyanga herbalists and sangoma diviners, both considered essential, the former being those ethnobotanists basing their remedies on the fauna and flora of the natural world, the latter those that “threw the bones,” interpreting signs from the supernatural world of spirits, ghosts, and ancestors, whether to cast, or ward off, spells. I saw an agitated young women leap off the back of a truck onto a tar road—at fifty miles an hour—because she was convinced that she had been bewitched after finding some bloody scraps of meat and hair tied in a bundle in her hut. The spell worked. It worked on me, anyway.

My mother, who had grown up in rural Zululand, a tribal region positively seething with spectral mystery and rampant supersitition, was fascinated with herbal medicine and intuitive white magic. My father, mystically New Age decades before it became fashionable, was into yoga and meditation in the fifties, for heaven’s sake! How could I possibly have been normal? Predictably, I did everything I could to avoid learning anything from them. It is only in retrospect that I now realize they were two of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Despite my teenage scorn, however, I became engrossed in Lobsang Rampa, then astrology, then Egyptology, and then I discovered metaphysics, which led to soul work and Terrence McKenna and ayahuasca and coming to America. And throughout that time I was searching for the opening to my own shamanic ability but—if I’m honest—at few moments was I seriously open to the lifestyle compromises apparently required for the Spirits to take one to heart.

Nowadays, I’ve put those ambitions to one side and embraced the profane, so to speak. Those who can, do and those who cannot, teach. Instead of a reliable livelihood in soul retrieval, I started writing a kind of guidebook for my godson (in lieu of the religious instruction godfathers are supposed to impart), trying to tell him about everything that I believe, in the form of an adventure story in which a young boy goes off on a quest to save the natural world, along the way discovering pretty much all I know about the practice and purpose of shamanic ritual. You could call that magic realism, I suppose.

11 thoughts on “Magic Realism vs. Magical Realms #6

  1. It occurs to me, Bruce, that you need to decide whether to be a shaman or a sham man, the latter being your Halloween and fancy dress party persona. Since childhood you’ve been privileged to have access and insights beyond the veil, but it seems you are yet to capture their essence. There is nothing wrong with that for, as any real shaman will tell you, the road to that wisdom is long and tortuous. It is littered with special and highly individual experiences, and punctuated by levels of initiation, each of which must be successfully experienced in order to proceed. Some initiation rituals are tests, seeking to explore the individual’s resolve and life force to their limits; and you have undoubtedly faced some of these. Others require practical demonstration of your own spirit. This is harder for many minds to understand, let alone achieve.
    Western experiments with psychedelic drugs in the 60s brought a few people closer to achieving this enlightenment. But this needs continuity. One cannot dip in and out and hope to make sense of it as so many people who tried the drugs did. For those who do continue without the guidance of a really skilled practitioner, the risks are high and more than a few found their minds ruined by overdose or inappropriate use, or even died in the attempt because they didn’t understand what they were dealing with. This is where tribal shamans and sorcerers have such a vital role to play.
    This poses a major hurdle for people from one culture trying to make sense of the shamanic traditions of another culture. One is constrained by one’s own traditions and, however much you seek to ignore them, they will always intrude. Achieving the necessary openness is the most difficult step for any pilgrim.
    I know form my own experiences in Africa that there are levels beyond which I either cannot, or am most unlikely ever to go. Even so, having grown up with their traditions, I am more open to some of Africa’s spiritual influences than many westerners. What you described in your post as ‘alien frequencies’ are not alien at all in any African tradition. They are the echoes of the ancestors, and the energy of our own spirit world which surrounds all of us all the time. It’s just a question of recognition and unconditional acceptance.
    The first time I visited California, back in the 1970s, I came away with the overriding impression of so many people trying very hard to find themselves. They were seeking by every esoteric means a mind could dream up, and, in so doing, they were actually blocking any real chance of understanding what they were looking for. Basically they were trying too hard, being fervently analytic about understanding what they were trying to do and, because of this, understanding nothing. I wonder if you have sometimes fallen into this trap?
    Try relaxing, share the experiences as they happen with those further down the road than yourself, but without expectations beyond the sharing. Use your knowledge of meditation to empty your mind, and just go with the energy that flows. You might get a surprise.
    You mention having studied Lobsang Rampa, who, for all he wrote some charming books, was nothing more than a science fiction scribbler who ruthlessly exploited a little known culture to sell his books after reading the works of Heinrich Harrer. It’s a good thing you moved on from there a he had nothing to offer except shallow entertainment. Many others also write fantasy under the guise of magical realism, and it is important to draw a distinction. Shamanism may often appear magical, but it is real, not just realism. It is only to those who don’t have the faintest inkling of what it’s about that is looks lie fantasy.

  2. As someone who knows Bruce well, I’d venture to say that he is in some ways the perfect modern-day shaman: a person who uses magic – humor – to make this often somber world a lighter place. I don’t know anyone who brings laughter to people as effortlessly as he does. Sometimes, even when he might be aware of the heaviness in his own heart, he somehow manages to reach past all that to grab hold of the funny side of a story or an event. To me, that is magic power.

    This is not always the case with African sorcerers who are known to delve into black magic for their own good and with no intention to make the world a better place. I also suspect that their severe initiation rituals are nothing more than ‘scaring off’ tactics to reserve something to themselves that really don’t ‘belong’ to them: access to the spirit world.

    It’s true, though, that meditation is an obvious route to experiencing the divine provided you stay the course and are willing to struggle through the obstacles, whatever they might be; we’ve certainly not been good at keeping the faith through all our hardships … I think, though, that might be one of my new year’s resolutions: to get back into meditation.

    Thanks for sharing, Ian :)

    • What you say is certainly very true is some cases of African shamanism, they’re in it for their own benefit. This is particularly so among the sangomas of Southern Africa and some of the ngyangas of the densely populated regions of West Africa. But don’t tar them all with the same brush, there are a lot of very good, genuine ones too.
      As for the long training and initiation being a protective put-you-off, there may be a few cases of this, but from initiation cams I have seen ad the insight a few adepts have chosen to share with me, I don’t think this is generally the case. Opening the door to people without the proper preparation would be like a nuclear physicist inviting a high school kid to come and lay with his reactor. If you’re going to play with the spirit world you need to know what you’re dealing with or the consequences could be dire. Has it occurred to you that the spirits themselves might feel threatened by too many people trying to invade their dimensions? Perhaps having evolved to that level they want some privacy and will only allow a few, chosen individuals some access.
      Of all the witch-doctors I have known, none claimed to have full, free and unfettered access to the spirit world. Even they had to work hard each time they reached in during rituals, however easy they made it look. So we normal mortals shouldn’t expect too much!

  3. Thank you, Belinda, for your sweet words. And thank you, Ian for your considered—and accurate—analysis of my post. So much of what I’ve read supports your point that the spirit world holds our reality at arm’s length, and that developing the ability to cross between realms takes a lifetime of commitment, ritual, and incremental experience. The fearsome aspects of that journey, whether manifesting as a bad trip, acute psychosis, or a spiraling into chronic depression, are certainly a real enough phenomenon to give anybody pause as to quite how deeply they want to go with this stuff. Certainly, getting a dose of the darker consequences makes it way harder to brave attempting the journey again! I have tremendous admiration for those that do persevere. Right now, I’m happy to live vicariously through reading the accounts of others. I look forward to reading some of your books, too, Ian!

    Thanks for putting together such an interesting series, Belinda!

    • Bruce, I’m sure that if you and I got in the same room we could be talking for weeks! Having the kind of childhood experiences you, Belinda and I did must surely create come openness in the faculties, but sadly this sometimes gets blindfolded by the artificial influences of Western society and lifestyle, however much we try not to let it.
      You might like to start by reading Bride Price as it includes a lot about the very close and intimate relationship I had with our village witch-doctor in the jungle. He put me through a grueling ritual before I was accepted into the village community. There was a lot more about similar things in the original manuscript but I cut out over 60,000 words because it was not directly related to Abélé’s story. That may yet emerge as another book about forest life but probably not before 2015.You’ll find a lot more along similar lines in Sorcerers and Orange Pee, when it comes out because, as the title suggests, it’s about sorcerers and er…orange peel. My publisher assures me its release is very close now. It could be any day.

  4. We look forward to its release, Ian. And we’ll make sure to post our reviews; I know how important feedback is to authors. Have a wonderful festive season, even though I’m sure we’ll stay connected and continue our discussions.

  5. Belinda,

    I know you put a lot of time and energy into the concept of magic realism and reality and I appreciate the opportunity to delve into areas of thinking which are new to me. However, my skepticism of any culture which believes in sorcerers and otherworldly activities is very hard to ignore. Humans throughout history have created explanations and beliefs concerning those things which they do not understand. Such beliefs can be used for both good (comfort) or evil (power or control), Sorry, I seem to have gotten off the subject of incorporating magic realism in one’s writing.

    Thanks, Bruce for your contribution to Belinda’s blog. These topics give me more things to think about!

  6. How right you are Jan about these abilities being often misused. It is an increasing problem in modern Africa, werre previously they were a balancing factor in society, assuring continuity and stability and providing explanation for those who needed them.
    There is nothing wrong with you enjoying a bit of scepticism, particularly if the field it totally outside your present experience, but I’m sure you will allow that for many cultures, shamanism and all the connotations that go with it are a vital ingredient to their daily lives. They are also part of what gives those societies their unique character and vitality.
    Read and explore – you might find something that fascinates you, particularly if you’re interested in people.

  7. Jan, I agree with Ian about the right to be skeptical; even though I’m interested in both topics (shamanism [as a way of life] and magic realism [as a literary genre]), that does not mean skepticism never enters the equation. For one thing, there are as many modern-day wackos out there who think they can emulate these old practices as there are amongst the indigenous people themselves – they’re the ones who hang ridiculous price tags to their ‘services’ (California is full of them!). I choose to avoid those charlatans just as I choose to avoid the happy-clappy churches that seat thousands of sheep every Sunday. I applaud your willingness to think about it! Thanks for stopping by, Jan.

  8. Brilliant post! I’m a fan of magical realism, mostly in the Cortázar and García Márquez veins (being Latin myself probably means their particular styles speak to something coded into my chromosomes), but I agree–your project sounds like magical realism, and your godson is a lucky fellow. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Guilie. I’ve just been looking at your blog and all your exciting writing projects. I’m slowly working my way through One Hundred Years of Solitude. My novel-in-progress is about the Bushmen of South Africa; it’s been on hold while I’m completing a creative writing guide, but I can’t wait to get back into it. I’m not sure which direction to take my blog into next year, but I’d love us to stay in touch. Happy Holidays!

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