Keeping it Real

An interesting set of coincidences happened recently, all to do with the strange category of realism and its relationship to the real. Freud would insist that coincidences are precisely the wrong ground upon which to discuss “realism,”  since an unlikely recurrence of the same element is, if memory serves me, a classic example of the uncanny. And yet these events together helped me think about the way questions around Realism and its others help suture together very different parts of my scholarly life, including this one in the Medical Humanities.

In order to tell you how, I have a confession to make: I’m not properly trained in Medical Humanities. I discovered my interest in this field literally by accident, as a byproduct of teaching fantastic pre-med students. Later, it suggested a through line for a second body of research I had begun in “free time” during my Ph.D.  But my official area of expertise is something quite different.

Now is that miserable moment in the academic calendar when aspirants like me write and deliver “job talks” somehow meant to condense that “official area of expertise” into a digestible 45-minute spiel. At the same moment I sat down to ponder my talk, two different colleagues independently put forth my name to contribute to a volume on Magical Realism, and an undergraduate advisee sent me a proposal about the uses of Magical Realism in contemporary refugee narratives. For years I have been at pains to emphasize that, though my project touches on it, I don’t actually work on Magical Realism. Really, I don’t. And yet all these years of insisting has not stopped anyone from reading my work in that light. At last, staring at the blank page, I decided that I do have something to say: about the critical uses of wonder, a category of amazement at the new, different, and unexpected, and of wondering, an intellectual faculty of openness to the unknown. If this sometimes comes in the form of Magical Realism, so be it.

Magical Realism is not the hot commodity it once was. Instead, realism: original flavor is experiencing a fascinating critical resurgence. Still, I’m not alone in observing that, along with a rising interest in realism as such, the alternative space once held by Magical Realism has been maintained by other means. In fact, it’s been overtaken by various versions of “speculative” fiction. Why? Why do we continue to need a category that poses itself as somehow excessive to the real? I mean, of course these genres are delightful, some of my favorites, and that is reason in itself. But why do we seem to need them, politically?

This is what leads me back to Medical Humanities, and a set of conversations both public and private around the ideas of CripLit, speculative fiction, and futurity. Because just as I was settling in to think about my relationship to Magical Realism, my sister interrupted me with a rant about its inverse. As I’ve written before, my sister is disabled and a writer, and that day she was incensed about the exclusionary assumptions about disability embedded in realism. “Why is the most realistic ending for a disabled character always the worst one?” We’d been talking about the popularity of books like A Little Life, in which the abject experiences and ultimate suicide of the disabled protagonist have been praised as a brave rejection of futurity a-la Lee Edelman.

The rallying cry of “No Future” can be a bold assertion against normativity in certain contexts. But what critical energy, what space of possibility, does it bring to disabled readers and writers for whom “no future” is treated as a self-evident fact? There is work must be done within the realm of realism itself to make narratives about crip life (and not just crip death) “plausible” for readers of mainstream realism. But in many ways it’s easier to imagine crip futurity in genres that escape decisively from the real, especially “speculative” genres founded on the idea of a future that breaks radically from the present.

You can see this sentiment all over the recent discussion of #CripLit: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and #CripFuturism. Again and again, writers respond to the question “What draws you to speculative fiction compared to other types of fiction?” with some version of the idea that speculative fiction offers a space in which disabled life can unfold differently than it does in the here and now. That disability itself could be used to open up new conceptual spaces. I see this, for example, in Embassytown by China Miéville, in which characters voluntarily deafen themselves in order to escape perpetual aural addiction. While deafness has disabling effects for these characters, it eventually opens new route for communication, indeed, a whole new conception of what language is and its relationship to what can be thought. This, and the other examples brought up in the #CripLit discussion, all touch on Michael Davidson’s concept of the “defamiliar body.” That is, they embrace the distinct capacity of disability to engage the core literary function of “defamiliarization,” to make us reconsider our assumptions about how the world operates. When the genre of realism reinforces a single narrative arc for disabled characters, other genres can force us to “wonder” about a world that works differently. 

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