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Post Road Magazine #33

Magical Realism Story Collections for the Trump Era

Annie Hartnett

I have no idea what's going on in America right now as you're reading this, and I hope you're okay. I can tell you that, from where I stand at the end of January 2017, I'm not sure we will be. Right now, I'm currently flying back from a big conference for booksellers and authors, where Roxane Gay instructed the crowd of 650 people to "rise up." I hope we have risen up by the time you're reading this. But for now, I'm eating American Airline pretzel wheels and having a low-grade panic attack.

The night we arrived, four days ago, Trump signed his executive order to ban Muslims from our country. We watched the events unfold in horror. Everyone condemned it, with booksellers represented from every state. We talked about what we could do to fight back, to resist. And we also recommended books to one another, because that's what booksellers and authors do. We cannot stop, even (or especially) in times of political turmoil.

There's a book I recommended one night, after a bookseller told me that she likes magical realism. I told her she had to read Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz, one of the most imaginative story collections I've ever read. "She should be the richest writer in the world," I said.

My favorite story in the collection is called "Where We Come From," and it is about a woman who is trying to cross the US/Mexico border so that she can give birth to a baby. She's just been raped. She wants a better life for her child; she has heard that everyone gets a dishwasher once they are in the United States. But crossing the border isn't easy, and she tries over and over again. She wears disguises, she goes in trucks and in boats, she is attacked by dogs. She keeps trying again and again. She is so determined for her baby to be an American citizen that she carries her baby for ten months. Then she carries him for a year. Then two. She is still pregnant four years in. She doesn't want the guards to jostle her when they send her back because the baby might come out. Finally, finally, finally she crawls across the sand and border patrol lets her in. She goes to a hospital to have her baby. "They have to operate," Judy Budnitz writes. "There's no way he's fitting through the usual door." It is a nice big American baby.

"It's a story I've been thinking about a lot," I said to the bookseller.

My agent texted in the middle of dinner: "Glad the conference is going well. Just don't look at the news." But we could talk about books and the news too, couldn't we? Books can give us a new perspective, or shine a light on things we don't yet understand. Books aren't only meant to hide in. They aren't just an escape.

The dinner conversation turned to a brand new book, one that wasn't out yet, but it will be by the time you read this. I have an early copy, it publishes in March. I'm still stuck in the past here, moving toward the rest of 2017 like a donkey led to water (donkeys don't go easily). The book is a story collection called Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and it won the Restless Books Prize for Immigrant Writing. In the passage he read at the conference, a man swallows his passport and turns into a passport, another man swallows a suitcase and turns into a suitcase, all so that their friend can take them through the airport. I'm reading the rest of the collection now, because Unnikrishnan's reading of the story was so wonderful.

After the reading, someone asked Unnikrishnan why he writes magical realism, why he looks to the fantastic to tell these stories. He said the fantastical helps people sees things in another way, and helps people understand the horror or absurdity of a real situation. And then he said this marvelous thing: "I want to set your brain on fire, and then I want to help you put it out."

My brain is on fire, right now. The stories I read burn me in a good way, clearing out bad information and helping me expand my understanding of the world. And the events I read in the newspaper burn my brain like a car exploding on the side of the highway.

I hope by the time you read this, we've put the fire out.

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