Bruce Holland Rogers argues in What is Magic Realism, Really? that the genre has been debased. He makes a valiant effort to restore it to its former glory and goes on to write:
Magical realism is not speculative and does not conduct thought experiments. Instead, it tells its stories from the perspective of people who live in our world and experience a different reality from the one we call objective. If there is a ghost in a story of magical realism, the ghost is not a fantasy element but a manifestation of the reality of people who believe in and have “real” experiences of ghosts.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude has been credited with getting the genre started, but arguably, it may have begun with Don Quixote. Be that as it may, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude not long after its release and loved the book. It is a novel and I hadn’t yet traveled outside of the United States, so I accepted it as just a clever work of fiction. Later, I came to agree with Rogers, who writes it is a “manifestation of the reality of people who believe in and have ‘real’ experiences of ghosts.”
When I began writing my memoir, Serendipity Road, it wasn’t going to be a memoir. It was going to be a short book about my Cambodian wife’s extraordinary life. I ended up having to include myself in the story and gradually it expanded and became a memoir. Sopheak’s story had already set the tone for the book and it became a work of non-fiction magic realism.
When Magic Realism is Real
In my first draft, A Cambodian Ghost Story was the first chapter that included me. It had to, because a ghost told Sopheak that I was hiding something from my Australian kids. I was. They knew she was pregnant, but their reaction to her pregnancy and the fact that I had decided to take responsibility for a child that was not biologically mine freaked them out, so I had been avoiding the subject in my emails. The ghost was a “big, big black man” who had been a regular customer in a restaurant she worked in. He died and was apparently living in a mango tree outside our house. Sopheak didn’t want to pass on the message because she knew most “barang” (foreigners) don’t believe in ghosts, but he insisted, so she relented and blurted the story out. That was the first “magic” story she told me. I was amazed by its accuracy. Keeping her pregnancy to myself was bothering me, but cowardice was preventing me from telling my kids about it. After that, she loosened up and told me more.
Sopheak lived in the jungle alone when she was just a girl. One time, she got a bad cut on her Achilles tendon. It was bleeding profusely and she didn’t know what to do. A man appeared before her and instructed her to gather some spider web and mix it with mud. He then pointed to a long leaf and told her to pack the mixture on her wound and hold it in place with the leaf. He then told her to change the dressing every day and disappeared.
The members of my little writing group here in Sihanoukville encouraged me to write more stories about my life before I met Sopheak. I took a chance and told stories about “magic” that has occurred in my life. As it turned out, one of the members of our group had a near death experience when she was six but had kept it to herself. My stories prompted her to write about her near death experience and how it changed her perspective on life. That sealed it for me. I wasn’t going to pander to imaginary readers who didn’t believe in so-called miracles. There are thousands of people out there who keep even more remarkable stories than mine to themselves. I was going to write my story for them and let the pragmatists be as skeptical as they liked.
I changed the title from “Inside Tree,” which is how Sopheak referred to the time she lived in the jungle, to Serendipity Road because in 2005 a beautiful tarot card reader in Bali did a spread for me that gave me two choices. I could take the safe road and go back to Australia or I could throw myself into the hands of fate and see what happened. The outcome if I took the Fool’s path was much nicer than the path of hoarding what little I had, so I took her advice. As soon as I stepped off that cliff, amazing things started to happen. Eventually, I elevated fate to goddess status and gave her a name: Serendipity. She brought me to Sihanoukville, where one of the main tourist centers just happens to be on Serendipity Road.
Serendipity doesn’t take most visitors to Serendipity Road today. Guidebooks do. The origin of the name is unknown, but I have my own theory about how the road got its name. I met a Dutch man who has been coming here for 30 years. At that time, Serendipity Road was just a rutted track to the beach. There was only one bar on the beach and I imagine someone stumbled across the bar and decided to give the road a name. Since finding the bar had been serendipitous, they decided to call the track “Serendipity Road” and the name stuck. That may not be how it got its name, but something like that must have occurred. Anybody who uses the word has experienced its magic.
Some might call serendipity coincidence. Others might call her synchronicity or fate. I chose to make her a beautiful goddess sitting on a cloud watching over me. I have no idea who these goddesses are, but I took the photo because they looked like Serendipity to me. “Coincidentally,” I saw them in a temple in Cambodia not long after I decided to make Serendipity my own personal goddess.
It may sound weird to make up one’s own pantheon of gods and goddesses, but I happen to agree with William Blake, who wrote: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s; I will not reason or compare; my business is to create.” It would be a lot easier to join a religion, but then I’d have to believe in their myths. Serendipity doesn’t ask me to kill or condemn. She just turns up when I need her and points me in a new direction. Following her is a lot more interesting than trying to take the reins of my life and play it safe. And I’d much rather see her in my mind’s eye than a stern, gray bearded guy like this.
Of course, Serendipity doesn’t show up every day. She seems to only show up when I’m at an impasse and give up on rational thinking. She gives me a nudge in the right direction and years pass before she comes into my life again. My memoir is about those times when Serendipity has come into my life. The rest of my story is too boring. I wouldn’t enjoy writing it and I’m sure no one would enjoy reading it.