Fishing For Mermaids And Displaying Your Prehensile Tail For Strangers: It's A Living, Sort Of

Illustration for article titled Fishing For Mermaids And Displaying Your Prehensile Tail For Strangers: Its A Living, Sort Of

If you love the work of Kelly Link, you owe it to yourself to check out "Six From Downtown," a collection of six vignettes about despair and alienation by Philippine writer Dean Francis Alfar. Plus, a poet explains magic realism!

"Six From Downtown" definitely reminds me of Link at her best, with its stark, dreamlike imagery. But it's more brutal, with a host of images including a man fishing for mermaids (and then grilling them), and another man working as an exotic dancer and showing off his prehensile tail (and then using it to strangle a customer). The exotic dancer segment is also reminiscent of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, for obvious reasons. And in the last section, a man comes home to find his wife's upper half has flown away. Again:

Before 5AM, I ride a third cab home to the condo. I check to see if my wife is back but she isn't. The lower half of her body is still standing where she left it, next to the window, wearing only the floral patterned panties I don't like very much. I look out the window of our 33rd floor unit and see the grey skies slowly changing hues.

I know she'll fly back. She's on her way home.

I realize that I am desperately hungry, that everything in my system since midnight has been smoke and alcohol.


They're trying to have a baby, without much success, and you sense that they're not going to have much in the future, either.

I found "Six From Downtown" via poet Barbara Jane Reyes, who offers it up as an example of the burgeoning field of Philippine speculative fiction. (For more on SF in the Philippines, check out this summation by Charles A. Tan.) Reyes also offers a really provocative explanation of exactly what people mean by "magical realism" — they mean native superstition, filtered through a haze of exoticism:

I've been thinking that magical realism is that thing you call ethnic literature when you don't know what to do with their "folk" beliefs still existing and manifesting themselves in the modern day. You don't know why those old beliefs still exist, and why the mythical and spiritual are so incorporated or fused into their everyday modern lives.

It defies conventional logic in modern, secular societies, to still believe, but more so, it defies conventional logic in modern, secular societies for those old beliefs and mythical deities to manifest themselves in our modern daily lives. Advanced as we think we are, we decide that such conventionally unexplainable phenomena are the province of the superstitious, backward, third world, unenlightened. We hear their testimonies of encounters with the fantastic with an air of doubt, and we judge them. In high literature, these stories become exoticized, objectified, hence, magical realism. In poetry, perhaps it's also objectified and othered as the mythopoetic.

Top image by Kevin LaPena. ["Six From Downtown" by Dean Francis Alfar, via Barbara Jane Reyes]

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Good point about Magic Realism. I've always thought that if you took nearly any Ray Bradbury story (ok, one without rocketships) and changed all the names to Spanish or Brazillian equivalents you could pass it off as a piece by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Moacyr Scilar. #magicalrealism