You can view Part One of this intriguing exploration by guest author Stephen Weinstock here.
In Part One, I outlined the parallels between Arabic fiction’s uphill battle for acceptance in the first centuries of Islam. I believe the criticism and slow acceptance of Visionary Fiction goes back to the same kind of interdiction against fiction that occurred at the start of Islam. To state a truth that is spiritual, religious, or transcendent in non-fiction is relatively acceptable, but when you attempt to express that truth using fictional characters, imaginative worlds, and intricate story lines, you risk cheapening or corrupting the statement. I worry about this impurity in my series 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles, because I use humor, the banality of suburban life, and the characters’ foibles to make past life experiences more palatable. But does lightening the message water it down?
Inversely, infusing an accepted genre like science fiction, fantasy, or romance with a strong spiritual statement has been frowned upon for corrupting the intrinsic experience of those forms. Yet this was key to greater acceptance of both Arabic and Visionary fiction. The fantastical or ribald elements of the stories in Kalila wa Dimna or the maqamat derived from the popular culture of street storytellers. The Thousand and One Nights also had its origins in popular bedtime or ‘Night tales’ from ancient India and Persia, and it came out of the oral transmission of the marketplace as much as the literary manuscripts of the court. On top of this popular culture foundation, the court added an Islamic layer, where Scheherazade tells her stories to redeem the King’s monstrous behavior, to use stories as ethical and religious examples. Still, to this day, some Arabic scholars repudiate the Nights as literature because of its popular culture elements and ‘lower’ quality.
Similarly, Visionary Fiction has had to latch onto science fiction, fantasy, romance, and other forms of (other-worldly) popular culture to deliver its content. Often this genre cloning involves bridging a gap between pop genre fiction and literary fiction, especially when the depth of the visionary content makes the characters and stories more complex. Sometimes elements of two genres combine as need be, serving or balancing the larger goal of establishing Visionary Fiction. These genre-bending trends are rampant in traditional and independent publishing these days, which makes the time ripe for the advent of VF.
To conclude, fast forward to modern Arabic fiction, which, though never purely secular, has a broad range of approaches to its strict and forbidding Islamic roots. The first English translation of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s 19th Century Leg Over Leg has just appeared. This four-volume epic combines Rabelaisian bawdry humor, meta-fictional fun worthy of Tristram Shandy, and a playful approach to Arabic literary conventions (delighting in obscure language like the word that means ‘to drool while eating a pomegranate’). In this century we have the wonderful Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson, a female Muslim-American graphic comics author writing in English. Though not strictly Arabic fiction, the novel is set in a mythical Islamic state, invokes the Arabian Nights and its pantheon of spirits, and examines cyber-revolution and the Arab Spring.
Even with only a sketch of these two books separated by over a century, it feels obvious what the last parallel between Arabic and Visionary Fiction is. Anything Goes! Both fictional worlds are at a crossroads between the ancient and the modern, the Eastern and the Western, and older genres and newer mixtures and transcendence of genres. Just as the Islamic elements in fiction can now be approached with wild imagination, humor, even irreverence (not always safely, as with Salman Rushdie), so VF can be purely religious, completely humanistic in its vision, and/or filled with humor, darkness, or ecstasy. There are definitions of VF, but no prescriptions.
In his past life before writing 1001: The Qaraq, Book One of The Reincarnation Chronicles, Stephen Weinstock created music for theater companies, choreographers, and dance studios (Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham). His theater works included the musical Rock and Roy, with writer Barry Jay Kaplan, about the double life of Rock Hudson. He has worked as a musician/teacher at UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school, as well as at the NYU Musical Theater Writing Program.
For years he had the idea of a novel puzzling out an intricate past life history between a group of souls, but only with the epiphany of using the ancient frame tale structures of The Thousand and One Nights did he decide to jump fields. By day he still bring dancers to ecstasy with his improvisations, but at night he enters the world of metempsychosis, time-honored storytelling, and worlds ranging from historical fiction to romantic fantasy. You can see more of Stephen’s work on his website.