defining dreamy lit: journeys to magical stories

by Lilia Shen

I’ve built a shelf for a well-loved collection of writing that I call “dreamy lit,” a loose collection of stories that deal in magic, plus intimacy, myth, youth, yearning, hidden interconnectedness, and more. They are stories about worlds built just on top of or just beneath our own. They read like a dream, hence “dreamy lit.” They never really leave me, even when they’re closed. Even when they’re quiet on the shelf, they clamor.

When I was eighteen years old, I read The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater (a recommendation from a book blog near and dear to my heart); that was where “dreamy lit” began for me. Senior year of high school was a numbing trap until I discovered this book series and its magic. The series follows the intertwined fates of four, sometimes five, teenage friends searching for the sleeping Welsh king Glendower beneath the ley lines of Henrietta, Virginia. The magic in this book—dreams, myths, ghosts, psychics, prophecies—all exists in the expanse of a small town that modeled the one I had grown up in. It made it seem as if this magic, sometimes wondrous and sometimes terrible, was magic buried beneath my feet or just outside my window. And I found that I wanted to believe in it. Not to mention the intimate camaraderie and sense of reckless teenage youth; the relationships in these books reminded me of the pure love I have for my own childhood best friends, the three of which I have known, immensely gratefully, for over a decade now.

When Maggie Stiefvater announced that she was closing her tumblr blog, a platform on which she often answered reader questions and letters, I decided to take a chance to send her a message. The last line of my small letter to her read, “You make me believe that there is magic in this world to be found, and that is something I forgot for a long time.” That is also now, what “dreamy lit” means to me and why I love it so much.

When Maggie announced that she was closing her tumblr account, I figured this was my last chance to ask her something on her blog. On January 1, 2017, she replied to me.
The Last Bookstore, video by author

“Tiger Mending” by Aimee Bender, on the other hand, was required reading for a creative writing class I was in. But it became one of my favorite short stories, and one that I quickly added to my collection of “dreamy lit.” The premise of the story is this: the main character follows her sister, a gifted seamstress, to Malaysia where her sister has been asked to mend tigers who seem to mysteriously appear each day with their backs split open. I won’t spoil the ending; the premise is already filled with enough tempting magic as it is. Last summer, I visited my best friend in Los Angeles and we went to The Last Bookstore where I bought a used copy of The Color Master by Aimee Bender, which includes this short story. I loved reading “Tiger Mending” just as much the second time I read it as the first, but The Color Master has lots of other magical stories as well. I’ll be brief now: “The Devourings” is definitely my second favorite.

Last summer, another one of my best friends and I took a trip down to the shore. We stopped for brunch, and then we stopped for RJ Julia’s. It was there that I bought What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, and read it promptly at the beach afterwards. What I love about this short story collection is that the stories are all interconnected—characters in earlier stories reappear in later stories, and they’re all looking for something. It creates mesmerizing fluidity, as if you’re walking through one dream that never ends. And of course, it’s “dreamy lit” so there’s magic involved.

At RJ Julia’s, I also bought Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield, although I didn’t end up reading it until just this past winter. It was the perfect season for it though, given that the story originates from the icy waters of the Thames River. A mysterious man washes up on a shore with a young girl in his arms. The young girl who shows all the signs of death, but miraculously comes back to life. Is it science or magic? The mysterious event intertwines the fate of three families, unraveling years of hidden secrets and connections. It’s fitting that the book begins at an inn called The Swan, which is known for its storytelling. I love the folktale voice of this story, the way the river carries its own myth, and the story’s exhilarating mystery paired with beautiful prose and profound explorations of grief and miracles.

The last piece of “dreamy lit” I want to touch on is Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. I had wanted to read it ever since Leigh announced on her Instagram that she was writing a book that took place at Yale University. I’ve written previously about fiction built on the scaffolds of real places, and Ninth House is probably one of the most haunting examples of this that I’ve read. The story follows Alex, a student at Yale, who is part of an organization known as Lethe, which oversees the secret societies of Yale, all of which deal in arcane magic. I remember asking one of my friends who attends Yale and is in a secret society, if they actually do dark magic there. She said, yes, hopefully jokingly. But having been to the campus myself, it made the magic in the story seem hauntingly real. Magic is happening in a place I know. Terrible magic is happening in a place I’ve been. The characters are so well-developed, and the mystery in the story line is extremely compelling.

Yale campus, photo by author

One of my favorite quotes from the Ninth House reads, “That was what magic did. It revealed the heart of who you’d been before life took away your belief in the possible. It gave back the world all lonely children longed for.” In a way, this is what my small but ever-growing collection of “dreamy lit” has given to me. And there’s more to magic than just the supernatural. There’s friendships, intimacy, love, lessons about grief and loss, self-realization, our persistent desire to navigate and explore the worlds we find and move in. There’s endlessness, and there’s possibility. “Dreamy lit” has shown me there is magic of all kinds within reach, and it’s worth falling in love with.

Share your own dreamy lit with us! (Instagram: @aurora_journal, Twitter: @aurora_journal)

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