Curious Attractions: Magical Realism's Fate in the States

Debra Spark | December 1996

Debra Spark


Like a lot of people, I'd like to write what I like to read. And my early passions were for the so-called "magical realists." The deliriously imaginative Gabriel García Márquez, Gogol, and Julio Cortázar. Later Steve Stern, Stuart Dybek, and Louise Erdrich. But when I set myself to the task of writing this kind of fiction-by which I mean fiction that struck me as fantastic in all senses of the word-I found myself hobbled by an inability to get my imagination to work in this country. In the end, I set my first novel in Puerto Rico and felt safe to dream what I would. I have family connections to San Juan but the move to set a novel on the island did fill me with a sort of dread. Would people accuse me of cultural colonialism? The artistic equivalent to what has, in fact, been the political history of that island? What right did I have to this material and so on? Of course, I had to put aside those potential criticisms to write my book. In leaving them aside, another, to me more interesting, question has arisen in its place. Why is it so hard for me to imagine magical realist fiction on my own soil?

One obvious answer is that there aren't many literary models to follow. When it comes to magical realist fiction, the States don't have the same rich tradition as South America with its Borgeses and Mario Vargas Llosas, as Europe with its Bruno Schulzes and Milan Kunderas. But the truth is I don't write consciously from a literary model but from my perception of the world. Granted, my sense of the world is influenced by what I read, but even so, it seems my imagination's domestic recalcitrance has to be about something else. Now, part of this "something else" is-I know, I know-a matter for me and my therapist, entirely personal and idiosyncratic; but part, I suspect, isn't, since the paucity of North American literary models suggests other North American writers are similarly cowed when it comes to letting their imaginations loose within this country's borders.

In her essay, "The Strange History of the American Fantastic," Victoria Nelson points out that it's not that the magical or the fantastic has no place in contemporary North American literature but that it has no place in high art; that it has been relegated to genre literature and other mass-culture forms, most notably the movies.1 In the 20th century, the exceptions she finds are the literary experiments of the Fifties and Sixties-the works of Barthelme, Barth, and Hawkes, among others-and the writing of domestic "minority" writers. She mentions Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, but readers of contemporary literature should have no problem adding names to the list: Susan Power, Louise Erdrich, and Amy Tan.

Certainly, there are plenty of exceptions to this generalization about North American fiction, but I'll accept it as a starting point, so I can ask a question for which I don't yet have an answer. It's a question that comes to me from the playgrounds of my youth. It comes in a sneer, a derisive Boston accent. It's: "Spark, what's your problem?" I don't have the sociological wherewithal to answer completely the question of why a certain kind of imagination is inimical to the States, but narrow the question down to myself, and I'm on firmer ground. So, what is my problem? What's wrong with my imagination that I can't get it to work here? And while I'm at it, what are the other potential stumbling blocks for the budding North American magical realist?


But first, I want to explain in some detail what kind of imagination I'm talking about. What do I mean, what does anyone mean, when they invoke the term "magic realism"? In their introduction to the 1984 anthology Magical Realist Fiction, editors David Young and Keith Hollaman wrote, "One way to understand 'magical realism' is as a kind of 'pleasant joke on realism,' suggesting as it does a new kind of fiction produced in reaction to the confining assumptions of realism, a hybrid that somehow manages to combine the 'truthful' and 'verifiable' aspects of realism with the 'magical' effects we associate with myth, folktales, tall story, and that being in all of us-our childhood self, perhaps-who loves the spell the narrative casts even when it is perfectly implausible... A crucial feature of the term, then, lies in its duality... What this suggests is that the most distinctive aspects of magical realism lie at the point where two different realities intersect, perhaps to collide, perhaps to merge. Familiar oppositions-life and death, waking and sleeping, child and adult, civilized and 'savage'-are much at home in this genre, though not necessarily with their differences resolved."2

Canadian writer Robert Kroetsch echoes Young and Hollaman when he claims that with magic realism, "the bargain you make with your reader is quite different from the bargain you make in fantasy. (Magic realism is) not about a uniform fantastic world but about a collision of two worlds."3

A story like Bernard Malamud's "The Jewbird" is, then, an example of magical realism. In it, Schwartz, a Jewbird, flies into the New York apartment of Cohen, a frozen food salesman. The Jewbird resembles an aging immigrant Jew; he's a scholar who speaks Yiddish and wants only a nice piece of herring for supper. But he is undoubtedly a bird. He flaps about the apartment and tries to keep his distance from the pet cat. Malamud never tries to explain how an otherwise realistic story can include a figure who is essentially from a fairy tale.4 A talking bird, after all. Familiar oppositions-man and animal, realistic and fantastic-are not resolved by the story or by the narrator's voice, which expresses no disbelief at the presence of a talking bird in the story.

As a definition of magical realism, the editors of Magical Realist Fiction do a good job. They leave me, however, with the question: Why would it be easier to overlap realities in one place over another? And is that all that magical realism is about? Overlapping realities? To answer this, I want to step back to look at the origin of the term, to see if there are any other ways of understanding magical realism.


If you're interested in Latin American fiction, any thorough reading about the term magical realism will eventually lead you to an art critic, a novelist, and a literary critic-to Franz Roh, Alejo Carpentier, and Angel Flores. All three are considered to have, at different times and in different countries, coined the term, and this mix-up seems to me to be a classically magical-realist phenomenon.

The truth is, in 1925, the art critic Franz Roh first used the term magical realism in reference to a group of painters, living and working in Germany, who rejected the objectivity of German post-impressionism, as well as the emotionalism and intensity of Expressionism.5 These artists advocated a return to reality but reality in a new light. They felt that the artist should approach the world of objects as if discovering them for the first time. So originally, magical realism wasn't a mix of reality and fantasy, as we have come to think of it, but a way to access the marvelous in the everyday. Indeed, a way to make the natural seem supernatural.6 In writing about the development of magical realism in the 1930s and 1940s, the art critic H.H. Arnason spoke of "(t)he precise realistic presentation of an ordinary scene with no strange or monstrous distortion: the magic arises from a fantastic juxtaposition of elements or events that do not normally belong together."7

Franz Roh was talking about visual art when he coined his term, but his definition applies quite well to one of the most famous lines of literature, the opening of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.8

Now this is a great opening sentence. It starts in the middle of things, it's surprising, a shock of a place for a novel to begin, but what's magical about it is really only one word, the word "discover" as applied to ice. Nothing supernatural here, no women levitating through the ceiling as there is later in the novel, just a "fantastic juxtaposition of elements."

But when we think of magical realism these days, we tend to think of a definition that would include that woman levitating through the ceiling, and that definition didn't come about till the "magical realist" term crossed the ocean and made the leap from visual to literary art. All of which happened in 1927 when Franz Roh's article about visual art was translated into Spanish and published in Jose Ortega y Gasset's journal Revista de Occidente.9 After the translation, the term was used in the literary criticism of Latin America. In the 1930s, critics in Buenos Aires were using the term to describe the work of Kafka and Cocteau.10 The term wasn't applied to Latin American literature, however, till 1948, when Arturo Uslar Pietri used it in reference to Venezuelan short stories of the Thirties and Forties. Pietri spoke of these stories as presenting man as "a mystery among realistic data."11

The sense of what magical realism was changed in 1949 when the Cuban Alejo Carpentier published his novel El Reino de Este Mundo or The Kingdom of This World. In his introduction to that book, Carpentier introduced his concept of "lo real maravilloso americano," marvelous American reality, in which two contrasting views of the world-one rational and modern; the other magical and traditional-were presented as if they were not contradictory. While "lo real maravilloso" used surrealism as a stepping off point, it was not truly surreal or fantastic. "Lo real maravilloso" isn't another world, Alejo Carpentier argued. It isn't a separate reality; rather, it is "an amplification of the scales and categories of reality."12

In the body of Carpentier's The Kingdom of This World, the voodoo beliefs of the Haitian blacks seem no stranger than their horrible enslavement. And, indeed, the strangest part of the novel-concerning the life and death of the megalomaniacal Henri Christophe, a slave who became king of Haiti-is completely true.

Carpentier had been part of the Surrealist movement when he lived in Paris, but he'd become disenchanted with it. The art he was practicing in Latin America wasn't an attempt, as Surrealism was, to get at the reality beneath everyday reality, the reality that the Western traditions of empiricism and scientific positivism had made people forget. Instead it was, in the words of critic William Spindler, "a representation of a reality modified and transformed by myth and legend."13

In Carpentier's novel, the Haitian slaves' leader, a one-armed revolutionary named Macandal, disappears from the community. Presumably he has been killed by the whites who have discovered his role in a poisoning conspiracy. But no one believes he's dead. Referring to the slave population, Carpentier's narrator says, "They all knew that the green lizard, the night moth, the strange dog, the incredible gannet, were nothing but disguises. As he had the power to take the shape of a hoofed animal, bird, fish, or insect, Macandal continually visited the plantations of the Plaine to watch over his faithful and find out if they still had faith in his return. In one metamorphosis or another, the one-armed was everywhere, having recovered his corporeal integrity in animal guise.... The dogs did not bark at him; he changed his shadow at will. It was because of him that a Negress gave birth to a child with a wild boar's face."14

"Lo real maravilloso" was for Carpentier a uniquely American phenomenon. "What," said Carpentier, "is the history of (Latin) America but a chronicle of marvelous reality?" His words were echoed over three decades later by Gabriel García Márquez when he gave his Nobel Prize speech. In that 1982 address, García Márquez detailed various mad, bloody, and disturbing events in Latin America's history. He spoke, for instance, of General Maximilian Hernández Martínez who, in a killing orgy, wiped out thirty thousand El Salvadoran peasants and who also, in a more benign mood, covered the street lamps of his city with red paper to combat an epidemic of scarlet fever. Given his region's history, García Márquez said Latin American writers "have needed to ask little of the imagination, for the major challenge before us has been the want of conventional resources to make our life credible."15 Magic realism, then, could be seen as a literary form that expresses what life is like in Latin America. The critic Frederic Jameson has said that magical realism doesn't present a reality which needs to be "transfigured by the 'supplement' of a magical perspective but a reality which is already in and of itself magical or fantastic."16 Alejo Carpentier felt that magical realism was not literary and artificial, as presumably the European equivalents were, but a result of the lives of the Latin American natives who did not draw a line between the real and the supernatural."17

Understood this way, magical realism is an expression of the popular culture, the way the folk see things. Indeed, Alejo Carpentier saw magical realism as an ultimately political form, since it preserved an identity otherwise overshadowed by colonialism. Summarizing Alejo Carpentier's argument, the critic William Spindler concluded, "(T)he strength of Magic Realism in the 'periphery' (Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean) and its comparative weakness in the core (Western Europe, the USA) could be explained by the fact that collective myths acquire greater importance in the creation of new national identities, as well as by the more obvious fact that pre-industrial beliefs still play an important part in the socio-political and cultural lives of developing countries. Magic Realism gives popular culture and magical beliefs the same degree of importance as Western science and rationality. In doing this, it furthers the claims of these groups which hold these beliefs to equality with the modernizing elites which govern them."18

If I stop here in my definitions of magical realism and ask again what my imagination's problem is, I can answer. If I trust Alejo Carpentier's definition, I can say: my problem is connected to the lack of a collective mythology in the United States and to my participation in a Western society which valorizes the empirical. I can also see that my initial anxiety about being a cultural impostor has roots in the form, as well as the subject matter, of some of the fiction I've loved. I can imagine a sort of tug of war between myself and Carpentier, the toy of his experience between us. I've got one leg of the doll; he has the other, and he's shouting, "No, you can't have it. It's mine." And in response I've got the fiction writer's arrogance that says-sotto voce maybe-but says, "I can go where I want to go." But even as I say this, I realize I'm going where I don't want to go: into the debate over the politics of the imagination, the question of who gets to imagine what. I have recourse, in defending myself, to Bob Shacochis's angry response to critics of his writing about the Caribbean. "Can you imagine," Shacochis writes, "an Anglo burn victim telling Michael Ondaatje that his brilliant book The English Patient is an act of exploitation because he, Ondaatje, is not English but Sri Lankan, and because he has never had serious burns all over his body? Can you imagine a member of the British Parliament dismissing The Remains of the Day because it was written by a Japanese immigrant? This point of view would require us all to lock ourselves in our rooms and masturbate. It is perverse. It is obscene. Ultimately, it doesn't matter from what culture, or skin, or gender, the voice of consciousness comes. It only matters that it does come and when it arrives, that we recognize it.''19

I agree with Shacochis, though his impassioned defense of the writer's right to imagine what he or she will doesn't explain why I don't want to leave Carpentier's doll alone and play my game in my own yard. Of course, one reason is that Carpentier's yard-indeed anyone else's yard-is more fascinating than my own, but the real reason is that I can't completely figure out where my own yard is.

In this regard, I think of the struggles of one of my favorite writers, the Memphis-born and bred Steve Stern. He describes himself as a super-secular Jew from your typical bowdlerized suburb. His favorite writer, I believe, is Bruno Schulz. For years, as he traveled from Tennessee to a commune in Arkansas to a flat in London, he wrote accomplished but unextraordinary fiction. Finally, down on his luck, he returned to Memphis and got a job typing for the Center for Southern Folklore. Among the things he started to transcribe were stories of the Pinch, the Jewish neighborhood that once existed by the river in downtown Memphis. While typing, something clicked for Stern. The material spoke to him-it was his material-and he started writing wild, innovative stories about, among other things, a schlep of a kid who discovers that on the steamy nights when his neighbors sleep in the local park, he can climb a tree and enter their collective dream, changing their night thoughts at will.20 As I understand it, it wasn't until Stern discovered the material that would suit his imagination that he was able to write his best work. And to do this, he had to leave his own yard behind, but he didn't have to go too far, since what was required of him was to enter his ancestors' yards. To write magical realism, he had to leave this century but not his hometown. And once he did, he started reading Jewish mysticism, learning Yiddish, accessing, in effect, a mythology for his work.

Presumably, then, there is a kind of magical realism that requires some cultural reckoning, and the degree to which one is willing or able to do this is the degree to which one is able to free up one's imagination. This explains, in part, why magical realism has flourished in areas where people need to reclaim their cultural identity and why "minority" writers produce much of the State's magical realism. In "The Strange History of the American Fantastic," Victoria Nelson writes, "One cannot hold citizenship in two realms at the same time."21 But, of course, some people can. Indeed, magical realism is, as we've seen, about holding citizenship in two realms, which may explain why, in addition to everything else, it is a popular form for Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, people whose cultural identity puts them in two realms. It may also explain why some North Americans shy away from magical realism. American-American is no real opposition. And being, say, a part-Scottish, half-Baptist, Floridian-American may mean your sense of cultural identity is too fuzzy to exploit.

In "The Strange History of the American Fantastic," Victoria Nelson points out that even immigrant writers are affected by the North American passion for realism. When Isaac Bashevis Singer came to this country, she notes, he was transformed "from a mystic folklorist into a bleak and mordant observer of erotic survivors, real live revenants.... In America Singer drastically relocated and secularized the source of what might be called 'wonder'-the supernatural, the irrational, the defiance of natural laws. No longer did he attribute this quality to external reality, as supernatural creatures or magical acts, an integral part of a coherent religious universe, a manifestation of God's inscrutable will; once in America, he relocated it within the human temperament, characteristically expressing itself in the spontaneous, perverse, unpredictable course of amorous adventures.''22

One might argue that this has more to do with, say, the Holocaust, than this country, but we can find other examples of writers who relocated their "source of wonder" when they came to the States. Isabel Allende, for one. Since she moved to San Francisco, her writing has changed. Her new works-The Infinite Plan and Paula-have little of the magic of The House of Spirits or The Stories of Eva Luna.

One is tempted to conclude that in the United States when wonder isn't about a collision of cultures, it is internal or interpersonal. True, for some writers, like Don DeLillo, our commercial culture appears to provide the same wealth of material that Latin America provides for García Márquez, but for many others, it does not. McDonald's and strip malls suck the creativity right out of them.

So, what's a wannabe magical realist to do? Fortunately, Alejo Carpentier's definition of magical realism isn't the only one. Franz Roh's definition, where the artist finds the marvelous in the everyday, describes, I suspect, what most fiction writers imagine they're up to. And there's also the possibility of a magical realism that isn't culturally constructed. There are many kinds of realities, beyond cultural realities, that can be overlapped in fiction. Look at Gogol's

"The Nose" with its critique of a stagnating bureaucracy incapable of wonder. Or Kafka, where the waking world and nightmare seem to be one and the same. Look, too, at the formulation of magical realism-the one I haven't yet gotten to-by Angel Flores, where the strange is not necessarily born of a particular community's mythology but of the author's imagination.

Angel Flores is credited with coining the term magical realism, but what he really did was popularize the term, since neither Franz Roh or Alejo Carpentier's definitions seemed to stick in the public consciousness. In 1955, Angel Flores delivered a much maligned but nonetheless influential paper at the MLA.23 In it, Flores said that the romantic and realistic have always existed side by side in Latin American fiction, but in the 20th century, there were two significant shifts in how these opposites were handled. One came after World War I, the other in 1935. In looking at the artists of the '20s, Flores noted what the art critic Franz Roh had observed in Germany: a number of writers and painters-people like Proust, Kafka and di Chirico-were reacting against the photorealism of many of the arts and rediscovering symbolism and magical realism. This was a rediscovery because post-World War I writers could find models for what they were doing in 19th century figures: the Russians Gogol and Dostoevsky, the German Romantics Hoffman and the Grimm Brothers and, to some extent, the Americans Poe and Melville. But Angel Flores didn't consider the post-World War I writers magical realists, for their work was, he thought, dependent on atmosphere, mood and sentiment. They differed from "the cold and cerebral and often erudite storytell(ers)" that flourished in the wake of the 1935 publication of Jorge Luis Borges's collection Historia Universal de La Infamia.24 "With," Flores writes, "Borges as pathfinder and moving spirit, a group of brilliant stylists developed around him.''25 Their work all headed in the general direction of magical realism. They were clean, sophisticated, precise writers, interested in style and in surprise. They all subscribed to di Chirico's dictum about art. Di Chirico said, "What is most of all necessary is to rid art of everything of the known which it has held until now: every subject, idea, thought and symbol must be put aside.... Thought must draw so far away from human fetters that things may appear to it under a new aspect, as though they are illuminated by a constellation now appearing for the first time.''26

Flores noted that magical realist stories often had one element that could not be explained away by logic or psychology and that once the reader accepted that as a "fait accompli, the rest (of the story) follows with logical precision.''27 A story like Julio Cortázar's "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris" is a perfect example of this. In it, a man writes to the woman whose flat he is letting in order to confess something:

I was going up in the elevator and just between the first and second floors I felt that I was going to vomit up a little rabbit. I have never described this to you before, not so much, I don't think, from lack of truthfulness as that, just naturally, one is not going to explain to people at large that from time to time one vomits up a small rabbit.28

Once you accept the fantastic premise, Cortázar's despairing narrator acts, more or less, as you might, if you were a neatnik puking bunnies in your friend's apartment.

Echoing Flores, the editors of Magical Realist Fiction point out that there are two possible directions for a magical realist story: either it starts with a fantastic premise and then adheres to logic and natural law, as in "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris," or, as in a piece like Borges's "The Aleph," familiar events turn extraordinary in the course of the story.

In "The Aleph," a successful writer named Borges is mourning the loss of his love Beatriz Viterbo. When he visits her old house and pays respects to her family, he falls victim to her cousin, the boring and pompous Carlos Argentino Daneri, who wants to take advantage of Borges's literary expertise and connections. Soon enough Daneri confesses that the inspiration for his ponderous poem "The Earth" is the Aleph in his basement. An Aleph, he explains to the incredulous Borges, is a point that contains all others. Eventually, Borges descends to the basement and sees for himself. There, in the space of an inch, is, in fact, everything. In looking at the Aleph, Borges sees the whole of the "unimaginable universe." He lists off what he sees for the reader: I saw this and I saw that. Toward the end of his lengthy, miraculous description, he writes:

"I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face...."29

Here you have a story that has overlapping realities galore-not only do the fantastic and real overlap, but reader and character and writer and narrator overlap. What's more, the magic in this passage comes not only from the bizarre Aleph but from the extraordinary listing of things that we can imagine, but that we can't imagine seeing simultaneously or, in some cases, can't imagine actually seeing with our own eyes. Ants, yes. All the ants on the planet, no. We can see our blood, but never our dark blood, and so on.

In "The Aleph" and "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris," the natural and supernatural are presented on the same level of reality. If anything, the supernatural is made to seem natural which is, if you think about it, the direct opposite of Franz Roh's original definition of magical realism. According to Alejo Carpentier, as we've seen, this presentation of the rational and magical as if they aren't contradictory is a result of popular culture, the way things are perceived in Latin America and, perhaps, other "periphery" communities. The antinomy may not, however, even need that explanation, may not need the support of a collective mythology. Sometimes the imagination is freestanding and, as critic William Spindler puts it, "the total freedom and creative possibilities of writing are exercised by the author, who is not worried about convincing the reader.''30

In his story, Borges tries to explain the Aleph to himself, but his answers never dispute the idea that something like an Aleph could exist. Indeed, while expressing his amazement, Borges does work to "convince" his readers in other, visceral ways, that the Aleph is real. In the end, Borges never has recourse to a rational, a psychological or a cultural explanation for the "unreal" aspects of his story. He doesn't use-as so much genre fiction does-the "it was all a dream" addendum.

Interestingly, Gogol, in early drafts of "The Nose," employed several dream escape clauses, even using the word "dream" as a subtitle.31 In his first draft, he ended "The Nose" with the line, "Everything that has happened here occurred to Major Kovalev in a dream, and when he woke up, he was so overjoyed that he jumped out of bed, ran up to the mirror, and seeing that everything was right in place, began dancing in his nightshirt a combination of a mazurka and a quadrille around the room."32 In the end, Gogol cut these lines and left the story's absurdity unexplained. Indeed, the story discourages attempts to explain its own mysteries. Consider Kovalev's misguided attempts to figure out how he lost his nose, his embarrassing accusations of a woman he's been courting. And consider, too, another story, García Márquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," where the story itself makes fun of our need to label, to name the unnameable.

When a very old man with enormous wings lands in the yard of Pelayo and his wife, Elisenda, people think of him as a devil, an angel, a Nordic sailor, a nightmare, or a circus sideshow act. Eventually they feel he is a nuisance, because they can't figure him out. Then, another curiosity arrives in town, a woman who has been "changed into a spider for having disobeyed her parents."33 Unlike the silent old man, she is happy to talk about her troubles. "A spectacle like that," confesses García Márquez's narrator, "full of so much human truth and with such a fearful lesson, was bound to defeat without even trying that of a haughty angel who scarcely deigned to look at mortals.''34 But the narrator's tongue is clearly in his cheek, for he leads us to feel there's something grotesque about the spider woman, something equally unappealing about those who appreciate her but fail to wonder at the infinitely patient old man who is kept in a chicken coop by Pelayo and Elisenda.


Accessing the imagination-whether that imagination is freestanding or culturally constructed-seems to me to be the first challenge for a magical realist. There are others-a host of potential problems for dabblers in this form. The most notable one, I think, is trickery. In an interview, García Márquez said of One Hundred Years of Solitude, "(S)ince I knew it was written with all the tricks and artifices under the sun, I knew I could do better even before I wrote it.''35 Good God, one thinks. Really? But one knows what he's talking about: even magic can become stale.
Borges once said,

I feel that the kind of stories you get in The Aleph or Ficciones are becoming rather mechanical and that people expect that kind of thing from me. So that I feel as if I were a kind of high fidelity, a kind of gadget, no? A kind of factory producing stories about mistaken identity, about mazes, about tigers, about mirrors, about people being somebody else, or about all men being the same man or one man being his own mortal foe.36
In magic realism, we want the magic to knock us off our seats, because it's so fabulous, but we also want the magic to have a purpose, a reason for being; hopefully, a reason that will address the heart's concerns.

Magic, even the word, makes us think of childhood, and part of our pleasure in magic realism is related to the childhood pleasure of being told a wild tale. That said, we are not children and are bound to be frustrated if our magic realism has the reductive morality, the emotional simplicity of a fairy tale. In a rather snotty article in The New Criterion, Martha Bayles complained about Toni Morrison, arguing that Morrison's embracing of magical realism has led her to embrace a "willful romanticism, which, in the context of black America, leads to the corollary that the most marginal people are the least corrupted by the false values of the dominant white society.... (Morrison) assumes that the lower a character's social status, the higher his mythic consciousness.''37 Even if you completely disregard Bayles's analysis of Morrison, she does point to a danger of magical realism: you can get so smitten with the folk, the magic, that you forget that what makes magical realism powerful is its often disturbing blend of the fantastic and the real. As much as magical realism makes demands on your imagination, it requires your thoughtful perceptions of the "real" world.

As a literary choice, magical realism may be a bit cowardly-a move to external exoticism as a way to avoid internal complexity... or internal pain. I, at least, have been guilty of this. After I finished my first novel, I went to Barbados to do research for a second book. People always laugh knowingly when I say I went to the Caribbean for research, but it wasn't a happy time. The visit came just after a death in the family, and I spent a good deal of my down time-my hours away from the Jews I was interviewing-alone in a rum punch haze.

One day, while I was waiting for a local bus to start its drive to a northern pottery village, a Rastafarian started taunting me, fairly viciously. In the midst of his diatribe about what the white girl be, I thought, "Why am I doing this?" It wasn't as if I lacked for material in my own life. Why had I come all this way to find a story? I sat heavily on the bus. With all my heart, I wanted to skip the ride into the mountains, to go back to my hotel room and sleep for days, until it was time for my flight home. But to go home in my fiction? I couldn't do that. Perhaps because some of what the Rastafarian was yelling seemed true. Certainly because my own life seemed, at that point, too painful.

Not surprisingly, I had a lot of trouble working on my Barbados novel until I broke down and reconceived it, so it addressed the very material I was trying to avoid. So, while one definition of magical realism frees you up to imagine what you will, it doesn't give you every freedom; it doesn't give you the freedom to ignore your own heart.

So where does all this leave the North American writer who is interested in magical realism? Or where does it leave me, since I started by saying I couldn't answer for anyone but myself? Well, with some sense of why I've left the States to write my fiction and a conviction that I shouldn't need to do that, even if I'll probably keep at it. Such hypocrisy deserves to be punished, I think, for I'm really right where I started: blinking at the work I like and considering the work I want to write, thinking, for example, of Julio Cortázar's story "Axolotl," where a man finds himself curiously drawn to the axolotls in the zoo. Daily, this man goes to look at these Mexican salamanders till one day, he finds he's a salamander looking at a man visiting the zoo.38 Me? I'm also looking at what I'm curiously drawn to and finding myself, these days, in the terrifying position of having to look back at myself.


Debra Spark is the author of Coconuts for the Saints (Faber & Faber, 1994; Avon, 1996).She currently teaches at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.


  1. Victoria Nelson, "The Strange History of the American Fantastic," Agni Magazine, 1993, pp. 281–288.

  2. David Young and Keith Hollaman (eds.), "Introduction," Magical Realist Fiction (NY: Longman, 1984), pp. 1–2.
  3. Quoted in Jeanne Delbazre, "Magic Realism: The Energy of the Margins," Postmodern Fiction in Canada (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992), p. 96.
  4. Bernard Malamud, The Stories of Bernard Malamud (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983), p. 144–154.
  5. Delbazre, p.756. William Spindler, "Magic Realism: A Typology," Forum for Modern Language Studies, 1993, Vol. xxxix, No.1, p. 75.
  6. NA
  7. Quoted in Delbazre, p. 75.
  8. Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. by Gregory Rabassa (NY: HarperCollins, 1970), p. 1.
  9. Spindler, p. 75.
  10. Spindler, p. 76.
  11. Angulo, p. 4.
  12. Alejo Carpentier, "Introduction," El Reino de Este Mundo (Caracas: Primer Festival del Libro Venezolano, 1974), p. 9.
  13. Spindler, p. 76.
  14. Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World, trans. by Harriet de Onis (NY: Knopf, 1957), p. 28.
  15. Gabriel García Márquez, "The solitude of Latin America: Nobel address 1982," reprinted in Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell (eds.), Gabriel García Márquez: New Readings (Cambridge/NY: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 207–11.
  16. Frederic Jameson, "On Magical Realism in Film," Critical Inquiry, Vol.12, Winter 1986, p. 311.
  17. Carpentier, "Intro," El Reino.
  18. Spindler, p. 82.
  19. From "The Politics of Imagination," Point of Contact (Syracuse University), reprinted in Harper's, Nov. 1995.
  20. Stern, Steve, A Plague of Dreamers: Three Novellas (NY: Scribner's, 1994).
  21. Nelson, p. 284.
  22. Ibid., p. 284.
  23. Angel Flores, "Magic Realism in Spanish American Fiction," Hispania, 38.2 (mayo 1955), pp. 187–192.
  24. Flores, p. 189.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Quoted in Flores, p. 190.
  27. Flores, p. 191.
  28. Julio Cortázar, Blow-Up and Other Stories (NY: Pantheon, 1985), p. 41.
  29. Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1970), pp. 27-8.
  30. Spindler, p. 82.
  31. Victor Erlich, Gogol, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), p. 89.
  32. Quoted in Thais S. Lindstrom, Nikolay Gogol, (NY: Twayne Publishers, Inc.), p. 85.
  33. Gabriel García Márquez, "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," Leaf Storm, and other Stories, trans. by Gregory Rabassa (NY: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 109.
  34. "Man with Enormous Wings," p. 110.
  35. Interview with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza in Gabriel García Márquez, El olor de la guayaba: Conversaciones con Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza (Barcelona, Editorial Bruguera, S.A., 1982), p.90. García Márquez says, "...está escrito con todos los trucos de la vida y todos los trucos del oficio, me hizo pensar desde antes de escribirlo que podriá superarlo."
  36. Quoted in Richard Burgin, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969), p. 130.
  37. Martha Bayles, "Special effects, special pleading," The New Criterion, 1/1988. 38. Julio Cortázar, "Axolotl," Final del juego (Mexico: Ed. Los Presentes, 1956).

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