Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

A U T H O R   I N T E R V I E W
SONGS FROM AN URBAN MERMAID
Janice Eidus, "As It Could Be"

i n t e r v i e w   b y   t h a d d e u s   r u t k o w s k i
n e w   y o r k ,   n e w   y o r k

with an introduction by Tamara Kaye Sellman, Editor and Publisher,
MARGIN: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

Janice Eidus writes a kind of magical realism that I, at first, didn't expect or want to like or even to believe. Eidus is a decidedly urban writer of contemporary landscapes and characters who are very now, very New York and very in-your-face about the whole matter. Her stories are plucky and erotic at once, tied up in the "stuff" of city life -- the shrinks, the microcommunities, the traffic, the cultural disparities. I hesitated because her subject matter seemed, at first, to be much too real to be magical realist.

The truth is, I don't prefer to read "city stories" in general. I am by nature an escapist, seeking those exotic and/or isolated locales just different enough from what I know to provide adequate (if not luxurious) escape. I had not realized until reading Eidus's stories what a bias I had against the notion, even, of an urban folklore. Probably, I had made the (unfair) assumption that city stories would never truly qualify as magical realism. They're simply too gritty, too honest.

This limited vision is no different, mind you, than the kind found in various e-mails I get from folks who are Oh-So-Sure that the latest addition to our recommended reading list is Oh-So-NOT-Magical-Realism. It's no different than going to various university websites and finding only stories from South America on the reading list for classes in Literary Magical Realism. "What about Kafka?" I would say then, incensed by (ahem) their blind exclusivity.

The irony? After reading Eidus's stories, I'm now saying: "What about Eidus?"

You see, after I'd put down her books and had a chance to absorb the mineral content of her prose, I changed. It wasn't a miraculous transformation -- I simply realized that her sensibility, though clearly foreign to mine in the details of her stories (representing a reality not my own, nothing more, nothing less), is still the same as mine:

"Magical realism," she says in her interview with Thaddeus Rutkowski, "is unbounded, extending the narrative tradition, subverting and extending the tradition(s) of realism." Not only does Eidus write lucidly and believably about mermaids in the Bronx, as one example, she remembers and honors, like any writer of magical realism, that possibility is not only resident in the realm of magic, but intrinsically linked to what is real.

To celebrate our second anniversary celebration, we proudly present this interview with Janice Eidus by Thaddeus Rutkowski. May I add, I finally grew to enjoy many of Eidus's stories. And here's something funny -- I pause every time I see her picture (on the book jackets or at one of her websites). Eidus has this intriguing, otherworldly aura (albeit urban) that suggests the profile of a woman living a charmed life. Maybe Eidus is an urban mermaid after all, and I just didn't know to recognize it!

I hope you'll seek out her work after you've read her story, "The Mermaid of Orchard Beach," which we are reprinting to companion Rutkowski's interview. This little urban fable's got a bit of the city and a bit of the sea -- something that has appeal for most everyone, I hope.

Magical realism resides in every nook and cranny, under every rock, even and especially under the pebbles you pick up to skip across water. May I suggest we all look more carefully before tossing? It would be a shame to strike a mermaid by mistake. I should know. -- TKS, Margin
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SONGS FROM AN URBAN MERMAID: Janice Eidus, "As It Could Be"
An interview by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Thaddeus Rutkowski (TR): Do you consider yourself a magic realist writer? What does magic realism, as a genre, offer readers that other genres don't?

Janice Eidus (JE): In 1924, Franz Roh, one of the conceptualizers of magic realism, described magic realism as "looking inward to the magic that already exists." In this way, yes. Even my most realistic stories embrace the magic of the imagination, although I'd love to think that my work moves across the boundaries of labels. To give you a better sense of what I mean, in my book of short stories, The Celibacy Club, there's a story, "Elvis, Axl, and Me," in which the unnamed narrator says, "If Elvis is alive and well and masquerading as a Hasidic Jew in the Bronx, well, then, anything is possible, and I do mean anything." (And, yes, she really does meet up with Elvis in a Bronx delicatessen -- he's eating matzoh ball soup and wearing peyes -- and fall in love with him.) And I think what she says essentially describes the thematic link connecting the stories in The Celibacy Club: Anything is possible!

In another story, "The Murder of Juanita Appel," the main character, Juanita, a highly sensual writer who's torn between the worlds of Latin America and the Bronx, describes her passion for writing about the world as "it should be. Or could be. Or as it would be if one thing -- one particle of dust, one atom, one alpha ray -- just one tiny thing in the universe suddenly shifted." I know exactly what she means (of course I do!), since this mixture of fantasy and reality sometimes seems far more real to me than anything else.

In "Pandora's Box," (which I'm thrilled to say won an O. Henry Prize), a young woman explores the connection between her identity and her sexuality, and the myth after which she's named. "The Ping-Pong Vampire" is a love story between a vampire (who just happens to be a champion ping pong player) and a shy female scientist who falls in love not only with him, but also with the game of ping pong. In this story, lots of things come together for me: eroticism, humor, politics, magic realism, gothic horror, maybe even a bit of camp -- you name it. In "The Mermaid of Orchard Beach," a lonely child is transformed by her blossoming friendship with the beautiful, bona-fide mermaid she discovers swimming in the waters of the only beach in the Bronx.

I don't really think of magic realism as a "genre," which I tend to associate with more formulaic writing, like the bulk of science fiction writing, or mystery novels, whereas magic realism is unbounded, extending the narrative tradition, subverting and extending the tradition(s) of realism.

TR: How did you begin writing magic realist fiction?

JE: When I was 11, I wrote my first short story. I'd been writing poems before then. It was a surreal piece about a therapist wackier than his patient. I proudly presented it to my pharmacist father, a political progressive, but a literary conservative. I regret to say that he didn't like it one bit. He told me I couldn't write about shrinks because I'd never been to one, and I couldn't take on a male's point-of-view. So after that, since I needed to grow more daring in my work and to enter fictional realms I'd never entered in real life, I stopped showing him my writing. (This was true of my mother, too, who shared his literary worldview.) Once I began publishing my work, however, they came to see how serious I was about what I was doing, and they grew to appreciate it -- at least some of it, some of the time!

TR: Would you say that your story, "Vito Loves Geraldine," which also won an O. Henry Prize, belongs to the world of magic realism?

JE: "Vito Loves Geraldine" starts out very realistically, about these tough Italian kids in the 1950's Bronx -- the kind of neighborhood I grew up in, and the "older" kids I idolized as I was growing up -- but Geraldine, the narrator, never, never ages. She's so obsessed with one of the boys, Vito, that as she waits for him to return to her, she remains as she was, a teenager in love, even as everyone around her grows middle-aged. And isn't never having to grow old and die the ultimate magic?

TR: Have you been influenced by any magic realist writers working today?

JE: Well, when Manuel Puig died, I felt it as a personal loss, although I'd never met him. And I felt the same way when British writer Angela Carter died. In an interview I once read, she described her work as "social realism of the unconscious." I loved that definition of her dense, allusive work. I love the work of Gabriel García Márquez -- so utterly romantic, and yet so over-the-top at the same time. I've also long been a fan of James Purdy's writing. His novel, Malcolm, which I read when I was in college, changed my life. I'd simply never read anything like it. This was imagination at its least inhibited. I love the early, quirky, eccentric novels of Elizabeth Jolley ... the dark work of Reinaldo Arenas.

And I've been writing a lot about my Jewish identity. I love Rebecca Goldstein's cerebral and passionate work. I go back to Malamud. And Sholem Aleichem. And Isaac Babel.

TR: Are there North American writers working in this vein who deserve more attention?

JE: Well, off the top of my head, Gregory Maguire immediately comes to mind. I love his novels Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Step Sister. He's absolutely brilliant. And Rick Moody. And Rebecca Brown. And there are probably lots more, whose names I can't tell you because they may be having a difficult time publishing their work.

TR: What sorts of projects are you working on for the future? Will those pieces be in the magic realist mode?

JE: Undoubtedly, many will. I write what I love to read, after all.

READ "The Mermaid of Orchard Beach," a story by Janice Eidus

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