Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

B A C K G R O U N D E R
Can Magical Realism Exist
In A Virtual World?

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TAMARA KAYE Sellman thinks so. The Internet welcomed its first literary website devoted to magical realism on January 15, 2000 when the Bainbridge Island, WA writer and editor launched Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism. Three months later, the hits are rolling in, readers are returning, and Sellman is looking to expand.

The 34-year-old decided to create a "perpetual anthology" in September 1998 after realizing that "many intelligent American readers are quite unaware that magical realism exists as a literary category." The result? An ever-growing collection of short fiction and novel excerpts which Sellman hopes will help readers answer the controversial question: "What is magical realism?"

Originally, Sellman planned to publish the anthology in chapbook format. Concerns about distribution and publishing costs led her to the Internet, which seemed to be the obvious medium for her concept, offering advantages in distribution, exposure and accessibility.

Reader response to Margin has been better than Sellman expected. "Without any real promotion -- except through word of mouth and a reliance on links and search engine listings -- Margin has attracted hundreds of unique visitors from the start," she says. "I was pleasantly surprised. Margin is very special-interest. I would have been happy with half the hit count."

A recent collaboration with the popular Libyrinth website created by Allen Ruch has resulted in a reliable increase in traffic. "Allen gets inquiries about magical realism all the time," Sellman says. "He recognized that I had done a lot of work that would serve his readers. He also knew I wanted more visitors. It was a natural decision to merge our complementary resources."

Her latest addition to the website arrives April 15, 2000 as a bilingual package: A two-chapter excerpt from João de Melo's O Meu Mundo Não É Deste Reino in Portuguese, coupled with an English translation (My World Is Not Of This Kingdom) by acclaimed translator, Gregory Rabassa.

"Through the grapevine I heard that de Melo's book, in its sixth printing in Portugal, had not found a home in the U.S. with Rabassa's translation," Sellman says. "First, I thought, 'What a shame! A great novelist and an equally great translator!' Second, I thought, 'Here is where I can make a difference.'"

Other writers featured at the site include Azorean author Katherine Vaz, winner of the 1997 Drue Heinz Literature Prize; Peter Damian Bellis, author of One Last Dance with Lawrence Welk and Other Stories; widely published poet James Bertolino; and London author Atar Hadari, whose book of translated poems, Songs From Bialik, was published last fall by Syracuse University Press.

Sellman's main goal with Margin is to satisfy an American fan base which she believes is underserved in the US's present publishing climate, where bottom lines seem to outweigh aesthetics. "There is this perception that American readers don't buy magical realism, literally or figuratively," Sellman says. "I just don't believe that."

She relies upon literary developments as recent as 1999 to illustrate magical realism's global popularity: The 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature went to a work of magical realism (Günter Grass's The Tin Drum). A recent NPR program also revealed that The Alchemist, a magical realist novel by Paolo Coelho, is one of the top five best-selling books worldwide.

"Look at the popularity ofLike Water For Chocolate," Sellman adds. "Look at the crowds which form around people like Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende." Sellman acknowledges that American book publishers have not completely ignored magical realism, but she also thinks there could be "more hoopla devoted to writers like José Saramago, Ben Okri, and Kathleen Alcalá."

As for short works in the category, Sellman feels especially concerned. She has published short magical realist stories herself -- one featured in Rosebud was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 1997. But she thinks good exposure for short magical realist fiction remains hard to ferret out.

"I've got work on slow boats to Australia, hoping it matches their editorial sensibilities," Sellman says. "The editors of American journals just don't know what to do with magical realism, even when they like it. And they do like it. I have too many encouraging notes from editors to think otherwise."

She won't be publishing her own work at the website, though, satisfied that she will find enough work through regular calls for submissions to keep Margin in an expansion mode. The last call produced more than 800 manuscripts. In reading their accompanying cover letters, Sellman encountered "waves of gratitude" from writers frustrated with the category's limited markets.

Future plans for Margin include a special gallery of nonfiction: creative nonfiction, commentary, essays, and film and book reviews. The current call for all submissions has a September 1 deadline.

Overall, Sellman feels the website has already succeeded in meeting its main goal -- that of uniting readers and writers. "At first I was surprised and gratified to be receiving feedback from visitors who were not only students or literati types, but just plain folks," she explains, "but then I realized I was simply proving my own hypothesis -- that American readers from all walks of life are sophisticated enough to respond to the universal power of magical realism."

Margin's readership extends beyond the US: Tracking unilities indicate that visitors come from at least 25 countries. "I have readers in Estonia and Trinidad and Tobago!" she laughs, hoping the success of her electronic magazine will spur American book publishers to develop more magical realist titles.

"If they don't, I will be disappointed," admits Sellman, "but that's where Margin steps in. I'll be publishing well-written magical realism even if they won't be."

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